Life After Supermensch
An Interview with
By John Strausbaugh
For more than forty years Shep Gordon was a behind-the-scenes industry legend, in more than one industry. As an artist manager he started out masterminding Alice Cooper's improbable rise to world fame, then went on to work magic for an eclectic roster of performers ranging from Luther Vandross, Anne Murray and the Gipsy Kings to Raquel Welch and Groucho Marx. Expanding to film production, he helped launch Ridley Scott's career and invented a working business model for independent cinema. During a Cannes festival he met chef Roger Vergé, which led to his creating the concept of the celebrity chef and making stars of Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme and many others. Through Sharon Stone, whom he dated for some time, he met the Dalai Lama and got to cook breakfast for him, a highlight of his life.
But he was still unknown to the public until Mike Myers, who met and befriended him on the set of Wayne's World, made his documentary film about him, Supermensch. With its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2013 and wider release the following year, Shep Gordon, now 70, suddenly found himself a celebrity. A tsunami of messages from around the world flooded his Facebook, email and surface mail. Strangers send him gifts. People buttonhole him on the street. He's had countless offers of dinner, speaking engagements, business deals, marriage.
"It’s been humbling, overwhelming, mystifying, and an amazing journey," he says. "I’m really amazed at the impact the movie's had."
But maybe it shouldn't be such a surprise. The portrait of Shep Gordon that Myers lovingly crafted in his film isn't just of a management and marketing wiz who has made a lot of people rich and famous. Who would care? What's so attractive and remarkable is that Shep -- everyone addresses him by his first name; he's not the Mr. Gordon type -- seems to have had such great success in such disparate areas while remaining quite possibly the nicest and most widely-liked guy in show business. A big, gentle man with a deep and soothing voice, an easy laugh and a taste for pot, he comes across as the antithesis of the hard-charging, dog-eat-dog show biz macher. He calls his approach "compassionate business." He speaks about repaying favors with favors, and trying to do good in the world as thanks for how good the world has been to him. He seems genuinely happy and radiates a kind of Zen calm.
And then there are his friends. He has more celebrity friends than most of his celebrity friends. Everyone who's anyone in show business has golfed with him, partied with him, and stayed at his house on Maui, where he loves to cook for them.
Who wouldn't want to know the guy?
Asked what was it like to have a documentary made about him, especially after all those years behind the scenes, he says, "It was sort of a non-issue until it was finished, because I didn’t really work on it." The idea for the film, he says, was all Myers's. Shep sat for interviews on camera a few times, gave Myers some contacts, and otherwise stayed out of the process. Also, he says, their expectations were low. "We never had any thought that it would be seen by anybody other than close relatives. It was a work that a friend wanted to do, who financed some of it himself, and having been in the business for so many years, logic told me that documentaries that are funded by the artist never get exposure. So that was my assumption going into it."
He goes on, "I’ve always loved Mike Myers. He’s always been a great friend and a big fan of my stories, which I’m sure get boring for people to hear. We have a really close bond and I respect him as an artist. But I didn’t understand why he would choose to do the film. I explained to him that I didn’t think it was something that would ever sell, but I had agreed to do it so I would do it. So it never really hit my radar screen. I didn’t think it would have any real impact."
Meanwhile Myers worked on it for over a year, "and I mean worked on it, 24/7. For me there was one moment in the middle of the project when I went to New York for something and he invited me over to the house. It was like walking into CSI. It was my life on the walls. Every wall had pictures of where I grew up, the high school I went to, my grandmother. It was wild. That was my first little dose of reality. It was then I realized how much effort and love he was putting into it. But I still didn’t think it would have any kind of impact."
When it was done, Myers invited Shep back to his home and screened it for him. "I loved it. I thought it was great. But I didn’t have a real connection to it. It’s definitely Mike’s movie, his version of my life and who I am. When it ended, he looked at me like, 'Are you ever gonna talk to me again?' I said, 'Just do one thing for me. The next time I come to New York, take me to lunch with this guy Shep.'"
Then the movie came out, and thousands of strangers were writing and calling him. He says they've ranged from rock stars and CEOs of giant corporations to unknowns who wish they were rock stars and CEOs and hope Shep will work his magic and grant that wish.
"At first it was bewildering. I just didn’t get it. The responses were so intense and dramatic. Early on I got this beautiful birdcage filled with silk flowers. All of them were white, except one red one. It came in a big box, stood about two feet tall, from Africa, from a young lady who saw the movie and wrote this three- or four-page letter. She wrote, 'I don’t want you to think that I’m really special, but if all the flowers in the birdcage are white, I’m the red one. If you would open the cage and let me out, I could do really great stuff for this planet.' She wanted to be a famous actress. She had moved to America for a while and taken acting lessons. Then she moved back to Africa. She thought she had a great gift, and that I could see that gift and develop it."
He says he's also heard from a lot of women who see him in the movie -- rich, successful, living in paradise on Maui, surrounded by rock stars and movie stars, and single, and he likes to cook -- and want to have his baby.
