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Sam Haskell: ‘Promises I Made My Mother’

In his book, the successful producer reveals how the pledge he made to his mother to live a decent life allowed him to thrive — not only as a husband and father, but in the cutthroat, shark-infested waters of Hollywood. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

“What would my mother say?” Former worldwide head of television for the William Morris Agency Sam Haskell asked himself that same question more than once in his long career. Haskell has handled the hottest stars and packaged the highest-rated shows. But he didn’t land those opportunities by acting like the agents we see on "Entourage." In his book "Promises I Made My Mother," Haskell reveals how the pledge he made to his mother to live a decent life allowed him to thrive — not only as a husband and father, but in the cutthroat, shark-infested waters of Hollywood. An excerpt.

Chapter one
Everybody needs their mother. Mothers do more than give us life. They embrace, nour­ish, and comfort us. They are our first teachers, protectors, and guides. Our mothers are our conscience and our safe harbor. The mother/son relationship is not often written about, but my mother believed it is one of the strongest bonds that exists. As the poet Robert Browning put it, “Motherhood: All love begins and ends there.” My mother, Mary Kirkpatrick Haskell, was all of this and more to me. Her life was an inspiration. She graduated from high school in 1942, when she was only sixteen, as class valedictorian. She was also editor in chief of the school newspaper, class sec­retary, a Hall of Fame member, and the Daughters of the Ameri­can Revolution Good Citizenship Girl of the Year. Her high school yearbook says it all: “She has a smile for every joy, a tear for every sorrow, an excuse for every fault, and an encourage­ment for every hope.”

After high school my mother planned on going to college. A child of the Depression, she had big dreams about a bright and successful future, but because there was no money, she put aside that dream for a while and became a teller at the Bank Of Amory. Even there, her dedication attracted attention. Her looks did, too. My mother had big brown eyes, the most beautiful smile, rosy cheeks, auburn hair, and was thin with a real pretty figure. She reminded some of a young Jane Wyman. A neighbor, Mr. Guy Pickle, remembered how my mother used to walk home from the bank at lunchtime: “Every day all the businessmen on Main Street gathered just to watch your mother walk by. She was so beautiful she could stop running water.”

My mother dreamed of leaving Amory, earning a nursing de­gree, and traveling the world. Without faith in herself, and trust­ing that her dreams could become a reality, she might have settled for less. But she persevered through good times and bad, and became both accomplished and respected in her profession as a school nurse practitioner and as a homemaker raising three boys. My mother had more friends than anyone else I’ve ever known. She was decent and kind to a fault, and she set me on the path to a positive life. Plus, she told me every day that I was special, and encouraged my dreams.

It might sound as if I’ve put her on a pedestal, but, of course, no one is perfect. Momma was sometimes too sensitive and a bit shy. But I loved her beyond all measure, and have never made a secret of it.

More than once I’ve been asked, “How could you love your mother that much?” I always answer, “How could I not?” Simply put, my mother’s life set an example for me, and the lessons I learned from her are a part of everything I’ve done. After high school, I attended Ole Miss, where I met Mary Donnelly, the woman I’d soon marry. After graduation, I followed my show business dreams and in 1978 moved to Los Angeles, where I got my start in the mailroom of the prestigious William Morris Agency. Eighteen months later, I became a full-fledged talent agent and eventually represented a wide range of artists includ­ing Kathie Lee Gifford, Debbie Allen, Dolly Parton, Ray Romano, Bill Cosby, George Clooney, Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin, and His Royal Highness the Prince Edward. I became the agent for many talented writers, producers, and directors as well. I worked hard and eventually rose to become Worldwide Head of Televi­sion at William Morris — one of the most powerful jobs in Holly­wood. When I resigned from the agency in December of 2004, after twenty-six years, Mary and I continued our journey focus­ing on philanthropic causes, several of which you will read about in this book.

None of this could have happened had I not taken to heart the many lessons my mother taught me daily, and worked to keep the many promises I made to her about how I’d live my life, promises large and small, spoken and silent, promises that brought me success and kept me grounded.

