James T. Aubrey
James T. Aubrey, c. 1959
James Thomas Steven Aubrey
December 14, 1918
LaSalle, Illinois, U.S.
|Died||September 3, 1994 (aged 75)|
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
James Thomas Aubrey Jr. (December 14, 1918 – September 3, 1994) was an American television and film executive. As president of the CBS television network from 1959 to 1965, he, with his "smell for the blue-collar", put some of television's most enduring series on the air, including Gilligan's Island and The Beverly Hillbillies. Under Aubrey, CBS dominated American television, leading the other two networks, NBC and ABC, by nine points. The New York Times Magazine in 1964 called Aubrey "a master of programming whose divinations led to successes that are breathtaking". Under Aubrey's leadership, CBS's profits skyrocketed from $25 million in 1959 to $49 million in 1964.
Aubrey replaced CBS Television president Louis Cowan, who was slowly dismissed after the quiz show scandals. Despite his successes in television, Aubrey's abrasive personality and oversized ego – "Picture Machiavelli and Karl Rove at a University of Colorado football recruiting party" wrote Variety in 2004 – led to his firing from CBS amid charges of improprieties. "The circumstances rivaled the best of CBS adventure or mystery shows," declared The New York Times in its front-page story on his firing, which came on "the sunniest Sunday in February" 1965. He earned the nickname "Smiling Cobra" for his brutal decision-making ways. Aubrey governed CBS with a firm grip, and it did not go unnoticed. He was suddenly dismissed in February 1965. Aubrey offered no explanation following his dismissal, nor did CBS President Frank Stanton or Board Chairman William Paley. After four years as an independent producer, Aubrey was hired by financier Kirk Kerkorian in 1969 to preside over Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's near-total shutdown, during which he slashed the budget and alienated producers and directors but brought profits to a company that had suffered huge losses. In 1973, Aubrey resigned from MGM, declaring his job was done, and then vanished into almost total obscurity for the last two decades of his life.
Jim is different. He does his own dirty work. Jim is one of those people who are willing to say, "I didn't like your movie." Directness is disarming to people who are used to sugar-coating. It's tough for people who need approval to see somebody who doesn't. Myths and legends begin to surround that kind of person.
Born in LaSalle, Illinois, James Thomas Steven Aubrey was the eldest of four sons of James Thomas Aubrey Sr., an advertising executive with the Chicago firm of Aubrey, Moore, and Wallace; and his wife, the former Mildred Stever. He grew up in the affluent Chicago suburb of Lake Forest and attended Lake Forest Academy, Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, and Princeton University. All four boys, James, Stever, David, and George, went to Lake Forest Academy, Exeter and Princeton; his brother Stever became a successful advertising man at J. Walter Thompson before heading the F. William Free agency. While at Princeton all four brothers were members of the Tiger Inn eating club. "My father insisted on accomplishment," Aubrey recalled in 1986. In college, Aubrey was a star on the football team, playing left end. He graduated in 1941 with honors in English and entered the United States Army Air Forces. During his service in World War II, Aubrey rose to the rank of major and taught military flying to actor James Stewart, who was a licensed civilian pilot.
While stationed in southern California, he met Phyllis Thaxter, an actress signed to MGM, whom he married in November 1944. Thaxter's first role was as Ted Lawson's wife in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), and her final film was as Martha Kent, in the 1978 Superman. They had two children, Susan Schuyler "Skye" Aubrey (born c. 1946) and James Watson Aubrey (born c. 1953). The marriage ended in divorce in 1962.
Aubrey was "6-foot 2-inch with an incandescent smile" with "unrevealing polar blue eyes," said The New York Times Magazine in 1964. The next year Life Magazine described him as "youthful, handsome, brainy, with an incandescent smile, a quiet, somewhat salty wit and, when he cared to turn it on, considerable charm. He was always fastidiously turned out, from his Jerry the Barber haircut to his CBS-eye cuff links." One producer said, "Aubrey is one of the most insatiably curious guys I know."
After Aubrey was discharged from the Air Force, he stayed in southern California; before his marriage, he intended to return to Chicago. In Los Angeles, he sold advertising for the Street & Smith and Condé Nast magazine companies. His first broadcasting job was as a salesman at the CBS radio station in Los Angeles, KNX, and soon went to the network's new television station, KNXT. Within two years Aubrey had risen to be the network's West Coast television programming chief. There he met Hunt Stromberg Jr., and they developed the popular western Have Gun, Will Travel. They sent their idea to the network's chief of programming, Hubbell Robinson, and as Oulahan and Lambert put it, "the rest is TV history." Aubrey was promoted to manager of all television network programs, based in California, until he went to ABC in 1956.
