Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, Mike Myers’ directorial debut, follows the life of veteran talent manager Shep Gordon whose career began with a chance encounter in 1968 with Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Gordon went on to become the consummate Hollywood insider known for managing the careers of Alice Cooper, Blondie, Luther Vandross, Teddy Pendergrass, Raquel Welch, and others, and for inventing the celebrity chef. Myers first met Gordon in 1991 when he sought the rights to use one of Cooper’s songs in Wayne’s World. The two have been good friends ever since. Opening in limited release on June 6th, the fascinating documentary features interviews with Cooper, Michael Douglas, Sylvester Stallone, Anne Murray, Willie Nelson, Tom Arnold, Carolyn Pfeiffer, and super chef Emeril Lagasse.
I recently landed an exclusive interview with Gordon who talked about what inspired Myers to make a film about him, how hard work, imagination and integrity contributed to his extraordinary success, why he considers the Dalai Lama and chef Roger Vergé his personal mentors, how he launched Alive Films and entered the world of independent filmmaking, his most memorable moments in the music world, why he considers the creation of the celebrity chef category his biggest accomplishment, and where his entrepreneurial spirit is taking him next including a couple cool projects involving music and possibly a Chinese cooking school in America. Hit the jump to read the interview:
QUESTION: Can you talk about how this project first emerged and what inspired you to make a film with Mike Myers?
SHEP GORDON: It’s Mike Myers’ movie and all of his creation. We became friends after Wayne’s World. He started coming to Maui a lot. He bought a house on Maui. I like telling stories. I like cooking. I love having dinners at the house and telling stories, and he loved my stories. After a couple of years, he said, “I’d love to do a documentary of you telling these stories, just sitting and looking at the camera and telling the stories.” I didn’t really have any reason to do it. I’ve always warned my clients about fame being very dangerous, and unfortunately, they need to be famous to make a living, but not to be flippant with it, that it could kill them, and to always keep their eye on it. There was no reason for me to do it. I don’t make my money off fame, not my fame. Other people’s I do.
Mike’s been trying to make a film about you for at least a decade. What made you finally relent?
GORDON: It seemed like the only reason to do it would be ego and that wasn’t good enough for me. And then, I got sick and I went to the hospital. He got me in the hospital when I was very medicated and feeling sorry for myself, and nobody cares, and boo hoo hoo. I said yes. (Laughs) And here we are, but it’s his movie. He’s a fantastic storyteller.
What was the collaborative process like with him?
GORDON: It was not really collaborative at all. I interviewed. He interviewed me for maybe 12 hours. Everything else he did. I gave him a list of friends and I gave him access to my files. I didn’t see it until it was finished. It’s really his movie.
You’ve had an amazing career. Can you talk a little about the qualities that you feel have contributed to your extraordinary success?
GORDON: Hard work and more hours than other people put in. Luckily, I had a knack for seeing into the future a little bit, which was important as a manager to do, and to be able to see where the artist was going and tell him, “No, don’t go here. Make a left here. Come this way.” I think lack of greed. I’ve never had that button too bad which has been useful. I was able to really think about my artist rather than myself. I think a problem for most people in a fiduciary capacity is to eliminate self and greed and all those things so that they can actually be in a fiduciary capacity where the artist comes first or the client, whoever the client happens to be. And then, it was good upbringing by my dad and being taught to be honest and treat people with respect.
There are a lot of people in the film who obviously love you and were willing to go on camera and had nice things to say about you. Can you talk a little about your personal style and what being a supermensch means to you?