Because of my mother, I promised to share my blessings, have faith in myself, be kind, find something to believe in, treat everyone — high or low — the same, be a strong and fair parent, never stop dreaming, be a good friend, keep God at the center of my life, maintain my character and integrity, be trustworthy, live every day to the fullest, always pick up a penny for good luck, have a wonderful life, and never forget how much she loved me.

This book is about those promises.

Mary Nell Kirkpatrick was born in Amory, Mississippi, on July 17, 1925, the third child of Mary Katherine and Hezkiah Kirk­patrick. She had two brothers, James and Eugene, who were twelve and ten years older, respectively. They took her every­where, not only to show off their beautiful little sister, but to teach her about the world. Grandmother Kirkpatrick (Nanny) welcomed the help, especially four years later when my aunt Betty was born — and the stock market crashed.

During those dark days in rural Mississippi, life was as bleak as we’ve all heard, but my mother’s parents smothered their chil­dren with love, and they didn’t really know just how poor they were. Still, they would have been much worse off had my grand­father not been one of the last Main Street blacksmiths in Mis­sissippi. People had to shoe their plow and transportation horses even though they couldn’t afford shoes for themselves.

My mother quickly learned that what little income her par­ents had was always shared. “Your grandmother was a wonderful cook, and known as one of the kindest women in Amory,” she told me more than once. “During the Great Depression, she would always prepare three times as much food as was needed — for every meal — because the railroad ran right through town and hoboes would show up looking for work and something to eat. Because of her generosity, word spread and they found their way to your grandparents’ house, where your aunt Betty and I would serve Momma’s soup. There were never less than a dozen of them in our yard almost every day.”

The lesson stuck, and my mother passed it on to me. “A blessing is not a blessing unless it is shared,” she said again and again, making me and my brothers promise to do the same by en­couraging us to tithe at church and spend several hours a week doing community service.

After working at the Bank of Amory for a year, my mother landed a scholarship with the Air Force Cadet Nursing Corps to attend the University of Tennessee School of Nursing. Having been born with a “servant’s heart,” she felt a career in nursing would be the perfect way to help others. The country was in the midst of World War II, and when she graduated the Air Force sent her to a base hospital on Long Island, in New York. There she met two doctors, both of whom wanted to marry her. Dr. Frank Johnson was a boisterous, handsome, aggressive extrovert, my mother’s opposite. Dr. Warren Nasiff was attractive, but quiet and shy. She chose Dr. Johnson, believing that opposites attract and that their personalities would complement each other. Of course, she was also madly in love with him. Dr. John­son had also gotten an Air Force education, so after the wedding, which took place in Amory, at my grandparents’ home, the new­lyweds moved to Mobile, Alabama, where both were stationed at Brookley Air Force Base.

Everyone told my mother she had found “the perfect man,” but they didn’t know about Dr. Johnson’s dark side. My mother did, but she’d discovered it too late and was too afraid to say any­thing. Frank Johnson was mentally and physically abusive to her. He would always apologize, but the cruelty continued. She en­dured silently for seven years, but after her second miscarriage she bravely stood up, told her parents, got a lawyer, and divorced him. All she asked for in the settlement was her home, and a new beginning.

A year after the divorce, my mother became head nurse at Brookley Air Force Base Hospital. The Korean War was under way, and by the summer of 1954 hundreds of boys were being flown into Brookley for care. One was Staff Sergeant Sam Has­kell, Jr., from Cincinnati, Ohio. He had a broken leg. His room was on my mother’s floor.

My mother later told me that “this very handsome young man kept pushing the button at his bedside, asking for a nurse, but none would suit him.” None, that is, until she walked in. My fa­ther confessed to me that he was smitten from the beginning and just wanted to meet her; he’d been going through all the nurses, looking for her. My mother was also dazzled, but, hurt by the fail­ure of her first marriage, she was wary. My father had to pursue her and convince her to marry him.

