By Dan Jewel
June 23, 1997 12:00 PM

ON THE SCALE OF PUBLIC OPINION, Hollywood agents probably rank somewhere below lawyers and above tax collectors. Tom Cruise‘s recent hit Jerry Maguire dramatized how ruthlessly competitive the business can be, a fact that William Morris talent agent Sam Haskell, 42, knows up close and personal. The mighty agency’s West Coast head of television has proved himself a master, amassing a client list that includes Bill Cosby, Kathie Lee Gifford, George Clooney, Phil Hartman, Lily Tomlin and two dozen others. “In matters of war, like TV,” says Hartman, “Sam knows where the Scuds are and where the baby-milk factories are. He is state of the art in conducting a campaign for his clients.”

But though he swims in Hollywood’s riptides, Haskell is more guppy than shark. For six years, he has helped high schoolers from his tiny hometown of Amory, Miss. (pop. 7,000 and change), fulfill their dreams—all in the name of his beloved mother, a dedicated public school nurse who died of stomach cancer in 1987. Her death, says her son, “was not only a devastation to our family but a complete devastation to the community. I started thinking immediately of something I could do to honor her life.” In 1991 he settled upon a foundation to let promising high school students continue their education. “The thing she talked to me most about when she was a school nurse,” he says of his mother, “was her concern over children who could not get a college education.”

Since its founding, the Mary Kirkpatrick Haskell Scholarship Foundation has raised more than $500,000 and helped put 63 students through college. “Many of the best parts of who I am are her,” Haskell says. Like his mom, he adds, “the biggest dilemma for me is turning my back on someone in need.”

The “someones” are not ungrateful. “I was wondering how I was going to pull through,” says Rachael Sibley, 18, one of this year’s recipients. “It is a big, big help—more than he’ll ever know.” For Josh Ward, 20, his 1996 award came not a moment too soon. “My dad passed away in 1990,” he says, “and me and my mom have had a hard time since. It’s helped us out tremendously.”

Several of Haskell’s high-profile clients and friends have made time to get into the fund-raising act. Celebs such as Gifford, Vince Gill, Kathy Ireland, Nell Carter, Debbie Allen and Sela Ward have made the every-other-year trek to Amory (a 3-hour flight to Memphis, then a 2-hour bus ride) to perform in the town’s high school football stadium on a massive stage Haskell imports from Nashville. “I felt like I’d been transported to a Norman Rockwell world,” says comedian and Bill Clinton impressionist Phil Hartman, who was put up by the local Piggly Wiggly supermarket owner for his 1996 visit. Kathy Ireland says that her second trip, in 1996, in which she danced the macarena, “touched my heart and changed my life. It left me feeling that one person really can make a difference.”

Haskell has been making a difference even before he was a gleam in Hollywood’s eye. An Eagle Scout, he worked weekends in the public library for 50 cents an hour and was named Rotary Club Boy of the Year in 1973. He and his two younger brothers (James, now a salesman for a Denver-based clothing company, and Bill, a construction foreman) were especially close to their mother, because their father, Sam, a clothing salesman, was often on the road. In high school, Haskell took up football, coached the local swim team and earned enough money giving swimming lessons at the Amory public pool to go to the University of Mississippi. “I put myself through school in the water,” he says proudly. “I taught every kid in northern Mississippi how to swim.”

At Ole Miss, he joined a campus song-and-dance group and majored in theater. After graduating in 1977, he moved to Los Angeles and, in the time-honored William Morris tradition, started his career in the mail-room. Jerry Katzman, the agency’s vice chairman, remembers thinking that the young grad was “very proper, very Southern and very nice.” But Katzman wasn’t convinced Haskell “had the instincts to be an agent.” After 1980, when Haskell was promoted to agent, Katzman’s doubts dissolved. “I knew that he would be a superstar,” he says. “[Networks] liked dealing with him much better than they liked dealing with me. Everybody, everybody, responded to him.”

Haskell became the youngest senior vice president in the agency’s history in 1990 and was promoted to his current position in ’94. “I can be as tough as the next guy,” he says. “But I don’t like to be. I like to deal with people in a fair and honorable and nurturing way, and I have found that the way I deal wins me more than this ‘f-you’ screaming and yelling that a lot of agents are known for.” The approach works. “He mesmerizes you with that down-home charm,” says Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment. “We get all soft and mushy and the next thing you know our hands and feet are tied and we’re just squirming. We’ve been hog-tied by Sam more than once. The amazing thing is we come back for more.”

Haskell claims his success can all be traced to the lessons he learned at his mother’s knee. “I’ve never lost sight of the fact that I get my strength from Amory,” he says. But not all of Amory’s lessons were positive. Haskell’s father, he recalls, “was more concerned about making money than about us.” Determined not to make a similar mistake, Haskell makes sure to have breakfast with his children, Sam IV, 9, and Mary Lane, 7, each morning. By the time he returns at night to his six-bedroom colonial-style home in the San Fernando Valley community of Encino, they are tucked happily in bed, thanks to his wife of 14 years, Mary, 38, a former Miss Mississippi and an actress (Lois Gantner on Nickelodeon’s The Secret World of Alex Mack) he met in college. “Mary,” he says, “is the heart and strength and soul of our family.”

Haskell’s strength, on the other hand, is knowing who he is and resisting the Hollywood swirl. “I’ve been asked, ‘What’s your greatest success?’ ” he says. “I’m sure people want me to talk about a deal for Kathie Lee or Bill Cosby or some show I sold that made ga-billions of dollars. But my greatest success,” he says, “is that I’m exactly the same person today as I was when I arrived here 19 years ago.” And that, he knows, would make Mom awfully proud.


SHELLEY LEVITT in Los Angeles and RON RIDENHOUR in Amory