GORDON: Again, I was lucky with my parents, for my mom and my dad particularly, much more than my mom, who was very compassionate and loving to everyone. And then, as I got into my career, I started and other people started to realize that I was good at it. I was lucky enough to get a few mentors – a chef named Mr. Roger Vergé and His Holiness the Dalai Lama who allowed me to watch the way they went through life. I tried to simulate the way they went through life, and the way they went through life was trying to be — I almost think of it as Johnny Appleseed of smiles. Wherever they went, if they touched a person, they tried to make that person’s life better in some way. That’s what I try and do in my relationships, whether it’s giving them a great meal, or introducing them to somebody exciting, or giving them the key to their career that gets them to where they want to go. People feel that when they know you’re trying to make them happy, rather than trying to take what they have which happens in so many relationships.
Speaking of relationships, one of the things that impressed me was when the film revealed how you stepped in as a guardian to four motherless children. Can you comment on that?
GORDON: That was really amazing. They’re the greatest thing in my life. It’s the biggest gift I’ve been given.
You’ve worked with so many incredible artists in different fields. What’s been one of your most rewarding experiences?
GORDON: It was the creation of the Celebrity Chef. I think that was an art form that was very neglected. They were cooks. Nobody was making any money and nobody was getting any respect. Nobody was allowed to grow. They weren’t touching their audiences in any way other than in a restaurant in a brick and mortar building. I think the ability to help them become artists and get respected as artists was my biggest accomplishment.
Do you still cook?
GORDON: Oh yeah, I love cooking.
Didn’t you also travel with the Dalai Lama and sometimes act as his personal chef?
GORDON: I did. I was very lucky. I went to Trinidad with him and I went to New York with him. It was amazing, just amazing. He’s one of a kind.
Can you talk about your involvement with the movie business and how you entered the world of independent feature films when you formed Alive Films with Carolyn Pfeiffer?
GORDON: It was an interesting time. It was back in the 70’s. There were Hollywood studios, and there were European small productions, and they would get distributed in America to art houses, but they were always European. There was no real American independent film business. When Carolyn Pfeiffer joined my company, that’s what we started. At about the same time, there was a company called Cinecom and maybe one other that started, and Cinecom bought foreign films. We were the first ones to fund and distribute American made movies as well as some foreign ones. [He notices a movie poster for Kiss of the Spider Woman in the office where we’re sitting] That’s funny. That’s one of the movies I made. I can’t believe it’s here in the office. That’s really funny. (Laughs) We started and we didn’t know what we were doing. I had never really been in the film business. Carolyn hadn’t been in the film business. We got very lucky with our first movie, which made it seem like we knew what we were doing. We did The Duellists for Paramount which was Ridley Scott’s first movie and it won at the Cannes Film Festival, so we looked like geniuses. We made the movie for a million dollars. Nobody had ever made an American movie for a million dollars. That was unheard of, and then to win the Cannes Film Festival. So we started.
The first movie we bought to distribute ourselves was Koyaanisqatsi, which everyone thought we were completely insane for doing because it had no actors. That movie really changed the course of movie history. I mean, it’s probably one of the most visually impactful movies. Every commercial you see and every movie you see has Koyaanisqatsi earmarks in it. Then we did Stop Making Sense, the Jonathan Demme documentary on The Talking Heads. We started doing a lot of stuff and we didn’t realize we were even starting anything. Harvey Weinstein was one of the guys who used to come over and ask us, “How do you do this?” He was a concert promoter and he had just picked up a rock and roll movie that he was doing. He had just started Miramax. It was an exciting time. It came out of ignorance rather than knowledge. We had a good run. We did all the Alan Rudolph movies and all Sam Shepard’s movies. And then, I started doing horror movies to make money so we could support the independent movies because they never made any money. (Laughs)
What were some of the most exciting moments you experienced as a talent manager in the music world?
GORDON: Teddy Pendergrass at Live Aid was amazing. Alice Cooper headlining Madison Square Garden for the first time was really remarkable. Those are two of my most memorable. I think Luther Vandross selling out eleven days at Wembley Arena in London was amazing. And then, there was Alice at the Hollywood Bowl with the helicopter dropping 18,000 pair of panties on everybody’s head. (Laughs) That was really funny. They were all good. I had some great experiences.
