Lew Wasserman, the last of Hollywood’s major builders, died at home Monday of complications from a stroke. He was 89.
Wasserman was a unique industry presence who brought about changes in virtually every aspect of show business. He transformed the agency biz, and his influence on film and TV production covered everything from backend deals to packaging to syndication.
And he built Universal from an also-ran studio into a mega-conglomerate. When he took over as chairman of MCA Inc. in 1973, it was valued at $160 million. By 1985, Forbes magazine estimated its net worth at $3.6 billion, with the multifaceted corporation encompassing film, TV and music production, theme parks and theatrical exhibition.
Wasserman also used his close relations with labor leaders and political power brokers to orchestrate labor peace that lasted for decades. And he changed the Hollywood-D.C. connection. Wasserman was a key political fund-raiser, spearheading campaign contributions for numerous candidates. He was a frequent White House guest dating back to the administration of FDR.
In 1989, the tall, angular, silver-haired exec — whose signature was his oversized spectacles — transacted the largest acquisition of an American company by an offshore corporation when he concluded the sale of MCA to Japanese electronics giant Matsushita.
The exec was buried Monday at Hillside, with only a few relatives in attendance: his wife Edie, daughter Lynne, granddaughter Carol Leif, grandson Casey and his wife Laura.
Wasserman was born in Cleveland on March 15, 1913, the son of Orthodox Jews. After a stint as a theater usher, he handled promotion for Cleveland nightclub the Mayfair Casino, which sometimes booked bands from Jules Stein’s Music Corp. of America, a Chicago-based talent agency.
Stein was impressed by the young man’s acumen and in 1936, Wasserman became an MCA agent in Chicago. A year later Stein opened a branch office in Hollywood under the direction of Taft B. Schreiber, and in 1938 he packed Wasserman off to Hollywood.
Ten years to the day after he was hired, Wasserman was named president of MCA. By that time MCA’s talent roster boasted such names as Bette Davis, Betty Grable, John Garfield and Jane Wyman.
Instead of merely booking talent that MCA represented on existing radio programs, the company created programming featuring clusters of their clients, a concept that came to be known as packaging.
In 1950, Wasserman walked into the offices of Universal Pictures and made them a tantalizing offer: “How would you like James Stewart for free?” He negotiated a deal for the actor to star in “Winchester 73,” for which Stewart waived his $250,000 salary in return for a percentage of profits.
That “free” ride cost Universal millions as the film became one of Stewart’s bigger hits. And 10% of that came back to MCA. The deal signaled a sea change in talent salaries. Another longtime resident of the MCA stable, Alfred Hitchcock, a close friend of Wasserman’s, would later come to outright own the negatives to several of his films.
In a move to further strengthen MCA and protect it against the inevitable desertion by talent, Wasserman endeavored to acquire fixed assets for the company. MCA decided to become a producer and set up Revue Prods. In 1952 Wasserman obtained a blanket waiver from the Screen Actors Guild, freeing MCA from the union’s prohibition against agents acting simultaneously as producers.
The president of SAG at the time was Ronald Reagan, perhaps not so coincidentally an MCA client, who became a household name via “GE Theater” — produced by Revue.
Wasserman also persuaded Hitchcock to bring his talents to TV through Revue. “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” ran from 1955-62.
Over the next decade, MCA became a dominant force in TV production. Between them, MCA and the William Morris Agency controlled 80% of TV talent, stirring the first of many subsequent cries of antitrust leveled against the company.
Another bold move by Wasserman that was then seen as suspect was the acquisition of Paramount’s pre-1948 library. In 1958, MCA paid $10 million for the ownership of what were then considered miles of useless old celluloid. At the time, Par crowed that the sale of those 700 cinematic relics produced a greater profit for its shareholders than several years of film production.
Within a week of the sale, commitments for broadcast rights to these old films from TV stations around the country totaled $30 million.
A year later MCA, cramped in its facilities on the old Republic Studios lot in the Valley, bought Universal Pictures’ studio operations for $11.25 million. Another $10 million was spent in capital appreciation. That same year MCA went public, making Wasserman, Schreiber and other key execs millionaires from the 53% of the company that had been distributed to them by Stein in 1954.
