Right-Hand Man

He's the quiet, steady presence in the boardroom, The Donald's right-hand man. George Ross, 76, flanks Donald Trump each week on NBC's Thursday-night hit The Apprentice, offering counsel to the mogul-turned-TV-star he has known for 30 years. It is a relationship that began when Trump needed legal advice for a renovation project that eventually turned into New York's Grand Hyatt Hotel. Ross, then head of a high-powered real estate law firm, always made himself available, through Trump's go-go '80s and near-bankrupt early '90s. In 1996, after Ross left active practice to concentrate on legal consulting, Trump pulled him into the Trump organization as executive vice president and senior counsel—and now, reluctant TV star. But the giddiness over The Apprentice's phenomenal first season is over, the taping for the second season is through, and Ross, like any good businessman, is demanding to be paid.
B&C's Deborah Starr Seibel talked to Ross about how television has changed his life.

What was your first impression of Donald Trump?

I met him when he was 28. He was very aggressive, and he had grand ideas, which I didn't think were necessarily going to work. But he was a bulldog even then. What he had in mind was revamping an old, rundown hotel, The Commodore, and turning it into a first-class establishment. At the time, the city was facing bankruptcy, and the idea seemed to be way out. But he did it and turned me into a firm believer.

What is the difference between advising Trump in private and on-camera?

No difference. I tell him like I think it is. I tell him what I think. It's got nothing to do with television.

Trump says he was paid $50,000 per episode for the first Apprentice
and will receive a reported $3.2 million in salary for the next two. Were you paid for being on the first Apprentice?

No, nor the second.

Will that change for Apprentice III?

Yes. There's some compensation that should come. I think that it's only appropriate with the show being so successful, and him using up so much of my time, that some compensation ought to be granted. Put it this way: At my stage of life, I've already been a successful lawyer. I've already built the life I wanted. I'm not a poor person. So money is not the issue. But it's the principle of the thing. I never ask for something for nothing, and I never expect to give something for nothing. In other words, if somebody wants something from me, I expect to be compensated. There has to be quid pro quo. I talked to him about it, and he said, "You know, you're right."

How will you determine how much is enough?

They'll do what's right. I'm not worried about it. We'll work it out.

How would you characterize the nine weeks of production for Apprentice II?

A very enlightening and entertaining experience.

It wasn't an intrusion in your life?

It was nine weeks of hell. Evenings, weekends, you give up your life for nine weeks. You have to work around the schedule of the production company. You might have to go out of town for the show, but when you come back, you still have to do your own work. You don't have an opportunity to do what you want to do when you want to do it. It certainly is an inconvenience, because I like to live an orderly life.

How would you compare the time you put in on Apprentice I versus Apprentice II?

Apprentice II took much more time. On the first one, you could film anywhere in the city of New York, and nobody paid attention to the cameras. But on II, everybody recognized us; you draw a crowd. So that made it much more difficult. Also, on Apprentice I, there were no major companies that wanted to be on the show or have a task built around them, because they felt maybe the show would bomb. But Apprentice I was so successful that a lot of major companies signed up to be part of the tasks [on Apprentice II] because they saw the opportunity for a great amount of exposure to an audience of 25 million to 30 million people. You could have your product in front of them for the better part of an hour, and it's not a commercial so they can't turn it off.

How do you think the winner of the first Apprentice, Bill Rancic, is doing on the job, now that the cameras aren't rolling?

Bill is a great talent, and he's going to go very far. Hopefully, he'll go very far in the Trump organization—unless he decides he wants to do something else. Television or stardom may do that.

You held down three jobs to put yourself through law school. Do you think the new group on The Apprentice
has that kind of work ethic?

There's no question that they're serious. I think they're much more intense. And having the advantage of seeing the first series, they know a little bit more of what to expect and how the game is played.

Would you encourage any of your three grandchildren to apply to a reality show?

The question is, do you want to be part of a major competition? If you do, then the answer is yes. If you don't want to be competitive, the answer is no. It's really a life-changing experience. First of all, you're in front of 25 million to 30 million people. So if you goof, it's your own fault. Secondly, you're actually being edited as part of a television show, rather than what really may have taken place at the time. There's so much film, and it may not come out the way you said it or meant it. So you may not like it. A lot of times, I don't like it. Some of my best remarks are on the cutting-room floor.

What has been the biggest surprise for you after being on television?

I am certainly not affected by this recent fame. But what I find interesting and somehow peculiar is that you can practice law for 50 years, be a very successful lawyer, be the head of a prime real estate law firm that has 120 lawyers, handle most of the major buildings in New York—the Empire State, the Chrysler Building, the St. Regis Hotel—nobody knows your name except the lawyers. You get on television, and all of a sudden everyone knows your name. There's something wrong with that.