Time and again, you’ve started something that you knew nothing about but were interested in pursuing and then you’ve met with incredible success. What’s your secret?
What was your reaction when you saw the final film? Was it what you expected?
GORDON: I never really had a concept of what it would be. I could never figure out why Mike wanted to do it. When I saw the movie, it was the first time I understood why he wanted to do it. It was when he talked about coming to the house for two months and my helping him like a bird that had fallen out of a tree. I realized for him that this was a gift back to me. It was a love letter back for being nice to him. That was the first time I really understood why he wanted to do it. A documentary is a documentary. I’m an unknown. He’s a major star. He financed it himself. It was quite a bit of money. He put 18 months of his life into it. I was always saying, “Why would he want to do this?” I didn’t feel it was my place to ask him. But then, when I saw the movie, I understood.
What did you discover about yourself in the process of making this?
GORDON: I wouldn’t say I learned anything in the process, but it opened up a lot of places in my mind where the doors had been locked, especially my family relationship which I chose not to think about too much. Every time I see the film, it opens up that door. The moment in the hospital when I’m alone definitely opens up a whole door. What made that path to be in that room alone? It definitely gets me thinking about things I’d probably rather not think about. (Laughs)
How do you feel your roots have defined you as a person?
GORDON: Well, it’s funny. As I get older, I see more of my Judaism in my life, and maybe everybody in any religion sees that. I don’t know because I’m only Jewish. Up until very recently, I only thought of myself culturally as a Jew. As I get older, I see more and more the qualities of survival and compassion. I see things that I think really had some [impact], that in my blood is a lot of why I do what I do and that I never understood why I do what I do. Just little things come back like leaving the extra plate at Passover. It never really hit me before. And why am I always feeding people? What is that all about? It’s because that’s my choice. I’ll go home and the next night there will be 30 people over for dinner. In the movie, when it talks about me going to sleep before the people leave, normally I actually go to sleep after I cook. I finish the meal and I don’t even eat. I usually just go right to bed and everybody stays and eats. As I get older and older, I realize how Jewish that is. I can remember my grandmother. I asked her, “Why are you making so much food?” and she said, “You never know when a bus is going to pull up at the house with hungry people.” (Laughs) I think maybe that’s funny.
Moving forward, is there anything you haven’t done that you’d like to do?
GORDON: I haven’t really thought about it. I have a bucket list, but I’ve got a lot of the bucket list done. I went to Bhutan this year and I wanted to go to Bhutan. I’d like to go to Myanmar. I think most of it is travel rather than activities. I’d like to learn Chinese cooking and I can’t find anybody to teach me. There’s not one Chinese cooking school in America.
Could one of your celebrity chefs recommend someone?
GORDON: I’ve asked but it hasn’t quite worked out. I haven’t pursued it as hard as I’d like. I have this fantasy of going to a Chinese cooking school. There was one in San Francisco and I enrolled in it, and then three months later it closed. I’ve never been to China. I’m sure in China I could probably get it. I hear the food is very different there and I love American Chinese food. I love Hong Kong Chinese food. Hong Kong Chinese is my favorite. Wherever I go, if they have it, I could eat it every single day and the fresh seafood coming out of the flames. I put a huge wok in my house, one of those with the gas, but I still haven’t really used it. (Laughs) I’ve had it about six years.
I’ll bet you could find some wonderful chefs in China to teach you.
GORDON: Yeah, but there’s truly nothing in America. Some of the cooking schools will have within the itinerary a one-hour or two-hour course, but there’s nowhere you can go for a week or five days and come out of it with real knowledge.
Could that be a new entrepreneurial opportunity for you?
GORDON: (Laughs) There’s my next job!
Are there any other cool projects you’re currently working on?
GORDON: There are, but I can’t talk about them. I have a couple that are really cool. They’re in the music world and it’s exciting. I’m very excited about them, but I just can’t say anything about them right now.