MCA’s No. 1 ‘tough guy’ is hardly the retiring kind

Though he turns 80 today, Lew Wasserman is not exactly the retiring type. Every morning at 8 a.m. he still materializes in his office, a tall, slender, imperious presence with a swath of silver hair.

Though he may walk a little slower and go home a little earlier, there is no doubt that Lew still stands tall as the boss of MCA, as he has for nearly 50 years. As such, his tenure far surpasses that of any other mogul–an amazing display of both continuity and durability.

As stubborn as always, Wasserman imposed constraints on today’s birthday observance. There will be a luncheon involving principal officers of the company , a few short speeches, but nothing sentimental or flashy.

Wasserman predictably rejected any suggestion of press interviews to mark the occasion; he has not sat still for a reporter’s questions for many decades.

None of his colleagues can explain this reticence. Wasserman is highly articulate–a superb recanteur who, when spinning a story about, say, some arcane negotiation with Irving Thalberg, can summon up the precise numbers and even the name of the project. He is indeed a living archive–an oral history of Hollywood who prefers to keep the history to himself.

One doesn’t argue with Lew Wasserman about issues like this. At 80, when most mortals may waver or procrastinate, Wasserman still delivers decisions with a steely finality.

Around the austere corporate corridors of the Black Tower, it is still Wasserman who wears the black hat, who enunciates the tough decisions and wields the axe. “Sid Sheinberg has acquired this reputation as the MCA tough guy, but when it’s time to get tough, it’s still up to Lew,” advises one MCA insider.

Wasserman’s iron will makes itself felt far beyond the walls of the Black Tower. He still religiously attends every key meeting of the Motion Picture Association of America, for example, and on many occasions it’s been Wasserman who has held together this often quarrelsome, mis-matched group. When talk turns to labor negotiations, political relations or similar topics, industry leaders still reflexively turn to Wasserman. There is often no formal vote, but rather a “sense of the meeting,” which, as one MPAA veteran says, “usually comes down to Lew’s view.”

“The only way to describe him is to say he’s the indispensable man,” says Jack Valenti, president of the MPAA, who was personally recruited by Wasserman when he was still in the Johnson White House.

“Lew never goes back on his word. When I told him that I would accept the job , I laid down one condition. I said, ‘Lew, when things are really on the line, you have to be there in the meeting.’ He has never broken that pledge in a quarter of a century.”

There is widespread concern about the ability of the MPAA to formulate coherent policy once Wasserman decides to take a back seat. “There was a time when the film companies were all in the same boat,” says the CEO of a rival company. “Today you have conflicting agendas even within the same company.”

If the film business worries about a potential power vacuum, so do some political figures. As with most of his activities, Wasserman’s involvement in politics expanded in a cautious, calculating way over the years.

Initially, the young Wasserman resisted pressure from the moguls of an earlier generation to support their pet conservative candidates. Jack Warner tried to bully him into becoming a Nixon supporter, for example, but Wasserman declined.

As MCA continued to grow, however, Wasserman began to realize that neutrality was futile. The Justice Department’s effort to block MCA’s acquisition of Decca Records 30 years ago dramatized the need for greater political clout.

Before long, Wasserman had become a major Kennedy supporter and fund-raiser for Democratic candidates. Only Arthur Krim of the old United Artists wielded as much muscle in American political circles.

As Wasserman’s power continued to expand into politics, civic affairs and philanthropy, he became increasingly rigid about personal style.

Though he was a classic Hollywood mogul, his manner and bearing were in sharp contrast to the moguls of old.

The Harry Cohns, Jack Warners or Louis B. Mayers were boisterous and mercurial. Wasserman, with his dark suits and black building filled with antiques, registers austerity and restraint.

The old-timers regarded Hollywood as their playground. To Wasserman, it represented an industry in need of discipline and organization. “Lew was capable of being as cantankerous as the old moguls, but his tantrums were always behind closed doors and there was always an agenda behind the rage,” observes one of the town’s best-known agents.

Just as Jules Stein had anointed Wasserman as his successor almost half a century ago, so Wasserman two decades ago named Sidney Sheinberg as his heir apparent and the chain of command has essentially remained in place.

Today, the corridors of power at MCA are lined with Sheinberg appointees. While Wasserman still holds the ultimate authority, it’s Sheinberg, a tough-minded one-time law professor, who has the mandate to plan MCA’s future in an era of fast-changing technology.

Both men are aware that MCA has its list of persistent critics. Some argue that MCA has been slow to react to the changing environment in which the networks are becoming dinosaurs and the film business is being squeezed by ever-tightening margins.

There are those who question whether, under its new corporate parent, Matsushita, MCA will retain the flexibility to adapt and innovate.

The Matsushita deal brought vast wealth to MCA principals and vast resources to the company. But some wonder what effect Matsushita’s critical problems with its own core business may ultimately have on MCA.

When Carl Laemmle strolled through the rag-tag chicken farm in 1915 and envisioned building a studio, no one could have envisioned the world-wide business that would come into being in a relatively short span of time.

And no one would have imagined that one man–Lew Wasserman–would shape so much of that era.

Some of the black-clad exex at today’s birthday luncheon will doubtless peer down the table at Lew Wasserman and wonder what this austere, inscrutable man must be thinking–whether he has come to terms with his own legend.

But naturally, none of this will be articulated, not within the corporate corridors of the MCA of Lew Wasserman. It will all be terribly proper and under-stated, the way Lew likes it.

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