On December 16, 1956, American Broadcasting Company president Oliver E. Treyz announced Aubrey would immediately become the network's head of programming and talent. ABC, the weakest of the three networks, was a perennial also-ran with a weak roster of affiliates and programs, something comparable to the early days of the Fox Network. Aubrey later said "at that time, there was no ABC. The headquarters was an old riding stable. But I went because [ABC chairman] Leonard Goldenson in effect said, 'Look, I don't know that much about TV, I'm a lawyer.' And he let me have autonomy."
As vice president in charge of programs (a title he gained before March 1957), he brought to the air what he recalled as "wild, sexy, lively stuff, things that had never been done before," shows such as Maverick, a western with James Garner, and 77 Sunset Strip, a detective show with Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (However, by the time Strip went on the air in October 1958, Aubrey had already left the network.) Oulahan and Lambert said Aubrey scheduled "one lucrative show after another ... and for the first time the third network became a serious challenge to NBC and CBS." Among the successes he scheduled were The Donna Reed Show, a domestic comedy; The Rifleman, a western with Chuck Connors; and The Real McCoys, a rural comedy with Walter Brennan and Richard Crenna.
Despite his success at ABC, Aubrey saw a limited future at the network and asked to return to CBS, doing so on April 28, 1958, initially as assistant to Frank Stanton, president of CBS, Inc., the holding company which owned the network. (Thomas W. Moore would take his ABC job.) Aubrey was made vice president for creative services in April 1959, replacing Louis G. Cowan, whom CBS promoted to network president.
Aubrey was named executive vice president on June 1, 1959, a newly created post that was the number-two official at the network. His responsibilities encompassed general supervision of all departments of the CBS Television Network. On December 8, 1959, Cowan resigned, having been damaged from his connection to the quiz show scandals. (He created the show The $64,000 Question and owned the company which produced it for the network, though Cowan denied he knew anything about the rigging of the program.) Cowan's letter of resignation to Stanton declared, "you have made it impossible for me to continue." Aubrey was named president the same day and elected to the board of directors on December 9, 1959.
Aubrey was president of the CBS Network for the next five years, and made it tremendously successful, substantially increasing ratings and doubling the company's profits. In the 1963–64 season, all twelve of the top daytime programs and fourteen of the top fifteen prime-time shows were on CBS – the lone evening exception was NBC's Bonanza, ranked number two. After he was fired, journalists Richard Oulahan and William Lambert wrote in a Life Magazine profile:
In the long history of human communications, from tom-tom to Telstar, no one man ever had a lock on such enormous audiences as James Thomas Aubrey Jr. during his five-year tenure as head of the Columbia Broadcasting System's television network ... He was the world's No. 1 purveyor of entertainment.
His formula was characterized by a CBS executive as "broads, bosoms, and fun," resulting in such shows as The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan's Island, despised by the critics – and CBS chairman William S. Paley – but extremely popular with viewers. While Aubrey had a great feel for what would be successful with viewers, he had nothing but contempt for them. "The American public is something I fly over," he said. His former boss at ABC, Oliver E. Treyz, said that at programming "Jim Aubrey was one of the most effective ever, from the standpoint of delivering what the public wanted and making money. He was the best program judge in the business."
Aubrey said in 1986 of Paley and his programming choices:
I'd gone to CBS, and I'd become convinced Beverly Hillbillies was going to work. Bill Paley wasn't convinced. Bill has this great sense of propriety. Putting aside the Sarnoffs and all the other great names of broadcasting, Paley stood – stands – head and shoulders above everyone else. He had this blasting genius of instinctively looking at a show and knowing if it should be on the air. He could also be ruthless and distant ... But Bill was intuitive about both the business and creative sides of TV. And he genuinely disliked Beverly Hillbillies. I put it on the schedule anyway.
"The hucksters' huckster," David Halberstam labeled him, "whose greatest legacy to television was a program called The Beverly Hillbillies, a series so demented and tasteless that it boggles the mind" Columnist Murray Kempton described The Beverly Hillbillies as "a confrontation of the characters of John Steinbeck with the environment of Spyros Skouras," the extravagant chairman of Twentieth Century Fox. But regardless of what anyone said about Hillbillies, the public loved it. The Nielsen ratings showed 57 million were watching the show – one in three Americans.
