Howard Weitzman, an entertainment lawyer whose client list bristled with the names of some of the nation’s most famous, and infamous, celebrities — including Michael Jackson, Justin Bieber and, for two days, O.J. Simpson — died on Wednesday at his home in the Pacific Palisades section of Los Angeles. He was 81.
The cause was cancer, said Diana Baron, a spokeswoman for his wife, Margaret Weitzman.
In a career spanning five decades, Mr. Weitzman was the lead attorney in more than 300 civil and criminal jury trials, representing more than 1,000 people. His client list read like a Who’s Who of the last half-century’s superstars, among them Marlon Brando, Magic Johnson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Justin Bieber, Ozzy Osbourne, Morgan Freeman and Britney Spears.
He also represented major motion picture studios as well as the powerhouse talent agencies William Morris, ICM and CAA, giving him a 360-degree view of the inner workings of the entertainment industry and a Rolodex of top-level connections that enhanced his reputation as a fixer. He was often ranked as one of the most influential lawyers in the country.
“A renowned trial lawyer and deal-maker, Howard skillfully handled some of the most famous cases in Hollywood,” his law firm, Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump & Aldisert, said in a statement.
A master practitioner of the courthouse-steps news conference, Mr. Weitzman shot to national fame with his defense of John DeLorean, the flamboyant automobile executive who was accused of cocaine trafficking. In a 1984 trial during which the jury heard audiotapes of Mr. DeLorean making incriminating statements, Mr. Weitzman demolished the credibility of a key informant, argued that the F.B.I. had entrapped his client and won an acquittal.
With cable television in its infancy, Mr. Weitzman was one of the first lawyers to face round-the-clock television coverage of a big trial. He quickly turned it to his advantage, addressing the news media — and the court of public opinion — from the front of the courthouse.
“Part of my reasoning for talking to the media at all was to try and even the scales,” Mr. Weitzman told Southern California Super Lawyers magazine in a lengthy interview in 2008. “I learned then that on TV they tend to take three words from the 10 sentences you spoke. You learn pretty quickly to speak in sound bites if possible.”
Reporters found him helpful, congenial and entertaining, The Washington Post reported during the DeLorean trial. He gave them insights into his legal strategy, the paper said, as well as “a steady supply of his own humorous asides and highly quotable denunciations of the government and its informer.”
Although he was best known for his celebrity criminal cases, Mr. Weitzman also had extensive experience in business litigation and making deals. As aggressive as he could be in court, he came to prefer settling cases out of court.
Many of the lawsuits against his clients had a habit of disappearing. After a 14-year-old boy accused Mr. Jackson of sexually molesting him, Mr. Weitzman and Johnnie Cochran Jr., another superstar defense lawyer, helped short-circuit the boy’s civil suit by having Mr. Jackson pay him a sum believed to be in the millions of dollars.
When a young fan accused Justin Bieber of fathering her child in 2011, she demanded that he take a DNA test. Mr. Weitzman, representing Mr. Bieber, said that his client would submit to such a test — and at the same time threatened to countersue the woman, saying she was making a bogus claim. She dropped her suit.
He also represented Mr. Bieber when he was sued by his former bodyguard, who said Mr. Bieber had punched him in 2012. Just before the trial was to begin, Mr. Weitzman announced that the two had reached an agreement, and the suit was dropped.
Mr. Weitzman referred to his celebrity clients as “people of profile.” He said he believed they suffered in the criminal justice system because judges liked to make an example of them. He made this point in 2007 while representing Paris Hilton, who was caught driving without her license, which had been suspended after a drunk-driving conviction.
She was sentenced to 45 days in jail.
An outraged Mr. Weitzman told reporters that the sentence should have been much lower. “It’s clear she was selectively prosecuted because of who she is,” he said. “Shame on the system and shame on the city attorney for bringing this case.”
The city attorney disputed Mr. Weitzman’s interpretation, saying the judge was simply showing that no one was above the law.
Howard Lloyd Weitzman was born on Sept. 21, 1939, in Los Angeles, where his parents, Wilfred and Billie Weitzman, ran a grocery store. Working there on occasion, he developed an ability to converse with a wide variety of people.
He studied at Los Angeles City College before transferring to the University of Southern California, from which he graduated in 1962 with a degree in physical education. He loved baseball and hoped to make a career of it, but when that didn’t materialize, a friend suggested he try law school.
He took the LSAT but didn’t score high enough to be admitted to U.S.C.’s law school, according to Southern California Super Lawyers. At that point, the magazine said, his baseball coach, Rod Dedeaux, called the dean of the law school, who found a spot for Mr. Weitzman. Mr. Weitzman received his degree in 1965 and began to practice criminal law.
He left his law practice in 1995 to work as vice president of corporate operations for Universal Studios. He worked there until being ousted in a management reshuffle.
He said later that his experience at Universal helped him better evaluate whether to take a case to trial. “I was always more inclined to draw lines in the sand earlier in my career,” he said. “Now I try to avoid the actual trial and resolve it short of litigation.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Weitzman is survived by two sons, Armen and Jed, and two grandchildren. His first marriage, to Stacey Cooper Furstman, ended in divorce.
For all his showmanship in the courtroom, Mr. Weitzman opted out of what the media called the trial of the century: the case against O.J. Simpson, who was accused of the 1994 murders of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman.
Mr. Weitzman had accompanied Mr. Simpson to a police interview after the murders. But in less than 48 hours, he dropped out, saying he was too busy.
After the sensational trial, during which much of the nation had ground to a halt waiting for the verdict — not guilty — Mr. Weitzman took the unusual step of saying that the jury had reached the wrong conclusion. “That is my opinion,” he told Super Lawyers, “based on time spent with him before the incident occurred, time spent with him after the murders occurred, and observing at arm’s length the facts brought out during the trial.”
He said he had no regrets about not participating in the spectacle. “Being in the eye of the storm,” he said, “is not something I needed.”