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.