When Skouras was forced out of Fox by the company's board of directors in July 1962, Aubrey was widely mentioned to be his successor, but he openly denied he had any intention of leaving CBS.
Another part of Aubrey's formula was making sure that the commercial interests of CBS's sponsors were kept foremost in their minds. In 1960 he elaborated on this idea more when he told The Office of Network Study:
"There is relatively little that is incompatible between our objectives and the objectives of the advertisers....Before sponsorship of a program series commences there is often a meeting between production personnel and representatives of the advertiser at which time the general areas of the advertiser's interest and general attitudes are discussed. A breakfast food advertiser may, for example, wish to make sure the programs do not contain elements that make breakfast distasteful. A cigarette manufacturer would not wish to have cigarette smoking depicted in an unattractive manner. Normally, as long as these considerations do not limit creativity, they will be adhered to."
CBS's dominance was so great that when the fall schedules were announced, ABC and NBC would wait until CBS announced its plans before making their own announcements, effectively making Aubrey programmer for all three networks. CBS had great success with rural-themed programs such as the Hillbillies, The Andy Griffith Show, Mister Ed, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction. Yet another CBS hit Paley hated was The Munsters, part of a trend of fantasy shows at the time that included CBS's My Favorite Martian and Gilligan's Island. Aubrey's "unwritten code" for programs was described in Life:
Feed the public little more than rural comedies, fast-moving detective dramas and, later, sexy dolls. No old people; the emphasis was on youth. No domestic servants, the mass audience wouldn't identify with maids. No serious problems to cope with. Every script had to be full of action. No physical infirmities.
Life acknowledged there were exceptions, such as The Defenders with E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed as socially conscious attorneys, and quoted Aubrey's defense to charges of pandering to the public. "I felt that we had an obligation to reach the vast majority of most of the people," he said. "We made an effort to continue purposeful drama on TV, but we found out that people just don't want an anthology. They would rather tune in on Lucy."
In 1962, a United States Senate committee investigating juvenile delinquency held hearings on sex on television and called executives from the three networks. The chairman, Senator Thomas J. Dodd (D-Connecticut), blasted "an unmistakable pattern" and informed the executives "you all seem to use the same terminology – to think alike – and to jam this stuff down the people's throat." Dodd accused Aubrey of putting "prurient sex" in the CBS program Route 66 to boost ratings, and confronted him with the "bosoms, broads, and fun" quotation from a memorandum by CBS executive Howard G. Barnes following a meeting with the program's producers. Aubrey denied saying the phrase. He said that people in the business often shorthanded "wholesome, pretty girls" as "broads", and "attractive" as "bosoms". Another memo summarizing the same meeting, written by Screen Gems executive William Dozier, read as follows: "There is not enough sex in the programs. Neither lead has gotten involved even for a single episode with the normal wants of a young man, namely to get involved with a girl or even to kiss her."
Aubrey was a controlling man and a workaholic, putting in twelve-hour days six days a week. He endlessly read scripts, screened episodes, and ordered reshoots or changes made in the furniture and dressing of a set. Murray Kempton wrote that he would see six movies every weekend and read three books on transcontinental flights. Kempton quoted a CBS executive saying:
He read everything. Like he saw every movie. But he had the smallest world there could be. He'd watch a movie and, while everyone else was involved in the story, he'd say out loud "that kid could be the lead in a television program." He read everything sure. All the new fiction. What he didn't like was Bellow, Updike, Cheever, Salinger, Capote, and Mailer. He didn't know how to use them.
Kempton claimed Aubrey:
[He] was the fourth president of CBS-TV as Caligula was the fourth of the twelve Caesars. Each carried the logic of his imperial authority as far as it could go. Each was deposed and disappeared suddenly leaving bad press behind him.
Oulahan and Lambert claimed "Aubrey exercised his tremendous power with the canny skill and the ruthlessness of a Tatar khan." Aubrey's treachery led the producer John Houseman in 1959 to dub him "The Smiling Cobra." Houseman in public was less direct. In December 1962, CBS announced it was spending $250,000 an episode on Houseman's hour-long drama on American history for the next season, The Great Adventure, but on July 25, 1963, CBS announced Houseman had resigned. The producer told The New York Times "The kind of show they want is not what I wanted to produce" but attributed his departure to a simple difference of opinion, the Times reporter stating Houseman "expressed no criticism of CBS." (The show ran for one season, 1963–64.)