It didn’t take long. My parents got serious quickly and eloped on October 13, 1954. My father was twenty-five and my mother was twenty-nine. My father was charming, good-looking, and funny. He came from a blue-blood Ohio family and had a self-confidence that shone brightly. He could walk into any room and in five minutes you’d think he was the most fabulous guy ever. He’d been the star of his high school football and track teams. Everyone was drawn to him. I’ve seen pictures of my father in his late teens and early twenties: He looked like a movie star.

My father got a job as a clothing salesman, and my mother — who got pregnant right away — kept working at the base hospital, and waited for me to arrive. But when she was six months along there were complications. Fearing a third miscarriage, her obste­trician, Dr. John Hope, put her to bed for the duration.

I was born three weeks earlier than expected, at 6 p.m.. on June 24, 1955. It couldn’t have been easy for her. A few hours into her labor, Dr. Hope discovered I was a breech baby. Cesarean sections weren’t as common in the mid-1950s as they are now, and he prepared my parents for a long and difficult delivery. Fi­nally, after almost twenty-four hours and many large doses of pain medication, I arrived. After two miscarriages, my mother was thrilled to have given birth at all. She said she’d never felt such joy as when she heard me cry for the first time.

Then she did something totally unexpected. Once she was alert, she had Dr. Hope help her off the delivery table. He held her weak little body as she got down on her knees and gave me back to God, saying, “Take this boy and use him for thy will.”

Over the next two years, she had my brothers Jamie and Billy. Those pregnancies were much easier, but she thanked God for my brothers’ safe arrivals just the same.

Momma told me the story of my birth when I was twelve years old. By then she’d also told me every day, as far back as I can remember, that I was a special child, a blessing to her. I wanted to live up to her expectations. She said she was proud of the young man I had become, and the man she knew I would eventually be. And just to make sure that I continued to “stand in the light,” she asked me to promise to learn and practice the les­sons and principles she insisted would guide me to the light of God’s goodness and grace, and help me find happiness and suc­cess and inner peace.

Because my father made good money, my mother was able to interrupt her nursing career to invest everything in raising her family. She was completely present in her sons’ lives, there for us in every way, including milk and cookies (really!) every day when we got home from grade school. In the winter months, Momma would make us Campbell’s Tomato Soup and a grilled cheese sandwich — my absolute favorite. I loved the jingle for the Camp­bell’s Soup commercial ...“Soup and Sandwich, Soup and Sandwich, have your favorite Campbell’s Soup and Sandwich, any time or weather, Soup and Sandwich go together” ... and I believed it! When we were a few years older she took a job as the first school nurse in Amory and helped pioneer the state’s school nursing program. And best of all, she said, was that working for the school gave her the same holidays as her children.

And yet, as perfect a life as my mother tried to provide for us, our family still faced the same problems that everyone does. This became more apparent to me as I emerged from the cocoon of childhood innocence. In short, after ten good years, my parents’ marriage began to crumble. What had once worked as the com­plement of two distinct personalities deteriorated into the re­lentless clash of two different temperaments.

Also, since I was his firstborn son, my father — as does every father — had a dream for my life. But what he wanted for my fu­ture (becoming a doctor) was not what I wanted, and the older I got the more conflict emerged as we both confronted that reality. My parents divorced after sixteen years of marriage, and I, like a lot of children of broken homes, felt forced to pick a side. I chose my mother. Subsequently, and despite all the good qualities my father had, there was no turning back to establish the kind of in­timacy we both might have liked. It’s a shame that my father left us, but I feel very lucky to have had a mother who, on her own, could raise me and my brothers as well as she did.

Today, I realize that I’m just an ordinary man who’s been lucky enough to have lived an extraordinary life. I couldn’t have done it without my mother’s guidance, and I’m thankful for it every day. I was incredibly fortunate that she nurtured me so pos­itively at the tender age when children are still open to all of the possibilities that the world has to offer. And because of her love and care I grew up determined to always act according to her faith in me and never disappoint her.

The promises I made my mother have always been at the cen­ter of my life.

Excerpted from "Promises I Made My Mother" by Sam Haskell. Copyright (c) 2009 by Sam Haskell. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books.