Born this month in 1904, Charles K. Feldman—whose extensive collection of professional and personal papers are housed at the AFI Mayer Library Archive—was known as Hollywood’s first “Super Agent.” Pioneering one-picture deals as an alternative to the traditional long-term studio contracts that kept artists bound to one company, Feldman was the innovator behind the “package deal” in which a literary source, a star and a director were combined into a single agreement. Feldman represented close to 300 filmmakers (including Marilyn Monroe, Ida Lupino, Greta Garbo, Richard Burton and Kirk Douglas), and later transitioned his career to become a producer. Among other important releases, Feldman gambled on several controversial plays by Tennessee Williams, THE GLASS MENAGERIE (1950) and A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951), which brought him an Oscar® nomination for Best Picture. Although Feldman was a private man and was considered an enigma among his luminary colleagues in Hollywood, his papers in the AFI Archive shine light on his inventive contributions to cinema history.
Feldman started life with the cards stacked against him. Orphaned at age six in a family of seven children, Feldman was adopted by foster parents after winning a footrace against his older brother. Feldman went on to be successful in academics, attending the University of Michigan, UCLA and USC, where he earned a law degree while working as a postman and a studio cameraman to support his education. Making a name for himself as a Hollywood attorney, Feldman decided to shift gears and become an agent, establishing the Charles K. Feldman Corporation. There, he came up with the revolutionary idea to create jobs for his clients instead of fighting for available positions. With the one-picture “package deal,” Feldman paired unemployed writers with filmmakers, while purchasing screen rights to story ideas that would showcase their talents. He met great success with THE BISHOP’S WIFE (1948), which included several clients in the “package” sold to Samuel Goldwyn. Starting his own production companies, Feldman used his negotiating skills to oversee and finance numerous films including Orson Welles’ MACBETH (1948), Billy Wilder’s THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955), and the James Bond satire, CASINO ROYALE (1967).
During WWII, Feldman joined forces with Howard Hawks to establish H-F Productions, which sold package deals to studios that usually had Hawks as the producer-director. The two later made the Oscar®-nominated RED RIVER (1948) under the Monterey Productions, Inc. banner as their final collaboration. Feldman presided over various companies on his own before his death from pancreatic cancer in 1968. He was married to actress Jean Howard from 1935-1947, and was remarried to Clotilde Barot in 1968, just over one month before he passed away. Feldman made vast contributions to the business of the film industry, but there are few biographical references to his work, and much has yet to be discovered about his legacy—discoveries that can be made in the 222 boxes found in AFI’s Charles K. Feldman Collection.