In Only You, Dick Daring!, his humorous yet damning account of the five and a half months he spent trying to make a show with CBS for the 1963–64 season based on an idea of Aubrey's about a county agent, writer Merle Miller described how Aubrey would simply walk out of meetings without offering any substantive comments on Miller's program and the nineteen rewrites he did of the pilot episode. Miller was assured by other CBS executives that Aubrey's silence meant things were fine – Kempton quoted a CBS producer telling Miller "this has nothing to do with a good script or a bad script. It has to do with pleasing one man, Jim Aubrey. Don't ever forget it" – and Miller later learned of efforts by Aubrey to force him out. (A pilot for the show, known as Calhoun and County Agent, to star Jackie Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, was shot and put on the fall schedule, but the series was canceled before it ever aired.) Miller quoted an independent producer: "Aubrey's the most important man in television, in the history of television, maybe in the history of entertainment. He out-Mayers Louis B. Mayer ten times over."
Aubrey's success seemed to have gone to his head and he became even more arrogant. He was abusive to the network's affiliates, advertisers, producers, and talent. Friends of Aubrey's such as producers Dick Dorso of United Artists, Martin Ransohoff of Filmways, and David Susskind, who had each sold several series to CBS, suddenly found themselves shut out. "He's a friend of mine, but he cut me stone cold last year," Susskind said. "I was hanging there with my pants down, wondering what I'd tell the stockholders." Gossip columnist Liz Smith, who worked as CBS during Aubrey's time there, called him a "a mean, hateful, truly scary, bad, outré guy."
Garry Moore, a popular personality in the 1950s, wanted to make a comeback on CBS, but Aubrey casually dismissed him: "Not a chance." (Moore finally got his chance, long after Aubrey left the network, in the fall of 1966, with a short-lived revival of his weekly variety series). John Frankenheimer, critically acclaimed as the number one director of live TV dramas during the 1950s, was shown the exit door by Aubrey in 1960. Frankenheimer was forced to find a new career as a movie director (for which he is now arguably best known), although he had wanted to continue in television. In 1996, during a personal appearance at the Museum of Television & Radio, Frankenheimer described Aubrey as "a barbarian."
The star of CBS's The Lucy Show had problems with Aubrey. "Lucille Ball couldn't say his name without calling him an S.O.B.," Stanton said – though Kempton quoted her after Aubrey's firing as saying "he was the smartest one up there." Aubrey fought with Red Skelton, Danny Thomas, Judy Garland and Arthur Godfrey as well. The treatment of Jack Benny was typical.
Aubrey first rescheduled Benny's long-running series without consulting the star. Benny, a good friend of Paley's since he lured the comedian to CBS in 1948, objected to his new lead-in on Tuesdays for the 1963–64 season, Petticoat Junction, instead of the previous season's The Red Skelton Hour. Then in the summer of 1963, Aubrey told Benny his show would not be renewed at the end of the forthcoming season, Aubrey having decided that Benny was out of step with current tastes and no longer relevant. "You're through, old man." Aubrey told the star. Benny took his show to NBC, his home before 1948; Benny ended the show after only one season there, proving Aubrey's point if not his tactics.
There were charges of favoritism in purchasing programs. Aubrey's friend Keefe Brasselle, who had bit parts in several movies in the 1940s and 1950s and met Aubrey when they both worked at KNXT, had no experience as a producer. "A 1965 edition of George Raft," said David Susskind, particularly apt as there were also rumors Brasselle had ties to the Mafia. Nevertheless, Aubrey scheduled three shows from Brasselle's Richelieu Productions for the 1964–65 season, all without pilots, still an almost unheard-of practice. (The shows were The Baileys of Balboa, a sitcom with Paul Ford; the newspaper drama The Reporter; and The Cara Williams Show, a sitcom starring red-head Williams, billed as the next Lucille Ball.) Brasselle would personally supervise The Reporter, shot in New York City. Costs skyrocketed on Brasselle's shows – after nine episodes, The Reporter was $450,000 over budget – and all three bombed – The Reporter running only three months, Baileys until April 1965; and Cara Williams finishing the season. Aubrey was later asked why he aired three untested programs. "Arrogance, I guess" he responded. In his book The Other Glass Teat, media critic Harlan Ellison alleges that a Mafia don had put out a contract on Aubrey for beating his daughter during consensual sex at a Las Vegas, Nevada hotel, and that Brasselle demanded the shows in exchange for his using his own Mafia connections to smooth things over.
But, as his critics acknowledged, Aubrey could be charming and go to great lengths to please talent. To keep Jackie Gleason happy when he moved his show from New York City to Miami Beach in 1963, Aubrey had CBS buy Gleason's futuristic home in Peekskill, New York – The New York Times called it "a flying-saucer like cabana" – for $350,000. The network was still trying to sell it years later.
