Jack Valenti

Jack Valenti
Los Angeles Times


Jack Valenti
Film: South side of the 7000 block of Hollywood Boulevard
Born Jack Joseph Valenti on Sept. 5, 1921 in Houston, TX
Died April 26, 2007 of stroke in Washington, DC

Jack Valenti was the urbane Washington lobbyist who served as Hollywood's public face for nearly four decades and was best known for creating the film ratings system.

With his silver mane, custom-tailored shirts and suits and polished cowboy boots, Valenti was one of the most recognizable figures in the nation's capital. Despite being a loyal Democrat, he skillfully worked both sides of the aisles, possessing one of the town's best Rolodexes. Along the way, he became nearly as much a celebrity as the stars he befriended, addressing the worldwide Academy Awards TV audience each year.

In his role as entertainment industry lobbyist, Valenti moved effortlessly between Hollywood and Washington while trying to bridge two cultures that were often at odds.

For 38 years until retiring in 2004, Valenti headed the Motion Picture Assn. of America, guiding the trade organization from a clubby group of movie studios led by autocratic moguls into a collection of global media conglomerates involved in television, the Internet and an array of other media businesses.

To the movie-going public, however, Valenti's legacy will always be the ratings system he fathered in 1968, which now labels movies G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17. Valenti defended it for years against attacks by critics. Today, it remains largely intact as the self-policing vehicle he envisioned.

His life included piloting a B-25 in World War II, serving as one of President Lyndon B. Johnson's closest confidants and shaping nearly every issue faced by today's entertainment industry.

Valenti was in awe the moment he met his future mentor. Recalling that day during a Caltech appearance in 2003, Valenti said: "I was fascinated the way I'm fascinated by a hooded cobra or a silken panther on a hillside ready to spring. It was an animal magnetism I never got over."

After Johnson was selected as John F. Kennedy's running mate in 1960, Valenti worked on the ticket's media campaign in Texas, and he kept in touch with Johnson after he became vice president.

Valenti continued to handle assignments for Johnson, and, in November 1963, the vice president asked him to help in a politically sensitive campaign visit that President Kennedy planned to make to Texas. The trip would make Valenti an eyewitness to one of America's darkest chapters and abruptly change the course of his life.

On Nov. 22, Valenti was riding six cars behind the presidential limousine as it snaked through the streets of Dallas toward Dealey Plaza. Valenti would later recall that he never actually heard the shots that killed Kennedy but immediately knew something was wrong.

"Suddenly the slow-moving motorcade became the Indianapolis Speedway," he recalled in a Times piece published on an anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. "The car in front drag-raced from 10 mph to over 60. None of us had any idea of what happened."

After Kennedy died, Johnson asked Valenti to join him on Air Force One flying back to Washington. Valenti can be seen crouching on the left in one of the event's defining photographs showing a somber Johnson taking the oath of office on the presidential jet, Jacqueline Kennedy at Johnson's side still wearing her blood-stained dress.

"That act of inscrutable fate changed my life," Valenti said.

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