When opportunity knocks
Alumnus explains secret to success as a Hollywood agent
By Matt Markey
Jeff Witjas left college faced with the same quandary that many students encounter. With a degree in hand, he looked out at the world beyond BGSU and wondered, now what?
“When I finished college, I didn’t know what I really wanted to do. I had stars in my eyes,” he said. Today, the stars are in his Beverly Hills office every day as Witjas works on his fourth decade as one of the leading talent agents in the entertainment industry.
The 1968 political science graduate said the circuitous route from New York to Bowling Green, and eventually to Los Angeles, would not have been possible if he had not been determined to investigate the potential prospects each time a door was opened for him.
“I have learned that you must take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to you in life. You have to be smart enough to know when to listen, and when to pursue something,” said Witjas, who is now a top representative at the Agency for the Performing Arts (APA), one of the largest talent groups in the country.
Witjas went off to college intending to be a doctor, but when chemistry and physics proved to be a bit forbidding, Witjas, a devotee of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, switched majors.
“At the time, I thought maybe I would be a politician or something, but I didn’t know how to go about doing it,” he said. “I just had this vision, but I eventually realized that it takes time to grow up and find yourself, and to know your strengths, and maybe just a couple of weaknesses. You find out who you are on that journey.”
In its initial stages, that journey brought the native New Yorker, who was born in Brooklyn and grew up in New Rochelle, to a distant and unfamiliar land—the Midwest.
“My cousin had gone to Bowling Green, and he just raved about the school, so when I was applying to colleges, I was intrigued by it,” Witjas said. “Growing up in New York, I knew I wanted to get out of the city and see some other things.”
His family took a road trip to visit the BGSU campus, and that closed the deal on his educational future.
“Once I was there, I fell in love with the school. Tops on the list was just the open spaces,” he said. “Bowling Green was just what I had always pictured college to be—a beautiful campus, a very intimate setting, and it was located someplace where I had never been. Something just felt very comfortable about it.”
Witjas then immersed himself in the college experience at BGSU, joining a fraternity, playing on the tennis team, serving as the first president of the Undergraduate Alumni Association, and as vice-president of the student body. He credits an iconic BG figure—Jim Hof—with showing him the way. Hof, a former vice-president of University Advancement, who was instrumental in the formation of the Falcon Club, wore many hats in that era.
“He was involved with the alumni in a big way, he was the announcer at the football and basketball games, and he also took the time to become my mentor,” Witjas said. “I always had aspirations to be part of politics in some way, and he encouraged me to get involved with the Undergraduate Alumni Association and I became president. He was incredible, and he made a major difference for me. I had such an appreciation for his input in my life.”
The two have stayed in touch to this day, despite the dramatic changes in Witjas’ life and location. Following graduation, he went back east and worked as a teaching pro, running a tennis club. His father was living in California at the time and pitched a move west to his son.
“I realized I wanted to do more with my life, so I enrolled in law school in Fullerton,” said Witjas, who remained active in tennis. A chance encounter on the tennis court led to an offer to work at the William Morris Agency, then the top talent firm in the country.
“This fellow just said he liked my personality and asked if I was interested, and even though I wasn’t thinking about that as a career, it seemed like an opportunity worth a try,” Witjas said.
He switched to night classes at law school, and worked days in the mailroom at William Morris, starting in 1977. Two years later when Witjas finished law school, William Morris made him a talent agent, and the practice of law was put on the shelf.
“Looking back 38 years later, I guess I made the right move,” said Witjas, who spent 25 years at William Morris before moving to APA in 2001 as a senior vice-president in the talent department.
At William Morris Agency, Witjas was instrumental in forming a sports division. His first client in that enterprise—a young talent named Kobe Bryant, who would become a mega star in the NBA for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Today, Witjas represents television, motion picture and theater interests and individuals, including Betty White, Jason Momoa, Adam Baldwin, Uzo Aduba and Jason Beghe, among many others.
“Most of the actors I represent are terrific people. I think they are a little bit ‘off’ but not in a bad way, and that’s what makes them as great as they are, in many cases,” he said. “They see life a little bit differently, but they are very gifted, and we have the opportunity to know them in different ways. We know them behind the scenes, and how they really tick.”
Witjas said his role goes well beyond working to find appropriate roles to enhance and develop the careers of his clients.
“I look at them as all my children in a way. I look at myself as one who guides the careers of all of these very creative people, so some days I need to be a psychiatrist, and some days I put out fires, so I am a fireman,” he said. “No two days are alike, but you are totally involved with someone’s life, and that is a lot of responsibility to have. I find it to be extremely exciting and rewarding, most of the time.”
The journey that started with what Jeff Witjas calls “a great four years” at BGSU, continues.
“I am probably one of the luckiest guys alive,” said Witjas. “I have a wonderful wife of 26 years (Rebecca) and a beautiful daughter (Rachel Mae, 15) and a dog named Prince. And I have been blessed with opportunities to do different things, but I’ve also taken a serious look at every opportunity that came my way. I have learned that there really are no limits to what we can achieve.”