Aubrey, who on May 9, 1963, warned the network's affiliates the high cost of rights for professional sports could price them off television, nevertheless in January 1964 agreed to pay $28.2 million to air the games of the National Football League for two years, seventeen games each season. "We know how much these games mean to the viewing audience, our affiliated stations, and the nation's advertisers," Aubrey told The New York Times. In April, he agreed to extend the deal for another year for a total of $31.8 million.
In the spring of 1964, The New York Times Magazine declared CBS "for the 10th year in a row ... was the undisputed champion of the television networks." The Times quoted an analyst who said CBS was "almost comparable to what General Motors did in autos or what General Electric [did] in electrical equipment."
Aubrey fought constantly with officials of CBS News, especially its chief, Fred W. Friendly, who was just as demanding and controlling as Aubrey. Friendly felt Aubrey was insufficiently concerned with public affairs and in his memoir, Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control, recounts one budget meeting at CBS when Aubrey talked at length of how much money the news was costing the company, a sea of red ink that could be stopped by replacing news with more entertainment programs. However, Paley supported the news and protected Friendly's division from Aubrey's proposed budget cuts. Aubrey in 1962 ordered that there would be fewer specials, both entertainment and news, because he felt interruptions to the schedule alienated viewers by disrupting their routine viewing, sending them to the competition. Friendly resented this move.
That fall, CBS Reports, a news/documentary program at 7:30(et) on Wednesdays, was blamed in the press for the sharp drop off in the ratings of The Beverly Hillbillies – the comedy had been number one in its first two seasons, but dropped to eighteenth when CBS Reports became the Hillbillies lead-in for its third season. (Hillbillies had aired at nine o'clock before moving up a half hour in 1964.) CBS responded by moving CBS Reports to Mondays.
In the spring of 1964, charges were printed in the April 16 issue of Close-Up, a celebrity tabloid, which claimed Aubrey was taking kickbacks from producers. The Federal Communications Commission made inquiries, and CBS learned that despite his $264,000 annual salary from the company, Aubrey's apartment on Manhattan's Central Park South was owned by Martin Ransohoff, the head of Filmways, the producer of the Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Mister Ed, and other CBS programs. And though he had a chauffeur-driven car paid for by the network, Brasselle's Richelieu Productions was paying for another chauffeured car for Aubrey, done so Paley and Stanton would not know what Aubrey was doing after hours. CBS had not known of either the apartment or the car. The company was also concerned about the money spent to buy Gleason's former home.
In late 1964, Aubrey approached Stanton with a proposal. Claiming he had investors lined-up and ready to buy the company, Aubrey said once in control, they would fire Paley, install Stanton as chairman, and promote Aubrey to Stanton's post, CBS corporate president. This did not come to pass, but Aubrey's contempt for Paley knew no bounds, Aubrey even showing his disregard for Paley in public. The Internal Revenue Service filing a tax lien against Aubrey for $38,047.93 was another irritant for Paley. Aubrey also seemed to have lost his touch, the early ratings for the 1964–65 season showing the new shows that fall were flops. Aubrey panicked, noted Life, and "by that time Paley had made his decision to fire Aubrey, though he had yet found no plausible excuse."
"Aubrey was torpedoed at last," wrote The New York Times Magazine, "by a combination of his imperiousness, the ratings drop, and a vivid afterhours life culminating in a raucous Miami Beach party – details of which no one ever agrees on – the weekend he was fired." (Aubrey had been in Florida for Jackie Gleason's forty-ninth birthday party.)
"I don't pretend to be any saint. If anyone wants to indict me for liking pretty girls, I'm guilty," Aubrey said at the time, one factor in his divorce in 1962, which freed him to "live the high life around New York, Hollywood, Miami, and in Europe with such companions as Judy Garland, Julie Newmar, Rhonda Fleming – and with other dolls who were only faces and figures, not names. His late dates and early morning parties were the talk of several towns."
Paley ordered Stanton to fire Aubrey, and he did so on February 27, 1965, though the announcement was delayed until the following afternoon, a Sunday. Stanton's statement declared:
Jim Aubrey's outstanding accomplishment during his tenure as head of the C.B.S. television network need no elaboration. His extraordinary record speaks for itself.
