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Lew Wasserman at 80

The term “eminence grise” is tossed about too lightly these days, bestowed upon anyone who’s been on the scene long enough to sprout a few sprigs of grey around the temples. But the expression seems to have been coined specifically for Lew Wasserman, the tall, angular and still surprisingly nimble chairman of MCA/Matsushita, who today enters the ranks of octagenarians.

In a town where false praise and hyperbole are liberally sprinkled on a daily basis like confetti in a Fifth Avenue victory parade, even a rote assessment of Wasserman’s workaday achievements over the past 50- plus years in the entertainment industry sounds dangerously overblown.

However, it’s not puffery to label him Hollywood’s elder statesman. How many other entertainment executives–past or current–have been offered cabinet positions by not one, but two, Presidents? And who else can lay claim to having transacted the largest acquisition of an American company by an off-shore corporation?

Early photos reveal that Wasserman wasn’t always silver haired. And there was a time when he did not sport those signature oversized spectacles. But in point of fact that was before any of the current crop of youngster moguls, the Gubers, the Eisners, the Jaffes–most of whom are merely flirting with the half-century mark–were toiling in the executive corridors.

Time has slowed Wasserman’s once all-consuming involvement in the day-to- day affairs of the MCA entertainment conglomerate over which he still officiates. And it has curtailed his once equally energetic political and charitable endeavors.

But even at a somewhat slower speed, he likely outruns the currently touted indefatigables like Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Ovitz. And while his name may no longer be at the very top of the annual musical chairs power lists to which periodicals such as Premiere and Entertainment Weekly are so devoted, he has accrued so much power over the past half century, that even the afterglow packs more wattage than this year’s brightest light.

As a speakerat an executive-studded industry dinner some years ago remarked, “Never has so much power been gathered in one room since Lew Wasserman had lunch by himself in the Universal commissary.”

And if this still sounds like so much bluster, explore the track record of The Last Action Mogul, the man who is credited with bringing big business to Hollywood. With its peaks and valleys intact, Wasserman’s career bridges the old and new Hollywood, providing the all-important link between the era of Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner to that of Barry Diller and Terry Semel and Bob Daly.

Lew Wasserman was born in Cleveland on March 15, 1913, the son of Orthodox Jews. He began his ascent into the entertainment industry from the very bottom, as a theater usher. In his early 20s he was handling promotion for a Cleveland nightclub called the Mayfair Casino, which sometimes booked bands from Jules Stein’s Music Corporation of America, a Chicago-based talent agency. The former eye doctor Stein was sufficiently impressed by the young Wasserman’s acumen to professionally court him.

On Dec. 12, 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. In 1938 he packed Wasserman off to Los Angeles, where his perspicacity over the next several years led him to be named president of MCA 10 years to the day after he was hired, by which time MCA’s roster included such prominent names as Bette Davis, Betty Grable, John Garfield and Jane Wyman.

The reward was due to some of Wasserman’s better business ideas. Instead of merely booking talent that MCA represented on existing radio programs, the company created programming featuring a cluster of its clients. The concept came to be known as packaging.

In 1950, Wasserman walked into Universal and made the studio a tantalizing offer. “How would you like James Stewart for free?” he posited.

MCA negotiated a deal for its client to star in a western called “Winchester 73,” for which the actor waived his $ 250,000 salary for a percentage of the film’s profits.

The “free” ride cost Universal millions rather than $ 250,000–10% of which came back to MCA. Moreover, it signalled a burst in the dam for talent. 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.

Now any Sammy Glick can work himself up the agency ladder with a few canny moves, but what distinguished Wasserman was that he was examining the rungs. And at least one of them was faulty.

An agency, he reasoned, is in a position of weakness. Its assets can walk out the door at any given moment.

During the 1950s, Wasserman endeavored to acquire fixed assets for MCA.

The first step was to further refine the company’s position as a seller and a buyer. Every major studio in town turned up its nose at television, reasoning that if major stars appeared on TV, no one would go out to the movies. Wasserman stepped into the breach.

Like many powerful men, Wasserman has accrued more than his share of apocrypha. Sample: He reportedly owned one of the first two television sets ever sold in Southern California.

Failing to interest any of the studios in TV production, MCA decided to become a producer, setting up Revue Prods. In 1952 Wasserman obtained a blanket waiver from the Screen Actor’s Guild, freeing MCA from the union’s prohibition against agents acting simultaneously as producers.

Oft mentioned in this oft-told tale is the fact that the president of SAG at the time was Ronald Reagan, perhaps not so coincidentally an MCA client, who after a modest screen career would become a household name via the “GE Theater,” an anthology series he hosted. And which was produced by Revue.

Wasserman convinced Hitchcock to bring his talents to TV through Revue. “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” ran from 1955 to 1962 on two networks, CBS and NBC, first as a half hour and after 1959, as an hour program.

Throughout the decade MCA became a dominant force in TV production. Between them, MCA and the William Morris Agency controlled 80% of TV talent by the end of the decade, stirring the first of many subsequent cries of anti-trust leveled against MCA.

Another bold move, then seen as a little batty, 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, Paramount crowed that it produced a greater profit for its shareholders with that one sale than in several years of film production.

Among the 700 titles Paramount lost were Best Picture Oscar winners such as “The Lost Weekend” and “Going My Way,” all of Marlene Dietrich’s films for Joseph Von Sternberg, many classic Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder films, such as “Trouble in Paradise” and “Double Indemnity.”

MCA didn’t wait long for its last laugh. A week of the sale, commitments for broadcast rights to these old films from TV stations around the U.S. totalled $ 30 million.

In the mid 1980s it cost Ted Turner $ 1.5 billion to buy the MGM library. Wasserman’s investment had been churning out revenues for MCA for more than a quarter of a century by then.

A year later, MCA, cramped in its facilities on the old Republic Studios lot in the Valley, bought Universal Pictures’ studio operations in 1958 for $ 11.25 million. Another $ 10 million was spent on capital improvements.

That was the same year MCA went public, making Wasserman, Schreiber and other key exex 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 becoming a studio.

Universal, founded by Carl Laemmle in 1915 on the site of a former chicken farm, had never been one of Hollywood’s preminent film factories like MGM or Warner Bros. or 20th Century Fox, although it was the longest-lived. It is probably best remembered for its steady flow of horror films and the comedies of Abbott & Costello. Laemmle followed trends, he never made them.

Prior to its sale to MCA, Universal’s biggest grossing film had been the Blake Edwards comedy “Operation Petticoat,” which brought in rentals of $ 9.3 million.

Then came a stunning reversal for Wasserman. MCA’s purchase of a studio would entail the spinning off of the talent agency to its employees. But the Justice Department regarded such a move as de facto ownership and forced MCA to dissolve the agency business. With assets of $ 80 million and retained earnings of more than $ 33 million, MCA withstood the blow.

And Wasserman took the lesson to heart. In the long run it may have forced him to be even more financially creative than he had ever been before. One thing was certain, he would never own assets that could walk out the door again.

Ronald Brownstein, author of “The Power and the Glitter,” which traces the historical connection between Hollywood and Washington, D.C., claims that the anti-trust action was a stunning blow to Wasserman, who until that time had been head-in-the-sand apolitical. After 1962, Wasserman pursued influence on the banks of the Potomac with as much fervor as he had in California.

His friendships with both 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 after he ascended to the presidency.

In Hollywood his presence as a mediator came into focus when he helped settle a writers’ strike against TV producers in 1960–and again in 1981. From 1966 to 1975 he was the chairman of the Association of Motion Picture & Television Producers Inc., the industry’s official abritration representative.

In 1964 came the opening of the Black Tower, a dark glass fist, which ominously dominated the Universal City skyline and was seen as emblamatic of Wasserman’s management style. Executives for MCA were required to wear dark suits, preferably black, white shirts and black ties. A navy blue blazer was about as outre as was permitted.

Business inside the foreboding walls was conducted in an efficient and conservative manner. Nonetheless, Wasserman’s temper was said to reverberate throughout the tower. Since his public persona was as calm as a meadow after a snowfall and just as cool, only the victims of his wrath can certifiably attest to the severity of these hot outbursts, which were said to produce the same physical effect on grown men as Napalm.

On June 5, 1973, when Stein stepped aside and named Wasserman chairman, the company was valued at $ 160 million. By 1985, Forbes estimated the net worth of MCA Inc. at $ 3.6 billion.

The duchy was growing into an empire: 420 acres in Los Angeles; two hotels; office buildings; a 6,000-seat open-air (now enclosed) Amphitheater; half interest in the Cineplex Odeon theater chain; the Universal studio tour, which after the Disney amusement parks ranks as the country’s third largest tourist attraction; and more recently, a Florida tour on MCA’s 435 acres near Orlando (and Disney World), which after a shaky start, seems to have settled in for a run.

The studio tour, which began in 1964, was considered a risky enterprise, but one which topped the 5 million attendance mark in 1989 and is one of Southern California’s must-see attractions.

The MCA library contains more than 12,000 episodes of TV series and 3,000 feature films. In 1984 MCA purchased Walter Lantz Prods., which included 400 Woody Woodpecker cartoons.

