George Shapiro, the Bronx-born personal manager and champion of comedy who teamed with his late business partner, Howard West, to bring the iconic sitcom Seinfeld to television, has died. He was 91.
Shapiro died Thursday evening of natural causes at his home in Beverly Hills, a publicist announced.
Shapiro and West also helped guide the careers of Carl Reiner, Andy Kaufman, Peter Bonerz, Marty Feldman, Gabe Kaplan, Robert Wuhl, Bill Persky & Sam Denoff, Austin & Irma Kalish, Dick Clair & Jenna McMahon, Sam Bobrick and Norman Barasch.
The pair, who met for the first time in grammar school at PS 80 in the Bronx, were key to the launch of Seinfeld, serving as exec producers on the NBC show that aired from 1989-98. Their relationship with Jerry Seinfeld started in Los Angeles comedy clubs, and the trio were among those who shared the Emmy for best comedy series in 1993.
More recently, they were involved with Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
Born on May 18, 1931, Shapiro traced his love of laughter to his childhood days at PS 80 and a group of friends that included West.
“Howie was the new kid at school as he just moved from another Bronx neighborhood,” he once recalled. “Howie was alone in the schoolyard, sitting on a step near one of the school entrances. I invited him to join me and my friends to play basketball, stickball, curb ball and touch football. It was love at first sight, and we became best friends since that day. We were partners in buying comic books, we bought our first car together.”
In a 2007 chat for the Television Academy Foundation website The Interviews, Shapiro said he looked forward to Saturday double features at his neighborhood theater but was most excited about comedy films.
“I almost couldn’t sleep the night before when I knew an Abbott & Costello movie was opening, or Laurel & Hardy,” he said. “I sat in the theater, and it felt like someone was tickling me because I was laughing so much. Without even thinking about it, I think I just gravitated toward hanging around funny people.”
Shapiro spent summers during his teenage years as a lifeguard at Tamiment Resort in the Poconos, where he met such performers as Dick Shawn, Pat Carroll, Carol Burnett, Barbara Cook, future director Herbert Ross and, equally as important, talent agents.
“I didn’t even know what an agent was, but they came to see the show, to talk to the girls, talk to the comedians,” he recalled. “I said, ‘This is your job? To watch the show, to have a nice dinner, to come to a resort with a lake? I have to look into that.’”
After graduating from NYU and serving in the US Army, Shapiro interviewed for a job in the mailroom at William Morris in New York through his relationship with Reiner (Shapiro’s aunt was Reiner’s wife, Estelle) and became a junior agent in the packaging department at the agency in 1955, making $38 per week. He recruited West to join him.
Shapiro recognized that the big comedy shows and productions were moving to Hollywood, so he started a rumor at William Morris that he was going to be transferred to the Los Angeles office. His self-fulfilling prophecy came true, and West, naturally, came along, too.
In LA, Shapiro put together talent for such TV programs as The Steve Allen Show, That Girl and Gomer Pile, USMC and for specials headlined by Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Channing.
In 1973, Shapiro left William Morris and launched Shapiro/West Associates with his buddy.
Shapiro was Kaufman’s personal manager for many years, and he negotiated the contract that brought the comedian to ABC’s Taxi. He also executive produced Andy’s Funhouse special for ABC in 1979 and the Andy Kaufman at Carnegie Hall special for Showtime in 1980.
Shapiro produced other TV specials headlined by Seinfeld and Elayne Boosler and presided over an animated version of Reiner and Mel Brooks’ classic 2000-Year-Old Man routine.
Shapiro and West executive produced the Milos Forman-directed Man on the Moon (1999), starring Jim Carrey as Kaufman. (While Taxi star Danny DeVito played him in the movie, Shapiro appeared as a club owner who fired Kaufman early in his career, and West portrayed a network executive.)
“George was one of the sweetest guys on the planet,” DeVito said in a statement. “We got to see that smiling face every Friday night during the Taxi days. He never missed a show.”
Other features produced by Shapiro included Summer Rental (1985), starring John Candy and Rip Torn, and summer school (1987), featuring Mark Harmon and Kirstie Alley.
He also produced documentaries like comedian (2001), which chronicled Seinfeld’s return to the stand-up stage; The Bronx Boys (2003); The Bronx Boys Still Playing at 80 (2013); If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast (2017), hosted by Reiner; and The Super Bob Einstein Movie (2021).
The 2019 documentary The Bronx, USA followed Shapiro as he returned to his hometown, revisiting the streets, stores and memories of his youth and reflecting on the close friendships he made there that stood the test of time.
Shapiro was a founding advisory board member of the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York. “He believed deeply in our mission to celebrate and preserve comedy’s heritage, and we were thrilled to welcome him to our grand opening events,” executive director Journey Gunderson.
“Laughter is incredible, it’s powerful,” he often said.
Survivors include Melody Shapiro, his lifelong friend and mother of his children—son Danny and his wife, Hester; daughter Carrie and her husband, Mark; and Stefanie—brother Don; and grandchildren Adam, Nathan, Audrey, Skylar and Alana.
A memorial service will be announced. Donations in his memory can be made and designated to The Festivus Fund through the California Community Foundation.