In 1986, Paul Rosenfield of the Los Angeles Times wrote:
There are at least 13,000 theories on why he got the ax, some of them lurid, but none as obvious as the fact that CBS was starting to slip in the Nielsens. "And there was a basic dissatisfaction with me," as he put it. If Aubrey understood ratings and revenue, he also was no stranger to a kind of after-hours recklessness that mirrored the Camelot of its day. Nobody questions that Jungle Jim had a good time in the playgrounds of Manhattan and Hollywood.
Rosenfield also claimed "for years gossip columnists had to bite their tongues because the fodder on Aubrey was so tempting, but mostly unprintable. How much was hearsay and how much was fiction is not clear." Aubrey's successor was announced as John A. Schneider, the general manager of WCBS-TV in New York City, who had no experience in network television. Aubrey was so despondent at losing his job Stanton feared he would kill himself. Wall Street took the news badly as well: CBS stock plunged nine points over the following week. The stock tumble "puts my net value to the network at $20 million," Aubrey noted. Aubrey continued to be a CBS employee until April 20.
symbolized an era in television that has been and is too much rooted in calculated and insensitive preoccupation with making more money this year than last ... Automated situation comedies that wooed the young and did not drive away the old were the mainstay of his philosophy and they paid off.
Aubrey, who left CBS with $2.5 million in network stock, moved to the Sunset Strip and set up a production company, The Aubrey Company. His attorney, Gregson E. Bautzer, in 1967 tried to buy the American Broadcasting Company for another client, the Las Vegas-based millionaire Howard Hughes. Aubrey was to have run ABC after the takeover, but the reclusive Hughes refused to testify in person at hearings before the Federal Communications Commission, which had to approve the purchase, and the deal collapsed.
Aubrey's outsize reputation – beaming smile, dapper dress, endless womanizing – and his dramatic exit from CBS inspired characters in three novels. His former friend Keefe Brasselle wrote The CanniBalS: A Novel About Television's Savage Chieftains (1968), the title of which had very unsubtle capitalization and was, in Nora Ephron's assessment, "unreadable." Harold Robbins's The Inheritors (1969) and Jacqueline Susann's The Love Machine (1969) also contained characters based on him. In Susann's book, Aubrey is network executive Robin Stone. Paul Rosenfield said Aubrey had "quietly cooperated" with Susann, "giving her background on TV," although Susann's husband, Irving Mansfield, had been a busy TV producer himself, before switching to managing his wife's career full-time. Susann said Aubrey, her neighbor, was "one of those people who are born to run the works. A natural for a novel."
In June 1967, Aubrey agreed to a two-year contract to produce films for Columbia Pictures. Despite being frequently rumored as a candidate for many posts in the entertainment industry, Aubrey told Vincent Canby of The New York Times he had "no desire ever again to become involved in the corporate side of the entertainment business" and had been, in Canby's words, "dabbling in a number of enterprises, including the acquisition of films for TV, real estate, and cultured pearls." In 1965, Oulahan and Lambert had noted he had "extensive investments in everything from copper mines to a chain of waffle shops." His first project for Columbia was to be an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith book, Those Who Walk Away. "The criteria is profitable entertainment," he told Canby. Before the deal collapsed on January 1, 1968, Aubrey had been rumored to be the leading candidate to be hired as ABC television entertainment chief if International Telephone and Telegraph's takeover of ABC, which was announced in March 1966, had been completed.
Aubrey resurfaced in 1969 when Las Vegas businessman Kirk Kerkorian took control of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio for the first time, ousting Canadian liquor magnate Edgar M. Bronfman, who had gained control earlier that year. Aubrey's attorney Gregson E. Bautzer also represented Kerkorian, and Bautzer recommended Aubrey for the MGM post. Aubrey, announced as MGM president on October 21, 1969, was Kerkorian's third choice after Herb Jaffe of United Artists and independent producer Mike Frankovich both declined the post, while producer Ray Stark was also considered. Aubrey replaced the fired Louis F. Polk Jr., who had been MGM president only since January 14, 1969. Aubrey was the studio's third president that year. Polk told The New York Times, "no one likes to leave a job unfinished," and said he had started much-needed reforms at the studio, which suffered a $35 million loss in the fiscal year ending August 31, 1969.
Aubrey received a salary of $4,000 a week, but had no contract. He said in 1986, "I wanted Kirk to be able to say, 'Get lost, Jim,' without obligation if it didn't work." Like most of the big studios in the 1960s, MGM was struggling and Kerkorian said his new president would bring the company roaring back to its former glory. Instead, Aubrey largely liquidated the company as Kerkorian transformed it into a hospitality company with the MGM Grand Hotel he was building. "We've been using old-fashioned methods here," Aubrey said at the time. In 1986, he said the company was "total disarray. Until you were in a position to lift up the rug, there was no way to know how much disarray. The crown jewel of studios had become a shambles."
