Marvin Josephson’s beginnings as a talent agent in the mid-1950s were humble, to say the least. His main client — practically his only client then, in fact — was Bob Keeshan, the children’s television performer who, with Mr. Josephson’s help, would become known far and wide as Captain Kangaroo.
It wasn’t much of a foothold, but it was enough to start a career that would make Mr. Josephson a major behind-the-scenes force representing actors, directors, authors and more. In 1977, 22 years after he started his personal management agency and two years after his thriving company established a subsidiary called International Creative Management, which became an industry giant, a newspaper headline neatly summed up his reach: “Want to Make a Million? Hire Marvin Josephson.”
He died at 95 on May 17 at his home in Manhattan. His daughter Nancy Josephson said the cause was complications of pneumonia.
In a field where Michael Ovitz and other super-agents became almost as famous as the people they represented, Mr. Josephson kept an aggressively low profile. In 1991, when Newsday published a profile of him, he agreed to provide a photograph to go with it only if the article specified that he had declined to be interviewed in depth for the piece.
“I am not someone who believes that an agent should get lots of publicity,” he told the newspaper, about the only thing he did tell it. “As a general rule, I believe the clients deserve the attention.”
As his business grew, Mr. Josephson negotiated personally on behalf of only a select few of those clients, although he was adept at doing so. The “Want to Make a Million?” article in 1977 was occasioned by an estimated $5 million deal he had just struck on behalf of Henry A. Kissinger for his memoirs. He also personally handled deals for Steve McQueen, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell, Margaret Thatcher and others.
Mr. Josephson was equally adept at acquiring other firms, some of them much larger than his own.
“He’s more sponge than agent,” a 1969 article in The Los Angeles Times began, reporting about Mr. Josephson’s acquisition of the Ashley-Famous Agency — “a case of an ant eating a lion,” as the article said.
He was also skilled at anticipating public tastes. Josephson Associates, his umbrella company, represented the producers, the director (Steven Spielberg), the writer and the screenwriter of “Jaws,” the top-grossing film of 1975. And, as The New York Times reported in June 1977, the firm had high hopes for another movie, released weeks earlier, that had been written and directed by another Josephson client, George Lucas. The movie was “Star Wars.”
“Marvin is clearly one of the most important people in American entertainment,” the publisher Peter Osnos told Newsday in an interview for that 1991 profile, “but unlike many of the great powers, he has managed to protect his privacy.”
Marvin Josephson was born on March 6, 1927, in Atlantic City, N.J. His parents, Joseph and Eva Rivka (Rounick) Josephson, ran a dress shop.
He graduated from high school in Atlantic City, served in the Navy at the close of World War II, earned a bachelor’s degree at Cornell University and, in 1952, obtained a law degree at New York University. He went on to work in the legal department at CBS.
“Three years of writing contracts convinced him that the pickings would be greener if he represented talent,” as Newsday put it, and in 1955 Mr. Josephson started his own personal management company. One potential source of business, he thought, might be the broadcast journalists he had come to know at CBS: When walking in Manhattan with one or another of them, passers-by would often stop to say hello and sometimes ask for an autograph.
“They thought of themselves as newsmen,” he told The Miami Herald in 1984, “but they were becoming celebrities, or stars.”
Charles Collingwood, the CBS newsman, became his first client, and others followed, including Chet Huntley and, years later, Barbara Walters. Then there was his other foundational client, Mr. Keeshan.
At the time, 1955, Mr. Keeshan was on a local kiddie show, “Tinker’s Workshop,” on WABC-TV in New York. Mr. Josephson wanted to move him and the show to CBS, but WABC argued that the station, not Mr. Keeshan, owned the program.
“Marvin went and saw the station manager and played him beautifully,” Mr. Keeshan, who died in 2004, told Newsday in 1991. “He said to him, ‘You know that the talent isn’t important, so what if Keeshan gives you the rights to “Tinker’s Workshop” and you let him go?’ The station manager said, ‘Gee, do you think Keeshan will go for that?,’ and Marvin said, ‘Maybe.’”
The deal was struck, and “Tinker’s Workshop” was soon a footnote. At CBS in October 1955, Mr. Keeshan started “Captain Kangaroo,” which became the touchstone children’s program of generations.
Marvin Josephson Associates, as Mr. Josephson’s company came to be called, didn’t stop growing for decades. In 1971 the company went public and was renamed Josephson International Inc. In 1975 it established ICM Artists to represent classical musicians; Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman were among its clients.
Mr. Josephson took the company private again in 1988, and through the 1990s his subsidiaries represented countless A-list actors and writers. In the 1990s, he handed off many of his management duties to others, including his daughter Nancy. A controlling interest in the company was sold in 2005 to a private investor, Suhail Rizvi.
Mr. Josephson married Ingrid Bergh in 1950. They divorced in 1970. In 1973 he married Tina Chen, who survives him. In addition to her and his daughter Nancy, who is from his first marriage, he is also survived by two other children from that marriage, Celia Josephson and Claire Josephson; two children from his marriage to Ms. Chen, YiLing Chen-Josephson and YiPei Chen-Josephson; a brother, Jack; 16 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Another son, Joseph, from his first marriage, died.