Guest columnist: Jack Valenti
LEW WASSERMAN IS DEAD. When he breathed his last, he entered into that place where legends live on. He is non-xeroxable. His like will never be seen again in our industry.He had a visionary coefficient beyond the grasp of ordinary men. Or in the words of Winston Churchill, he had “the seeing eye, the ability to see beneath the surface of things, to know what is on the other side of the brick wall, to follow the hunt three fields before the throng.” Which is why throughout his movie life, he persistently reached to the highest point to which the leadership spirit can soar. I must confess I am a full-time biased observer of Lew Wasserman. He brought me into the movie industry. I say, without hesitation, that all that I am in the movie world is solely because of Lew. I owe him. For more than sixty years, he truly reigned over our industry. When Lew ran MCA, there were other talent agencies, but they were as subsidiary streams are to the Mississippi. In 1962, when he turned over MCA to his colleagues to become commander of Universal Pictures, later MCA/Universal, he immediately became first among equals in that rarefied village where the studio moguls dwelled, ruled — and quarreled. I met Lew and Edie Wasserman some 39 years ago. I was a newly minted special assistant to the president of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson. (As a footnote to history, LBJ was thoroughly enchanted with Lew. He offered him a cabinet post, which Lew turned down because, as he told the president, he couldn’t leave MCA so soon in his tenure). WHEN I FIRST MET Lew, I was only weeks beyond the memory of that grotesque nightmare when I bore personal witness to the murder of a gallant young president, slain in the streets of Dallas. Lew was then, as he was always, tall, quiet, impassive, and impressively proud. When he spoke, his voice was soft, ordered, disciplined. But I did bear witness later to bursts of inner furies that sprung from him, either passionately in defense of views sternly held or visions clearly seen; but other times as a weapon to penetrate the yielding barricades of those who crossed him. He never lied. His word once given was incapable of decay. He never deserted a friend. He redeemed his pledges. He kept his promises. My first command decision after assuming my MPAA office was to say to Lew, “I need you, now, to help me. I want you to be the steward of all labor negotiations in Hollywood. I know we have a professional negotiator, but I want you in the room. I need your instinct, your judgment.” He hesitated, then he said, “Alright, I will do it.” AND HE DID for the next 30 years. He’s the only studio chieftain whom the Hollywood labor community honored with a special dinner, and then established the Lew Wasserman Award, presented by the entire union movement. At board meetings of the MPAA, he spoke seldom, usually the last to offer his opinion, which meant that was usually the viewpoint accepted. The most dominant, compelling execs in Hollywood were invariably reverential in the presence of Lew. But his influence vaulted beyond the boundaries of the movie industry. He was evangelical in his personal involvement in Washington officialdom, believing quite correctly that if you are to make a difference, you have to participate. You have to show up. He was a Democrat, but he never got truly partisan. He just had some fixed beliefs about party loyalty. Nonetheless, he was a lifelong friend of Ronald Reagan. No party barriers between those two, only genuine affection born of long years together. Lew had guided Reagan’s early film career and made sure when his movie roles began to diminish to craft a new career for him on General Electric’s TV show. It was from that platform that Reagan leaped onto the national political scene. WHEN THE GREAT and the near-great of America’s politicians, including presidents, came to Los Angeles, one stop was mandatory — the Foothill Drive residence of Lew and Edie Wasserman in Beverly Hills. Hollywood and this nation will find a huge chasm where once he stood, where once he presided over a community to which he was quietly and enduringly devoted, a place where he and Edie lavished millions of dollars on the education of the young and needy, and more millions on the Motion Picture Home and Hospital, where people came in the closing days of their lives, those in our industry who were sick and worn — but never forgotten by Edie and Lew. An era has ended.