Aubrey eliminated hundreds of jobs when he relocated corporate headquarters from New York City to Culver City to be closer to production facilities, a move which was announced on April 29, 1970. Aubrey ordered the sale of MGM's historic collection of costumes and props such as the Ruby Slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, Vivien Leigh's dresses from Gone with the Wind and the suit Spencer Tracy wore in Inherit the Wind. (It was bought by one of the defense attorneys defending Charles Manson, who regularly wore it to court.) The studio's camera department was auctioned. Most of the studio's Culver City backlot and its 2,000 acre (8 km²) ranch in the Conejo Valley were sold to developers, moves already planned under Polk. Aubrey literally threw the company's valuable archives into the trash and brought production to a standstill. Aubrey was criticized for these actions. In 1986, he recalled, "the buck had to stop somewhere, and it was with me. Nostalgia runs strong out here, so we were criticized for selling Judy Garland's red shoes. To us they had no value, and they had no intrinsic value."
These moves were effective in restoring the company's finances. In his first nine months on the job, he cut MGM's debt by $27 million, nearly one-quarter the total, and the company posted profits of $540,000 for those nine months compared to a $18,372,000 loss in the comparable period in the preceding fiscal year.
Losses were so great because Polk wrote off as total losses many films made under his predecessors; the company posted a $35,366,000 loss in the fiscal year ending August 31, 1969. "Basically what we're really concentrating on at the moment is to really streamline this operation. There isn't much else to do when you're losing as much money as we are," Aubrey told The New York Times in December 1969. Aubrey said, "we have determined that we're not going to continue to produce on the basis of forty acres and acres and acres of standing sets. Young people who are the major movie audience today, refer to that as the plastic world and that is almost a deterrent in the business today."
Aubrey announced plans for faster and cheaper movies, none of which would have a budget above $1 million, but many of these inexpensive films bombed with critics and audiences. One notable success was the Richard Roundtree film Shaft, which cost $1 million and grossed around $12 million at the box office. Agent Sue Mengers said he was a very tough dealmaker. "I'd rather go to bed with him than negotiate with him." Upon assuming his MGM post, Aubrey almost immediately canceled production on two Julie Andrews pictures, She Loves Me and Say It With Music, the late 1960s fad for musicals having ended. He also clashed with David Lean, whose production of Ryan's Daughter was running overbudget, in early 1970, attempting to cancel or at least scale down the film; but Lean held too much sway for Aubrey's actions to have any effect.
In the first half of fiscal 1970, the company had profits of $6,531,000 despite sizable write-offs. The company had significantly cut its operating losses from $6,547,000 to $1,594,000. Aubrey told the press in April 1970 the company would have made money if not for four films: Herbert Ross's musical version of James Hilton's novel Goodbye, Mr. Chips starring Peter O'Toole and Petula Clark; Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point, a film Pauline Kael called "a huge, jerry-built crumbling ruin of a movie"; the adventure Captain Nemo and the Underwater City with Robert Ryan and Chuck Connors; and Sidney Lumet's The Appointment with Omar Sharif, Anouk Aimée, and Lotte Lenya. These four pictures cost almost $20 million to produce and had they broken even the company would have been profitable. In The New York Times, Vincent Canby noted that same month "the fickle tastes of the movie-going audience have made a large part of [studios' film] inventory obsolete."
By the end of the fiscal year, the company had made $1,573,000 in profits; a remarkable turnaround for a company which posted a $35 million loss one year before. In January 1971, Aubrey declared, "we are pleased that the company has been turned around. Through the policies of this management, including a complete reorganization, substantial economies, consolidation of operations and through better performance of recent films, we have been able to operate substantially in the black."
That same month, Aubrey announced the company was in merger talks with Twentieth Century Fox, days after Fox fired its top executives, Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown. Two weeks later he announced the talks had ended. However, Darryl F. Zanuck, chairman and CEO of Fox, publicly denied any negotiations. "There have not been and are not now and are not scheduled for the future any discussions concerning a merger or any other type of combination between our two companies," he told the press.
