Famed Hollywood Lobbyist Jack Valenti Dead at 85

Jack Valenti, a former presidential aide who became Hollywood's emissary to Washington and developer of the U.S. movie rating system, died on Thursday at age 85, his longtime spokesman, Warren Cowan, said.

Valenti served as an aide to President Lyndon Johnson before heading the Motion Picture Association of America as the movie industry's No. 1 lobbyist for 38 years. He retired in August 2004.

Valenti, at the time heading a public relations agency working with the White House, was in John F. Kennedy's motorcade, six cars back from the president's limousine, when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963.

He accompanied Johnson back to Washington and can be seen in the historic photograph of Johnson being sworn in as president aboard Air Force One.

Valenti suffered a stroke in March 2007, shortly before he was to begin promoting his memoir, "This Time, This Place: My Life in War, the White House, and Hollywood."

Cowan said he died at his home in Washington, surrounded by his family.

Studio heads and prominent Hollywood and political figures paid tribute to Valenti.

President George W. Bush, a former governor of Texas, remembered him as "a great American and a great Texan" who "leaves a powerful legacy in Washington, in Hollywood, and across our Nation."

Director Steven Spielberg said: "In a sometimes unreasonable business, Jack Valenti was a giant voice of reason. He was the greatest ambassador Hollywood has ever known and I will value his wisdom and friendship for all time."

And Actor Kirk Douglas, a close friend, said, "He was a loyal and caring friend to many people. If you had a problem, it became his problem. He was a giant in our industry and his accomplishments were legendary."

At the MPAA, Valenti crusaded for copyright enforcement, coming out strongly in the 1980s when the rise of videocassette recorders made it easy to copy movies. "The VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone," he once told Congress.

Born Sept. 5, 1921, in Houston, Valenti was first exposed to the film business by working as a theater usher. He was a medal-winning pilot who flew 51 missions during World War Two and
earned degrees from the University of Houston and Harvard University.

Johnson made Valenti a special assistant in his presidency and he built a reputation for loyalty. Upset with the way his mentor was portrayed in Oliver Stone's film "JFK," Valenti took the unusual step of criticizing a Hollywood production, calling it "slime" and a "tissue of lies."

Still, he supported Hollywood's right to make movies as it wished and said it was parents' responsibility to oversee their children's viewing. That philosophy led to the movie ratings system in 1968 after the industry had come under increasing fire for some films' violence, profanity and sexual content.

Figuring it was best to police itself, the MPAA came up with the system that now rates U.S. films from G (intended for general audiences) up to NC-17 (no one under 17 is admitted).

Lew Wasserman, the powerful head of the MCA studio, picked Valenti for the MPAA job in 1966. The trade group now represents Hollywood's six biggest studios -- Sony; Buena Vista, owned by the Walt Disney; Paramount, which includes DreamWorks and is owned by Viacom; News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox; Universal Studios, owned by NBC Universal; and Time Warner's Warner Bros.

White-haired and silver-tongued, Valenti was extremely well-connected in Washington and known as a coalition builder -- a skill he said he picked up from Johnson -- at the MPAA.

After leaving the film association, Valenti worked with the television industry to fight tougher decency regulations for television.

Valenti and his wife, Mary Margaret, who once was Johnson's secretary, had three children.