At the other end of the scale, he hears from those titans of industry and stars who already have the riches and fame, but have found it doesn't make them happy. In Supermensch they see Shep Gordon looking quite happy and content in his success. They want to know his secret, and they've gone to some extraordinary lengths to reach him.
"One Saturday my cell phone rang, and it was this Norwegian fellow who had written me a letter. I had answered the letter. I answer all the letters basically in the same way. 'Thanks for reaching out. I truly appreciate it. But as you know from the movie, I’m looking to find my own path. That’s taking up my time and I haven’t found it yet. I wish you the best of luck and hope everything works out.' I have nothing to offer them, unless it’s a friend or someone in the business, somebody I really think I can help. Otherwise I feel like a false god in some way. It’s weird.
"But anyway, this Norwegian guy was the head of a large corporation. Wanted to do something good for the planet. Wrote that as soon as he saw the movie he knew that I was the answer. He has a plane and he’d like to pick me up and bring me over to Norway. He just wanted to have dinner. I sent him back the same answer. Now the phone rings, and it’s the guy! And the first thing he says to me is, ‘I have to apologize to you. I’m so sorry. But my friend is in the police here, and we called the Maui police department and told them that there was a man with Alzheimer’s wandering the streets of Norway. And all he had was a note in his pocket: 'Call Shep Gordon in Maui if I’m lost.'"
The Maui police gave them Shep's cellphone number. "That’s how hard they work at reaching me."
Did he meet with the guy?
Shep laughs. "No. I gave him the names of a couple of people I know who work for many, many charities, and help rich people direct their money into charitable causes. I don’t have that expertise. I play golf, I roll joints, I have a good time... My life is fucked like everybody else’s. The journey’s tough. The movie highlights all of the peaks."
Shep says he understands the impulse to seek out a mentor, because he has followed it a few times himself. He was no foodie when he first met the world-renown chef and restaurateur Roger Vergé in the mid-1980s. What impressed him was that for all his fame and success, Vergé (who passed away last year) seemed happiest when he was making other people happy.
"Mr. Vergé was involved in a world of commerce every second of his life. You know, running restaurants is not easy. But I never ever saw him without a smile. Never ever saw him where he wouldn’t help somebody. I had probably a thousand meals with him. There was never any plate at our table went back with a morsel of food on it. If he had to eat every morsel on every plate he'd do it. He’d say to me, ‘Shep, you know when I come into a restaurant, the chef looks to see when the plates come back if they’re empty.’ I remember one time the food was horrible. I ate half of my plate. He finished his plate and my plate. When we left the restaurant, I said, ‘Did you really think it that was good?’ And he said, ‘Oh Shep, it was horrible.’ But he ate every bit of it. Because he knew that if that plate came back empty, he made a happy man out of the chef. If there was one piece of meat left on that plate, the chef might kill himself. He’s had Mr. Vergé at his restaurant and he didn’t eat everything? It had nothing to do with Vergé enjoying the food. It was him realizing what would make someone happy."
He saw the same thing in the Dalai Lama. In the mid-1990s, when the Dalai Lama came to speak in Maui, Shep offered to cook him breakfast. At 5 in the morning, practically paralyzed with stage fright, Shep carried a tray into the holy man's rooms, and found him brushing his teeth.
"I put the tray down and he goes, 'Come come, we take a picture.' With this gigantic smile. Knowing that I wanted a picture but would never ask for it. I carry the picture with me in my briefcase, the only picture I carry since that day. It’s me and him on a couch in his room, and he's holding my hand. Believe me, not because he wanted a picture with me. That taught me sort of everything I needed to know. And from that point on it was like, 'Oh my God I’m the luckiest guy in the world to be able to see that.' This is a man who lost his country, who doesn’t have a home, yet he’s actually caring about me getting a picture because he knows that of course I want a picture. At 5:30 in the morning, when he’s just brushed his teeth. That’s service to others -- true service to others. That’s the real deal. I can’t say it changed my life, but it reinforced everything that I had learned from Mr. Vergé about how to treat humans."
Clearly their examples rubbed off on him, and it's that spirit that people seem to be responding to when they seek him out.
"I’m just a Jewish kid who grew up in New York," he says. "I have every self-worth issue you can have in life. The concept of little Shep being this beacon of light for people is so bizarre. But I’ve become comfortable, sort of, in that role. I’m now starting to go to some conventions and events, talking and meeting people. I give them a hug and a ‘It’s okay, you can fuck up. We all do.’ Just trying to live up to this role that Mike’s given me in the movie. It’s a good one. I’ve seen the joy I bring to people. It’s really remarkable."
Published May 12th, 2016
John Strausbaugh's most recent book The Village, a history of Greenwich Village, was one of Kirkus Reviews' Best Books of 2013. His next one, City of Sedition, a history of New York City during the Civil War, comes out this summer. He is a former editor of New York Press and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere.