Bobby Zarem: Showbiz publicist who turned people into stars

As well as making household names of John Travolta and Arnold Schwarzenegger, among many others, Zarem’s PR prowess helped change the face of Hollywood

Anthony Hayward
Thursday 14 October 2021 12:44 BST
With Iman at Peter Beard’s photo opening in New York, in 1975
With Iman at Peter Beard’s photo opening in New York, in 1975 (Getty)

Bobby Zarem, who has died of lung cancer aged 84, was once described as the original New York publicist. He put his success in promoting Hollywood stars and films down to a desire to be liked and respected.

“I felt that if I made the rest of the world accept Dustin Hoffman and Ann-Margret and Cher, and all these people, then I would be accepted,” he once said.

He reportedly rescued the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever, with music by the Bee Gees, from being rejected by Paramount Pictures. Paramount hired him as its publicist but, after viewing an early version of the movie and predicting it would be a flop, barred him from distributing stills to the media. He stormed the company’s offices, pushed the marketing director onto a sofa, and grabbed colour negatives, which he sent to major American publications.

The movie, produced by Robert Stigwood – the Bee Gees’ manager – was not only one of 1977’s biggest box-office successes worldwide, but also a cultural phenomenon in promoting the rise of disco music, and made John Travolta, dancing in his white suit, a household name.

Zarem also created another Hollywood legend when he saw the 1977 bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron. Hired to promote it, he satisfied its star Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wish to meet Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

The photographs made Arnie a media sensation and, two decades later, Zarem helped to get the star’s Planet Hollywood restaurant franchise off the ground.

He was also involved in the “I Love New York” campaign that helped to restore the city’s reputation and bring back tourism in the 1970s, although his claim that he was the brains behind the slogan baffled some of those behind the initiative.

“The city was in great disrepair, tourists weren’t coming because the crime scene had been grossly exaggerated, and the city was slipping into the East River,” said Zarem. “I decided somebody had to do something.”

Other big names he handled included Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Sophia Loren, Michael Douglas, Michael Caine, Alan Alda and Sylvester Stallone.

Robert Myron Zarem was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1936, the youngest of three sons, to Rose (nee Gold), who played the piano, and Harry Zarem, owner of a wholesale shoe company.

When he was 13 and his father was diagnosed with lung cancer, he accompanied him on trips to New York for treatment, staying at the Waldorf Astoria hotel and becoming an avid autograph collector when he saw famous guests.

Zarem gained a degree in political science from Yale University, then worked for the United States Trust Company bank in New York, and served with the air national guard.

His baptism into show business came with five years at Columbia Artists Management, in charge of its account for Macy’s Theatre Club, which screened limited-release movies.

With Ian McKellen and Liam Neeson at the 13th annual Savannah Film Festival in 2010
With Ian McKellen and Liam Neeson at the 13th annual Savannah Film Festival in 2010 (Shutterstock)

In 1968, he was hired as a PR agent by producer Joseph E Levine to promote that year’s historical epic The Lion in Winter with just a 17-minute clip. He invited friends, including a few journalists, to see it and, spurred on by his enthusiasm, the resulting publicity helped the film on its road to three Oscars.

The following year, he joined PR agency Rogers & Cowan, publicising the Jackson 5, Ann-Margret and Dustin Hoffman.

He set up his own company, Zarem Inc, in 1974. One of the clients he took with him was Stigwood; he promoted the impresario’s film Tommy the following year.

The black-tie party that he organised after its New York premiere – on the mezzanine of a new underground station, where 600 guests dined and danced – made a dramatic impact that sent the picture on its way to a place in the history of rock music on screen.

Tommy was also one of the first films to be launched with a merchandising campaign in cinemas, featuring badges, T-shirts and stickers for sale.

Then, one night in 1979, when Zarem was at Elaine’s, his favourite New York restauraunt, Michael Caine and his wife, Shakira, walked in with actor Mia Farrow. Zarem made a point of taking her over to meet Woody Allen, and the couple were married the following year.

Among other films that Zarem promoted were The China Syndrome (1979), Rambo (1982), Dances with Wolves (1990) and Shakespeare in Love (1998).

Along the way, his own volatile temper sometimes clashed with stars’ egos, and there were feuds with gossip columnists. One of his staff claimed he threw a typewriter at her when she took a message down incorrectly.

Zarem was the real-life basis for the ruthless PR agent played by Al Pacino in the 2003 film People I Know. It was noted that, although he denied any resemblance between himself and the character, in doing so he succeeded in getting both his and Pacino’s names back in the press.

Away from the glitzy world of showbusiness, the lifelong Democratic Party supporter contributed to the presidential campaigns of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

In 1998, a year after its launch, he took over publicity for the Savannah Film Festival back in his home town, regularly bringing big names to an event designed to nurture young talent.

Zarem said his busy schedule never left him time for marriage. “When you work until 3am and you’re up at 8 and at the office at 9.30 or 10, you don’t have too much time for personal relationships,” he explained.

His brothers predeceased him, Danny in 2013 and Harvey in 2015.

Bobby Zarem, publicist, born 30 September 1936, died 26 September 2021

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