Aubrey again took a hands-on approach to MGM's products, personally ordering cuts on films. The New York Times Magazine wrote, "Aubrey's heavy involvement with every creative detail of MGM's pictures far surpassed his immersal in CBS's scripts." After he made edits to the film Going Home starring Robert Mitchum, its director, Herbert B. Leonard, protested publicly. "He unilaterally and arbitrarily raped the picture," he told Time in 1971. Director Blake Edwards was incensed by changes Aubrey made to his film Wild Rovers with William Holden, telling The New York Times Magazine, "Cuts? He doesn't know as much as a first-year cinema student. He cut the heart right out of it." Television producer Bruce Geller, who created Mission: Impossible, had his name removed from the credits of his first film, Corky, because "It's not my picture any more." The producer of the film Chandler, Michael S. Laughlin, and its director, Paul Magwood, took out a full page ad, bordered in black, in the trade papers declaring:
Regarding what was our film Chandler, let's give credit where credit is due. We sadly acknowledge that all editing, post-production as well as additional scenes were executed by James T. Aubrey Jr. We are sorry.
Laughlin told Time Magazine, "You just can't deal with Aubrey. He realizes that litigation can be a great expense, and that because of legal delays the film will have disappeared long before your case comes to court."
Aubrey engaged in another infamous feud with Sam Peckinpah, who in 1973 began work on the Western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Aubrey clashed with Peckinpah immediately, the two men's notoriously difficult personalities leading to a long-lasting feud. Aubrey slashed Peckinpah's budget early in production, refusing to allow him to reshoot crucial footage, pushing back the release date to Memorial Day, and editing out nearly 20 minutes of the film. Editor Roger Spottiswoode said that "Aubrey was ordering scenes cut out for no other reason except he knew Sam didn't want them cut."  Film critic John Simon wrote Aubrey "deserves to be made a honorary or, rather, dishonorable member of the film editor's union."
MGM had disagreements with the Motion Picture Association of America and its rating system for films, which had been instituted in 1968. MGM resigned from the MPAA in 1971 over the issue of ratings and "exorbitant dues charges," Aubrey said. In October 1971, MGM announced that it was to build the world's largest hotel in Las Vegas, what would become the MGM Grand Hotel, and was to enter the cruise-ship business. The next month, the company announced fiscal 1971 profits of $16,358,000, up sharply from the $1.6 million in fiscal 1970 and the highest in a quarter century.
After four years at MGM, Aubrey announced his resignation, declaring, "The job I agreed to undertake has been accomplished." Kerkorian was named as his successor on October 31, 1973. Time Magazine declared, "Under Aubrey, MGM churned out profitable, medium-budget schlock like Skyjacked and Black Belly of the Tarantula; directors often charged him with philistine meddling, and he alienated many of them" but "as a financial auteur, Aubrey may have deserved an Oscar."
Aubrey and Sherry Lansing, who entered the movie business as a script reader at MGM under Aubrey, were struck by a car while crossing Wilshire Boulevard in the mid-1970s. Both were badly hurt and Lansing had to use crutches for a year and a half. Aubrey nursed her back to health. "He came every day. He would say, 'You're not going to limp.' My own mother and father couldn't give me more support," she told Variety in 2004.
Aubrey became an independent producer after leaving MGM, producing ten films, none memorable. His greatest success was a 1979 television movie about the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders starring Jane Seymour. In the mid-1980s, he was chairman of Entermark, a production company which made low-budget films and was backed by several wealthy Texans – including former Governor John Connally. "Our theory is that with today's ancillary rights, there is real profit in a movie that costs $3 million. We don't need to gross $40 million, or open on Christmas Day," he said. To publicize this venture, he granted a rare interview to the Los Angeles Times in 1986. Reporter Paul Rosenfield found him unrepentant:
Aubrey doesn't deny that he shoots from the hip, in a style that can unhinge the fragile egos of show business. "If I was in the tire business," reasoned Aubrey, "I wouldn't be hurt if the customer didn't buy my tires. I'd think, 'So what?' But in my business, if I don't buy the script, then the writer kicks the dog and beats his wife. So you learn to pay attention to personal relationships. But that doesn't mean you lie to people. I've been the screwer and the screwee, and I know which is better. It's better to be the screwer, and it's very difficult to do that with honesty, but it's how I prefer to be treated. I don't want power now, or authority, so I suppose my candor can't hurt me.
Gossip columnist Liz Smith reported this profile of Aubrey had led to rumors he would again return to head CBS after Paley was forced out in 1986 when Laurence Tisch acquired the network. Aubrey worked as a consultant for Brandon Tartikoff during the 1980s, while Tartikoff worked to restore the reputation of NBC, but by the time of Aubrey's death he had been largely forgotten.