In 1962, MCA made its next leap forward, purchasing Universal’s parent company Decca Records, and officially became a studio. U, founded by Carl Laemmle in 1915, had never been one of Hollywood preeminent film factories, although it was the longest-lived.
Prior to its sale to MCA, U’s biggest-grossing film had been “Operation Petticoat,” with rentals of $9.3 million. That’s a far cry from the Wasserman era, during which films such as Steven Spielberg’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” earned $399 million domestically in its initial release, and “Jurassic Park” earned $357 million.
But Wasserman also suffered some stunning reversals.
After purchasing U, he tried to spin off the talent agency to its employees to avoid antitrust violations. But the Justice Dept. regarded such a move as de facto ownership and forced MCA to dissolve the agency business.
The until-then apolitical Wasserman took the lesson to heart. Ronald Brownstein, author of “The Power and the Glitter,” which traces the historical connection between Hollywood and D.C., says that after 1962 Wasserman pursued influence on the banks of the Potomac with as much fervor as he had the shores of the Pacific.
His friendships with Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter led to offers of cabinet positions, which Wasserman turned down. Although a “moderate Democrat,” he was also a pragmatist and forged a bond with former client Reagan.
Wasserman’s political baptism is believed to have occurred on the night of June 7, 1963, when he hosted a $1,000 a plate dinner for John Kennedy at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
The event not only promoted Wasserman into the forefront of Hollywood political fund-raisers — the man who became the first call for any politicians arriving in town — but made the town an important stop for Democrats, who had pretty much given up on Southern California since the passing of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Kennedy was more closely allied with the New York movie contingent led by United Artists’ Arthur Krim. But Wasserman made sure that his successor, Lyndon Johnson, had his ear. He also forged close ties to politicians on the state and national level, including Texas’ Lloyd Bentsen, Massachusetts’ Ted Kennedy (whom it is said regarded him as something of a father figure) and then-Gov. Jerry Brown.
As a result, whenever there was pending legislation that affected the industry, Wasserman was at the top of their call sheets.
His efforts are believed to have influenced the scuttling of legislation that would have given the three major networks a larger chunk of syndication fees for reruns. And he spearheaded the industry effort to get the government to agree that film and TV programming qualified for investment tax credits.
In Hollywood his presence as a mediator came into focus when he helped settle a writer’s strike against TV producers in 1960 — and again in 1981. From 1966-75 he was the chairman of the Assn. of Motion Picture & Television Producers, the industry’s official arbitration representative. But after the early 1980s, Wasserman scaled back his involvement with labor, deferring to a new generation and such industry executives as Warners’ Bob Daly.
Following Jules Stein’s official retirement in 1973, Wasserman was named chairman. And by the mid-1970s, the film side began to percolate. Though some criticized the studio for middlebrow, slick entertainment like “Airport” and “Earthquake,” the films were huge hits. And the studio scored a series of Oscar wins, for “The Sting” (1973), “The Deer Hunter” (1978) and “Out of Africa” (1985).
Spielberg shines for U
In terms of profits, a high-water mark came in 1975 when Universal produced “Jaws,” directed by Steven Spielberg, a protege of Wasserman and his heir apparent Sidney Sheinberg. “Jaws” became the biggest-grossing film ever made until that time with $130 million in rentals.
“Jaws” was soon beat out by “Star Wars.” But Universal reclaimed the title in 1982, when Spielberg topped himself — and everyone else — by directing “E.T.”
On the TV side, Wasserman fed the MCA library, which contains more than 12,000 episodes of TV series and 3,000 features. The TV trove included such popular series as “Leave It to Beaver,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Dragnet,” “The Virginian,” “Wagon Train,” “The Rockford Files,” “Kojak,” “Columbo,” “Miami Vice,” “Murder, She Wrote” and “Magnum P.I.”
In 1984 he purchased Walter Lantz Prods., whose library included 400 Woody Woodpecker cartoons.
Despite his political clout, he wasn’t always successful at fighting antitrust regulations, which scuttled a planned MCA merger with Westinghouse in 1968, cable TV partnerships with other studios and Getty Oil (to create an HBO rival) as well as a plan to buy an interest in Showtime/The Movie Channel.
