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David Horowitz, 86; helped make Bill Clinton a media darling

NEW YORK — David Horowitz, a Hollywood publicist who in just one week helped reverse Bill Clinton’s national image from a bloviating convention speaker to a groovy, self-deprecating saxophonist, died July 17 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 86.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Lynn.

Mr. Horowitz, a former film studio executive who also masterminded winning Oscar campaigns for, among other blockbusters, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” played a role in brokering Clinton’s appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” after Clinton bombed in what was supposed to be his 15 minutes of fame at the 1988 Democratic National Convention.

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Clinton spoke for more than twice that long, delivering a 33-minute nominating speech for Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. The speech was intended to introduce Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas, to the US television public, but it lost the attention of the delegates long before he uttered the two words that generated the greatest applause: “In conclusion.”

In an interview for an episode of the PBS program “American Experience,” Clinton’s friend Harry Thomason, a television producer and director, recalled how he and his wife and producing partner, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, responded to the speech that night.

“We were very upset, you know, that it didn’t go well,” he said. “And we knew the press was going to make mincemeat out of him and people would be making fun of him. So we stew about it all night; this is a Thursday, you know. Sometime in the wee hours Linda wakes me up after a troubled sleep, and she said, ‘Look, he’s got to go on the Carson show to make this right.’ ”

They called Mr. Horowitz the next morning. Mr. Horowitz contacted Carson’s producer, Fred de Cordova, “and he says Carson has never had a politician on his show in his entire career and he’s not going to now,” Thomason said.

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“And I said, ‘OK,’ ” he continued, “and so sometime after lunch I thought of another idea and I just called Freddie de Cordova back direct and I said, ‘OK, you’ve never had a politician on, but what if he comes on and plays the saxophone?’ ”

Carson had joked after the speech that “the surgeon general has just approved Bill Clinton as an over-the-counter sleep aid.” He placed a hourglass on his desk when Clinton sat down for the interview.

But the next day, after Clinton played his saxophone on the air, the Associated Press declared: “Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton has gone from the media doghouse to media darling in one short week. And all it took was a smile, a few self-deprecating jokes and a song.”

Four years later, Clinton was pursuing the Democratic presidential nomination, and Mr. Horowitz arranged for him and Hillary Rodham Clinton to appear on “The Arsenio Hall Show” the day after the California primary, as his media adviser, Mandy Grunwald, had been recommending for months.

While Clinton had clinched the Democratic nomination, his appearance (he donned dark glasses and played “Heartbreak Hotel”) helped humanize him for a challenging fall campaign in which he started in third place against George H.W. Bush and H. Ross Perot. (“It’s nice to see a Democrat blow something besides the election,” Hall said.)

“Bill Clinton may have discovered the formula to revive his stalled campaign: Exploit his sax appeal,” Walter Shapiro wrote in Time magazine later that month.

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David Herbert Horowitz was born in Brooklyn on July 21, 1929, to Irving Horowitz and the former Lenore Demain. Irving Horowitz owned drugstores and ran a food-processing company.

David Horowitz leaves his wife, the former Lynn Rockman.

After moving to California as a boy, Mr. Horowitz graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, where, after a summer job with an advertising agency, he changed his plan, which had been to study medicine.

He became an executive at Warner Bros. and TriStar and advocated with his clients on behalf of social causes, including civil and American Indian rights.

His wide-ranging roster of clients included Barbra Streisand, Harry Belafonte, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Redford, Billy Wilder, and the Muppets.

He once recalled that he became a publicist when he applied for a job with the director Robert Aldrich, who asked about his experience.

“Well, I do know advertising, but, actually, nothing about publicity,” he remembered saying. Aldrich, he said, replied: “You’re hired. You’re the first honest publicist I’ve ever met.”

Correction: Because of incorrect information provided to the Globe, this obituary included an incorrect photo.