Bobby Zarem, the famed entertainment industry publicist who represented stars such as Cher and Diana Ross, died Sunday in Savannah, Ga., according to the New York Times. He was 84.
Zarem’s colleague Bill Augustin confirmed to the New York Times that he died of complications related to lung cancer.
Zarem was born in Savannah in 1936. He grew up there, then attended Yale University before moving to New York City. After a short stint working on Wall Street, he moved into the entertainment industry. Zarem was first hired by Columbia Artists Management and discovered his affinity for publicity while working for producer Joseph E. Levine. His PR career bloomed at Rogers & Cowan, a firm he joined in 1969, where he developed a client base that included Dustin Hoffman. In 1974, he founded Zarem Inc. Zarem jumpstarted the careers of several now-A-listers. Along with Cher, Ross and Hoffman, his clientele included stars like Alan Alda, Ann-Margaret, Michael Caine, Michael Douglas, Sophia Loren, Jack Nicholson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.
Beyond his roster of celebrities, Zarem was known for a number of famous projects, notably the “I Love New York” tourism campaign (though his exact level of involvement in the campaign is debated). His other notable work includes publicity for “Saturday Night Fever” — the studio had neglected the film, expecting it to underperform until Zarem stole production stills of John Travolta to generate buzz — and “Tommy,” for which he hosted a black-tie gala in a Manhattan subway station. His reputation also lended itself to the 2002 film “People I Know,” as Al Pacino’s character Eli Wurman was based on Zarem.
To many in the industry, Zarem was a more complicated figure. He once employed publicist Peggy Siegal, who accused Zarem of throwing a typewriter at her, an allegation he denied. He also feuded with late gossip columnist Liz Smith, who he claimed wrote a column regularly bashing his clients under the byline Robin Adams Sloan. In retaliation, Zarem aired the news of Smith’s wedding to partner Iris Love.
Zarem never married, preferring to devote his life to work. He publicly spoke on the importance of therapy and was a client of Czechoslovakian psychiatrist Samuel Lowy.
“I think that’s why I did what I did,” he once told Hamptons magazine, according to the Times. “Not feeling that I had anything to communicate, I felt that if I made the rest of the world accept Dustin Hoffman and Ann-Margret and Cher, and all these people, then I would be accepted.”