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H’wood’s ultimate power player

While some fret about the growing consolidation of power in the media business, a new book reminds us of Lew Wasserman’s one-time chokehold on the industry.

For those who are becoming alarmed at the consolidation of power in the entertainment industry, I have some suggested reading: There’s a new book that harkens back to that edgy era when one power broker controlled the agency business as well as the unions and also owned a major studio. And he reaped rich benefits from this chokehold.

That man was Lew Wasserman, the czar of MCA and Universal, whose career is scrutinized in Connie Bruck’s new book “When Hollywood Had a King.”

At the peak of Wasserman’s power, here’s how the system worked: If NBC wanted a star who was represented by MCA — Phil Silvers, for example — Wasserman’s agency would insist on commissioning not only Silvers but also all the various producers, directors and writers on the show, whether or not they were repped by MCA, as well as adding on below-the-line charges for facilities, whether or not MCA’s production arm (which became Universal) provided those facilities.

The web of coercive dealings, bribes and blacklisting became so blatant that an FBI investigation was launched, resulting in antitrust charges that ultimately caused Wasserman to shutter his agency and focus on production.

Revisiting the Wasserman era through Bruck’s book reminds the reader about the dangers of power, as well as its random advantages.

The Wasserman years, ending in the late ’80s, brought tranquility to the labor front, unity to the industry and stability to talent costs. Wasserman believed corporate hierarchs such as himself should run the town, rather than stars or their agents, and he achieved that objective.

Venturing forth from show business into politics, Wasserman was more feared than revered, until his later years when he was transmogrified into a gentle and generous father figure. A misbegotten deal with the Japanese ultimately brought an abrupt end to his reign.

In portraying Wasserman’s power, Bruck focuses so intensely on deals and corporate intrigues that she might as well have been chronicling a banker or automobile manufacturer. Her obvious lack of interest in showbiz results in an oddly colorless account of a man who was, in point of fact, fascinated by the glitz and glamour.

During our many conversations over the years, Wasserman often regaled me with vivid, and sometimes lurid, stories of the stars he represented.

In these accounts, his clients were habitually misbehaving children, leaving Daddy the task of extricating them from studio suspensions, bad marriages — or even from jail. Wasserman loved his deals, but he also loved his ditzy clients and their fixations.

Bruck deals with none of this, focusing instead on the superbly scripted power moves that built his empire. It was Wasserman who, as early as 1958, gambled $50 million to buy the Paramount film library, which proved invaluable to the burgeoning TV networks.

It was Wasserman, too, who brilliantly manipulated Ronald Reagan, then president of the Screen Actors Guild. Thanks to Reagan’s convenient signature on waivers and strike settlements, the book alleges, the future governor and president managed to emerge with a 25% ownership of re-use rights of the “General Electric Theater,” among other fringe benefits.

Though brilliant as an empire builder and dealmaker, there was a rigidity and imperiousness to Wasserman that kept creativity at bay. Universal’s TV output was profitable but stolid.

Universal’s film studio had a total disconnect from the brilliant young talents emerging in the ’60s and ’70s. Universal did all it could to avoid releasing George Lucas’ “American Graffiti” and then blew off both “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Wasserman wouldn’t assent to the “partnership” deal proposed by Lucas and Steven Spielberg wherein the filmmakers would take less upfront money but share in profits and approvals (Spielberg, of course, ultimately prevailed in establishing an enduring relationship with Universal).

Wasserman got lucky when Richard Zanuck and David Brown persuaded him to take a chance on “Jaws,” but Ross Hunter was more to his liking.

Always the packaging agent, Wasserman never understood why a seemingly inspired package like “A Countess From Hong Kong,” starring Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando and directed by Charlie Chaplin, was a miserable failure (the reason, of course, was that it was an anachronism in search of a movie).

Bruck reminds us how Wasserman’s longtime partner at MCA, Jules Stein, was so alarmed by these lousy movies that he tried to pull the rug out from under Wasserman, orchestrating a sale of Universal to Westinghouse that fell through at the 11th hour.

Ultimately, Wasserman himself, convinced that his company was vulnerable in a depressed economy, assented to a takeover by Matsushita, the Japanese conglomerate.

The man orchestrating this deal was Michael Ovitz, who had zealously emulated Wasserman’s empire-building tactics and whom Wasserman came to despise.

Within three months of the deal’s closing, it became clear to Wasserman that the Japanese had no idea what to do with their new acquisition –and no interest in hearing Wasserman’s proposals.

His beloved studio was to become a sort of international orphan, bouncing from the Japanese to the Canadians to the French and now into limbo.

It is one of history’s nasty little ironies that Universal, the creation of a man who venerated power, should fall into this curious power vacuum. One can’t help wondering whether Wasserman, had he not died last June, might somehow have mobilized the resources to rescue his company from its pathetic situation.

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