Remembering Jack Valenti

Jack Valenti, HAF President in 1953 and HAF Living Legend Award winner, died Wednesday of complications from a stroke. He was 85. Valenti was the Houston-born power broker, lobbyist and movie industry front man who created the modern movie ratings system and led the fight against film piracy.

Valenti died at his Washington, D.C., home two days after being released from John Hopkins University Medical Center in Baltimore, where he'd been hospitalized for several weeks.

"He's one of the giants of the film industry," said Garth Jowett, professor of communications at the University of Houston. "He guided the (Motion Picture Association of America) through some very stormy waters."

Filmmaker Steven Spielberg said, "He was the greatest ambassador Hollywood has ever known, and I will value his wisdom and friendship for all time."

Silver-maned and silver-tongued, the diminutive and always nattily attired Valenti was a tireless advocate for the film industry for 38 years. He retired as head of the MPAA in 2004.

He took the job in 1966 after serving as an aide and confidant to President Lyndon Johnson, where he wrote speeches, scheduled appointments and, in the early weeks of the administration helped prepare position papers on civil rights, urban affairs and foreign policy. He referred to himself as Johnson's "handy man."

As chief lobbyist and spokesman for the film industry, he called on the contacts and skills he acquired in Washington to advance Hollywood's interests.

His most enduring legacy is the oft-criticized film ratings system which labels movies G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17 as a guide to help parents decide which movies their children could see. He instituted the system in 1968 and it still works largely as he envisioned it, despite charges from filmmakers that it is unfair and from many parents that it provides inadequate guidance.

Valenti's path to success started on Alamo Street, an unpaved street in Houston's First Ward. The grandson of Sicilian immigrants, Valenti graduated from Sam Houston High School at 15 and went to work for the Humble Oil Co. After flying 51 bombing missions as a pilot during World War II, he returned to Texas. He got an MBA at Harvard Business School in 1948 after graduating from UH.  He founded the Houston based advertising agency Weekley and Valenti during which time he headed the Houston Advertising Federation.

In 1963, then-Gov. John Connally appointed Valenti to the UH Board of Regents. Valenti organized an event in Houston for Rep. Albert Thomas that was attended by President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson. Valenti accompanied them to Dallas and was riding 10 cars back from Kennedy when the president was shot.

Valenti is pictured in the famous photograph of Johnson's swearing-in aboard Air Force One.

Valenti is survived by his wife and their three children Courtenay, John and Alexandra; his sister Lorraine Valenti Dinerstein, and two grandchildren.

"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."
Steven Spielberg

"He was a giant in our industry and his accomplishments were legendary. He was my best friend for over 45 years. I will miss him."
Kirk Douglas

"There is a hole in our hearts with his passing. Jack was a giant of a man. He was our most sage counselor, eloquent spokesman, and ardent defender. He made each of us feel he loved us best, and oh how our family adored him! We never had a wiser or dearer friend and never will again."
Luci Baines Johnson, daughter of President Lyndon Johnson

"Jack Valenti was a great American and a great Texan. He bravely flew combat missions during World War II and ably served in the White House. From protecting families by creating the movie rating system to advocating for intellectual property rights, Jack Valenti helped transform the motion picture industry. He leaves a powerful legacy in Washington, in Hollywood, and across our Nation."
President George W. Bush

Troy Burwell
(713) 979-0700
(713) 979-0701
Author: Troy Burwell
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Category: in memoriam