For a man who had been so visionary in the TV business, it was ironic that MCA (with Disney) brought suit against Betamax to demand royalties for revenues the studios might lose to videocassette home recording. The studio lost that suit and went on to earn hundreds of millions just on the release of “E.T.” on video several years later.
On the upside, Wasserman scored several victories. Instead of building theaters, he bought into an existing chain, Cineplex Odeon. He got into the cable business by investing in the USA Network. And he bought a TV super-station, WWOR (which was spun off after the Matsushita merger).
He is also credited with saving MCA from plunder by several raiders. He personally controlled only 7.3% of the company’s stock, but as a trustee of several other blocks had influence over 15% more.
He fended off a 1983 hostile takeover plan by Golden Nugget chairman Stephen Wynn. In 1988 he thwarted a potential raid by Donald Trump.
Though MCA was never for sale, Wasserman hinted that it could be had for the right price. Merger discussions with RCA in 1985 fell apart when the conglom would not cough up Wasserman’s asking price and would not ensure that Wasserman and Sheinberg would continue to run the company.
Talks with Disney and Sony also reached dead ends.
Matsushita sale triumph
But in 1990, Wasserman scored his most lucrative coup, the sale of MCA to Matsushita. With his finger always in the political wind, he negotiated the $6.6 billion sale — roughly twice what the company had been valued at five years before.
The sale was also a personal triumph. Wasserman exchanged his 4.95 million common shares for 330 million preferred shares carrying a face value of $327 million. He would collect dividends of $28.6 million annually at a rate of 8.75%. In addition, he would remain chairman for five years at an annual salary of $3 million.
Afterward Wasserman scaled back his day-to-day activities in MCA and his other industry endeavors.
In 1936 he married the former Edith Beckerman, who shared his philanthropic passions. In 1991, they donated $5 million to their favorite cause, the Motion Picture & Television Fund, with which they have been involved since 1979, and have donated in excess of $11.6 million over the years.
“Lew Wasserman was the bigger-than-life part of my life. Along with Sid Sheinberg, I owe Lew more than I can say. For decades he was the chief justice of the film industry — fair, tough-minded, and innovative. I feel that all of us have lost our benevolent godfather.”
“Lew was the last man standing. It’s a different business now, there is no one left who is the head of an entertainment empire who knows the inner workings of a studio. He had the macrovision and the microvision. He was the best there was; there will never be another.”
“He was unquestionably one of the greatest influences in my career. It was he who first suggested I tackle independent producing. He brought David (Brown) and me over to Universal and set us up. One of his greatest traits: He always maintained his position as an executive who would back people creatively, even if he disagreed with your ideas.”
“Lew Wasserman was more than a Hollywood icon — he was, quite simply, a man of his word. For decades, all artists have known his handshake could be trusted. He will always be respected and missed. The Writers Guild mourns his passing and honors his legacy of his years in the motion picture business.”
executive director, Writers Guild of America, West
“For more than 50 years, Lew Wasserman played the key role in the collective bargaining process in the entertainment industry. He was tough but fair, and above all, if he gave you his word, he kept it. He loved this industry and all of the people who work in it and gave unstintingly of himself in known and unknown ways in support of that commitment.”
SAG national executive director-CEO
“We used to have lunch every few weeks. The last time I had lunch with him, I thought he was as sharp as ever. To me, the imagery is of a giant tree that has fallen.”
former MCA prexy
“I had known Lew my entire career, from my first column with Daily Variety and always found him totally accessible, honest, as well as trustworthy. He was not only a giant in the industry, but a leader and teacher constantly trying to educate the newer generations in the business of the responsibilities they have and should have in taking care of their own. This applied to the Jewish charities as well as the show business charities.”
“Lew Wasserman was not only an innovator in this industry but his integrity and statesmanship will be sorely missed. He is the icon that we all aspire to be.”
“As a giant of the entertainment industry and strong supporter of many causes and candidates, Lew Wasserman was a role model for commitment to his community and our nation. His life touched so many in so many ways. He will be missed.”
“He was a man of his word, and always accessible. I remember once calling him at the studio and two hours later he called me back from London. My dealings with Lew were always on the highest level. He was also a great mediator. It’s a great loss.”
founder of the Gersh Agency
(quotes compiled by Jill Feiwell and Jonathan Bing)