×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Lew Wasserman: Still Remembered as Hollywood’s Ultimate Mover and Shaker

March 22 would have been the 103rd birthday of Lew Wasserman, whom Variety described as “Hollywood’s ultimate mover and shaker.”

Most people in the public didn’t know his name; if they did, it might be as the studio executive who championed Steven Spielberg, and the man who thwarted Donald Trump’s attempted 1988 takeover of MCA Universal. But Wasserman was so important and influential in the worlds of entertainment and politics that if someone simply mentioned the name “Lew,” with no last name, everybody involved in show business knew whom was meant.

Wasserman was born on March 22, 1913, and became an agent for MCA in Chicago in 1936, under Jules Stein. He moved to Los Angeles and helped build the agency into a powerhouse. Variety‘s front-page banner on July 24, 1962, read “MCA dissolves entire agency.” The story began, “MCA Inc.’s talent agency, which only a week ago was the most powerful in the industry, is no more. … The obituary for MCA Artists Ltd., the talent arm, was written in U.S. Federal Court yesterday when MCA and the U.S. government, in a stipulation agreement, spelled out terms for dissolution of the agency.”

If that sounds like a sad story, it was just the opposite. MCA had bought Universal Pictures’ studio operations for $11.25 million. MCA went public, and Wasserman became a millionaire. Then MCA purchased Universal’s parent company, Decca Records, and officially became a studio. But the government decreed that an agency couldn’t own a studio so the MCA team, faced with the Sophie’s choice between the two businesses, cut the cord on the agency side. And the studio became a giant.

On June 4, 2002, the day after Wasserman died, Variety‘s front-page obit said he “brought about changes in virtually every aspect of show business.” That wasn’t an exaggeration. Here are some of the changes he made:

Backend deals. In 1950, as James Stewart’s agent, Wasserman pioneered the idea of stars sharing in a film’s profits, in lieu of a big salary. Stewart waived his usual $250,000 fee to star in “Winchester 73” and made millions. Another MCA client, Alfred Hitchcock, ended up owning the negatives of several films, including “Vertigo.”

Production: As TV boomed in the 1950s, MCA set up Revue Prods. The Screen Actors Guild had a ban against agencies becoming producers, but Wasserman negotiated a waiver with SAG — whose president was Ronald Reagan, also an MCA client.

TV syndication: In 1958, MCA paid $10 million for Paramount’s library of pre-1948 films. Some people thought those 700 movies were useless relics; TV was still relatively new, and nobody was sure what viewers wanted. But within a week, MCA had made $30 million in deals for TV airing of these oldies, and the library continued to mint money for MCA for decades.

Labor peace. He helped settle a writers strike against TV producers in 1960 and again in 1981. And his influence meant that many contract disputes were settled long before they got to that point.

Hollywood and politics. When the Justice Dept. forced MCA to dissolve the agency business, Wasserman woke up to the importance of political connections. On June 7, 1963, he hosted a $1,000-a-plate dinner for John Kennedy at the Beverly Hilton. Under Truman and Eisenhower, D.C. gave little thought to Hollywood. But Wasserman and his wife Edie quickly became the go-to contacts when a politician was looking for Hollywood money. And the Hollywood-D.C. connection has remained in place. Dennis McDougal wrote in his 1998 book “The Last Mogul” that Lew “never ignored (Edie’s) advice. Lew’s clients as well as his employees began privately referring to Edie as ‘the general.’ ”

Wasserman became chairman in 1973, when Stein official retired from MCA. At that point, it was valued at $160 million. By 1985, Forbes estimated its net worth at $3.6 billion.

Two years after Wasserman took over, the studio’s “Jaws,” directed by Spielberg (a protégé of Wasserman and Universal exec Sidney Sheinberg), became the highest grossing film ever. In 1977, Fox’s “Star Wars” then took that honor, but it returned to Universal again in 1982 when “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” shattered every record.

Wasserman also pioneered another game-changer in the industry. In 1989 he helped engineer the largest acquisition of an American company by an international corporation when MCA was sold to Japanese electronics giant Matsushita for $6.6 billion.

Wasserman died at age 89. In a column, Peter Bart said he had a remarkable ability to recall specific moments of his past, “complete with deal points and random data.” So with all of the amazing events in his life, why didn’t Wasserman write an autobiography? Bart discussed Wasserman’s relationship with Sidney Korshak, who “had a thriving law practice in Hollywood but everyone knew about his Chicago origins.” So maybe Wasserman didn’t want to talk about certain things.

Or maybe he was too busy. Aside from all his entertainment and political dealings, he and wife Edie were tireless fundraisers, contributing to various philanthropies including $11.6 million to the Motion Picture & Television Fund. So even though there is no autobiography, Wasserman’s legacy remains strong to this day, in multiple areas.

For more Hollywood history, visit VarietyUltimate for every issue of Variety from 1906 to the present.

More Biz

  • R Kelly protest

    Protesters Rally Outside Sony Music Headquarters, Demand the Company Drop R. Kelly

    Standing in the cold with megaphones outside of Sony Music’s New York headquarters, a group of activists delivered the company, parent of Kelly’s longtime label RCA, a petition signed by over 217,000 people demanding that the singer be dropped from the label. The rally comes less than a week after a plane carrying a banner [...]

  • Robert Smith, Longtime Executive at DuArt

    Robert Smith, Longtime Executive at New York's DuArt Film Labs, Dies at 88

    Robert Smith, a longtime executive with New York’s DuArt Film Labs, died Jan. 11 in Montvale, N.J. He was 88. Smith spent some 62 years with DuArt, the film processing and post-production facility founded in 1922 in the penthouse of an automobile garage in Midtown. Smith rose to president of DuArt before retiring in 2015. [...]

  • Fake Washington Post

    Fake Editions of Washington Post Distributed in D.C.

    The Washington Post was forced to issue a statement on Wednesday morning after commuters were handed fake print copies of the newspaper with a headline claiming President Donald Trump had fled the White House. “There are fake print editions of The Washington Post being distributed around downtown DC, and we are aware of a website [...]

  • Stock market Stock buyback

    Stock Buybacks Leave Firms Without Funds to Invest in Future (Column)

    Corporate giants on the S&P 500 have spent more than $720 billion during the past year on stock buybacks. Media and entertainment firms account for only a fraction of that spending, but even $1 million spent on share repurchases seems a foolhardy expenditure at this transformational moment for the industry. The record level of spending [...]

  • Sinclair Enters Streaming Arena With Local

    Sinclair Enters Streaming Arena With Entertainment Bundle and Local Channels

    Sinclair Broadcast Group is diving into the increasingly crowded streaming platform arena with the launch today of Stirr, a free OTT entertainment bundle offering local news and general entertainment, sports and lifestyle channels. Sinclair aims to leverage the near-national reach of its sprawling station group with its strong local presence in markets across the country [...]

  • Tokyo Film Festival and Market Choose

    Tokyo Film Festival and Market Set Separate Dates in 2019

    The Tokyo International Film Festival and its accompanying rights market, TIFFCOM, will be held on separate dates this year. Some film executives may have to choose to attend one or the other. The film festival Wednesday announced that it will be held from Monday, Oct 28 to Tues, Nov. 5. Previously, the TIFFCOM market said [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content