During the 1980s MCA was one of the biggest suppliers of one-hour programming to the networks. The trove included “Leave it to Beaver,””Hitchcock,””Dragnet, “”The Virginian,””Wagon Train,””The Rockford Files,””Kojak,””Columbo,””McMillan and Wife,””The Six Million Dollar Man,””McCloud,””Simon & Simon,””Miami Vice, “”Murder She Wrote,” and “Magnum PI.”

Longform television movies, in which the studio was at the forefront, allowed Universal to spread its overhead over a full year and keep a slate of writers, directors and producers under contract. Of the 116 “World Premiere” one-shots 31 became series, including “Rockford” and “Columbo.”

And by the mid-’70s, the film side began to percolate. Although criticized for making middle-brow, middle-class slick entertainments like “Airport” and “Earthquake,” the studio’s menu was more varied than is apparent at first glance. Universal won a Best Picture Oscar in 1973 for George Roy Hill’s jazzy “The Sting,” a feat which it had not accomplished since 1948 when it distributed the Arthur Rank production of “Hamlet.” Universal was low on the rung of major studios for Best Picture Oscars, having only actually produced one, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” in 1929-30.

Another Best Picture went to the more controversial “The Deer Hunter” later in the decade and a third, for “Out of Africa,” in 1985.

Also in 1973, “American Graffiti” became the studio’s first youth-oriented blockbuster (“National Lampoon’s Animal House” followed a few years later). The profit high-water mark came in 1975, when Universal produced “Jaws,” directed by Steven Spielberg, a protege of Wasserman and heir apparent Sidney Sheinberg. “Jaws” became the largest 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. The Extra Terrestrial,” bringing in U.S. rentals of $ 228.6 million, a record as yet unbroken.

And in recent years, MCA’s purportedly conservative slant has been upended by such risky productions as Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ”–which brought vociferous protests right to Wasserman’s Foothill Drive door, and Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.”

Wasserman’s strong suit was that, while he continued to diversify MCA, it was always within the parameters of the core entertainment business. But MCA has also had its share of business setbacks, either due to anti-trust regulations or temporarily clouded vision.

Anti-trust cries scuttled a planned MCA merger with Westinghouse in 1968 and cable ventures 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 is ironic that MCA (with Disney) had 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. (Disney’s bottom line was heftily fattened by the video sales of many of its hit movies, and even moreso its animated titles like “Fantasia” and “Beauty and the Beast”).

One misstep that may someday seem prescient–if not for MCA–was the simultaneous theatrical and pay-per-view release of “The Pirates of Penzance.” It was perhaps the wrong project at the wrong time. But recently, other studios have been looking closely at the possibility of repeating that experiment.

Plans to separate MCA’s real-estate holdings and entertainment operations were abandoned. “Alogistical nightmare,” is how one executive characterized the aborted scheme. A personal regret of Wasserman’s is that he missed out on the opportunity to buy Sea World.

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 after the Matsushita merger was spun off).

He is also credited with saving the fatted calf from plunder by several raiders. He personally controlled only 7.3% of MCA’s stock but as a trustee of several other blocks had influence over another 15%. It was a soft-gloved control, say insiders, but inside the soft glove was an iron fist.

In 1983 he fended off Stephen Wynn, chairman of Golden Nugget’s 1983 hostile takeover plans. In 1988 he beat back an potential raid by Donald Trump.

Though MCA was officially never for sale, Wasserman hinted that it could be had for the right price. But in 1985, discussions with RCA to merge with MCA fell away when the conglomerate would not cough up Wasserman’s asking price and would not ensure Wasserman and Sheinberg’s continued control over the company. Discussions with Disney and Sony Corp. also reached dead-ends.

But in 1990, Wasserman scored his biggest and most lucrative coup, the sale of MCA Inc. to the Japanese electronics giant Matsushita.

A number of factors may have contributed–if not in equal measure–to the final decision to sell. A colon operation in 1987 led to respiratory difficulties. And while Wasserman quickly sprang back, it was a reminder of mortality.

But more significantly, Wasserman realized that the high-ticket price for entertainment companies like Disney, Columbia/TriStar and Warner Communications would not continue forever. Nor would the lax Justice Department policies towards mergers, especially with off-shore partners.

With his finger always in the political wind, he negotiated the $ 6.6 billion sale to Matsushita–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 shares of common stock 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 as chairman for five years at $ 3 million a year.

Not a month goes by without rumors of Wasserman’s retirement, so frequent they sound like an empty threat. He has been scaling back his day-to-day activities in MCA and the industry in general for the past decade. But Wasserman appears to be a lifer, in his career as well as his personal endeavors.

On July 5, 1936, he married the former Edith T. Beckerman, a union that is in its 57th year and produced a daughter, Lynne.

In addition to being lifelong friends and companions, Lew and Edie also share 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. To put it mildly, not a life without incident.

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