Clint Eastwood had a "make my day" attitude about Hollywood agents, including his own representative, Leonard Hirshan.

"If he didn't return a call, he would have been history!" the screen tough guy said this week. But then Eastwood laughed and said, sadly, "I'm just joking. Lenny always returned a call."

Hirshan was Eastwood's agent for more than 50 years, perhaps a record in Hollywood for a major star. It started when Hirshan was already an established agent with the all-powerful William Morris Agency, where over the years he represented stars such as Jack Lemmon, Angela Lansbury, Walter Matthau and Sophia Loren, and also negotiated film deals for the likes of Elvis Presley.

He had a reputation for paying near-fanatical attention to the careers of everyone on his list, including a young cowboy type making his way up in the business. "There are agents that, when they're with a big agency, are not very personable with clients," Eastwood said. "But that was never true of Lenny. He was always very personable to me."

Hirshan, 86, died Jan. 31 at home in Beverly Hills. The cause was Merkel cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer, said his daughter, Karen Hirshan.

Eastwood said they were working together until a few months ago when Hirshan was too sick to carry on. "He was not only my agent for more than 50 years," Eastwood said, "he was a personal friend. It was a big loss."

Leonard Hirshan was born Dec. 27, 1927, in New York. He spent two years in the Navy and earned an undergraduate degree from New York University. He loved theater and wanted to get involved in show business, his daughter said, but was told he should start at the bottom. "His Uncle Lou, who was a very successful lawyer, told him he should get a job at William Morris," Karen Hirshan said, "in the mail room."

In 1951, at age 23, that's the job he got at the agency's New York office. He soon began rising through the ranks. He helped negotiate the contract for actress Eva Marie Saint's first film, "On the Waterfront" (1954). "Lenny was so much fun, so playful," Saint said Thursday. "He had an apartment with a terrace, so we would all go there. There are pictures of me doing chin-ups on the rail of his awning."

Hirshan also helped negotiate a studio deal for Jack Lemmon, leading the agency to send the young agent to its Los Angeles office to work exclusively on films, according to a 2001 Variety article. "He was a workaholic," said former William Morris agent Larry Auerbach, now associate dean of student industry relations at USC. "He took good care of his clients in that he was very involved in what projects they should or should not do."

Eastwood said Hirshan became his agent about the time he was making westerns in Italy for director Sergio Leone. Hirshan, he said, was never shy about giving his opinion. "If he thought I was making a mistake, he would tell me," Eastwood said.

William Morris' preeminence in the industry came under fire in the 1980s, with clients leaving for upstarts such as Creative Artists Agency. The major blow to the agency came in 1986 when its influential film unit head, Stan Kamen, died at age 60. Hirshan took his place as the leader of the department, but clients and agents kept leaving. After a year in the post, he stepped down.

The hemorrhaging continued under others. William Morris, with many veteran agents, was seen as old hat by the rising crop of actors and filmmakers. "It was primarily a question of demographics," said former agent John Ptak, who was at William Morris from 1976 to 1991. "The younger people wanted to go to agencies where they thought there might be a younger sensibility."

Hirshan stayed on, and he was not afraid to change with the times. In an era when packaging — handling several people involved in a film — grew more important, he adapted. "Such multitasking with a number of clients on the same film can be quite difficult, especially with major stars," Ptak said. "But Lenny was one of the very few that quietly mastered it without a fuss."

In 2001, Hirshan left the agency to start his own management firm, taking his most famous client with him. "When he left, I said, 'I'll stick with you, Lenny. Don't worry about it,'" Eastwood said.

In the last few years, Eastwood was essentially his only client. Karen Hirshan said the two men were devoted to each other.

"I think it was probably the longest relationship of either of their lives," she said, "including wives, friends, everything."

Leonard Hirshan is survived by daughters Karen and Sarah, and two grandchildren. His marriages to Isobel Chanin and actress Susan Dey both ended in divorce.

david.colker@latimes.com