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Sidney Sheinberg, MCA/Universal Exec Who Nurtured Steven Spielberg, Dies at 84

Sidney Sheinberg, who served for more than 20 years as president and COO of MCA, Inc and Universal Studios and helped build the former agency into a potent entertainment corporation, died Thursday at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 84.

Sheinberg’s son, Jonathan, confirmed the news in an email.

“He was an amazing man,” he wrote. Jonathan also remembered his father’s impact on the industry and the people whose lives Sheinberg touched through philanthropy.

“My heart is broken at this news,” said Steven Spielberg in a statement. “For now let me just say that Sid had a big personality and a tender heart. He was the tallest most stand up guy I ever knew. He gave birth to my career and made Universal my home. He gave me ‘Jaws,’ I gave him ‘ET’ and he gave me ‘Schindler’s List.’ We were a team for 25 years and he was my dear friend for 50. I have no concept about how to accept that Sid is gone. For the rest of my life I will owe him more than I can express.”

“We are all saddened by the passing of Sid Sheinberg and our thoughts are with his family and friends,” Ron Meyer, Vice Chairman of NBCUniversal, said in a statement. “He will be forever a part of Universal Studios’ legacy and his contributions to the industry will never be forgotten.”

Sporting a well-earned bad-cop reputation that allowed his equally contentious boss, Lew Wasserman, to assume the role of gentleman executive, the plainspoken Sheinberg helped lead MCA Inc. and Universal through a phase of prosperity, expanding the company’s entertainment, theme park and publishing divisions and ultimately helping to mastermind its sale to Japanese conglom Matsushita for more than $6 billion in 1989.

“Sid was a giant, in stature, business and heart,” said Casey Wasserman, Lew Wasserman’s grandson. “He was a true partner to my grandfather and the industry, and will be sorely missed by all. Our thoughts and prayers are with Lorraine, Jon and Bill.”

In 1995, MCA was sold again to Seagram, which led to the departure of both Wasserman and Sheinberg. Sheinberg then segued into a brief deal at the company for his production banner the Bubble Factory, with only modest results, and after his departure in 1997, he was openly critical of the Seagram regime. Even after the separation with MCA, he continued to produce films on occasion.

Among his most notable achievements when he headed MCA’s television division was nurturing the young Steven Spielberg, giving him his first directing job and then later shepherding him into the feature-film arena with “The Sugarland Express” and the megahit “Jaws.”

In “City of Dreams: The Making and Remaking of Universal Pictures,” Bernard F. Dick opined that “Sheinberg saw in Spielberg what he himself could never reveal publicly (and certainly not on the fifteenth floor of the Black Tower): a compassion for the stigmatized and misunderstood.”

Sid Sheinberg, Lorraine Gary, Steven Spielberg'F.I.S.T.' film premiere, Los Angeles, America - 13 April 1978 April 13, 1978: Los Angeles, CA Sid Sheinberg, Lorraine Gary, Steven Spielberg 'F.I.S.T.' Premiere Photo®Berliner Studio/BEImages
CREDIT: Bei/REX/Shutterstock

Sheinberg also lured film star Rock Hudson into his first television series, “McMillan and Wife.”

The Wasserman-Sheinberg duo led MCA away from its roots as a talent agency and transformed it into an international entertainment empire that included the development of a prime 420-acre spread in the San Fernando Valley (named Universal City) and more than 400 acres in Orlando, Fla., building the highly successful studio-tour theme parks.

Sheinberg also helped supervise the television and film division, turning erstwhile B-movie programmer Universal into a movie powerhouse and profitable producer of TV drama series like “The Rockford Files,” “Kojak” and “Columbo.”

Universal won an Oscar for “The Sting” in 1973, for “Out of Africa” in 1985 and for “Schindler’s List” in 1993, though none of those films matched the box office power of the studio’s biggest hit, “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” one of the top-grossing movies of all time. Other major hits included the “Back to the Future” series, “American Graffiti” and “Jurassic Park.”

Rising through the ranks of Universal Television (as it became known after 1962, when the company was forced to divest itself of its agency operations), Sheinberg became the division’s president in 1971. During the ’60s, with his colleagues Frank Price and Jennings Lang, Sheinberg led Universal in pioneering made-for-TV movies and a series concept of alternating shows, “The NBC Sunday Night Mystery Movie,” featuring “Columbo,” “McMillan and Wife” and “McCloud” at first.

Sheinberg briefly served as exec VP of MCA, and upon the retirement of company founder Jules Stein and the ascendancy of Wasserman, he was named president of MCA in 1973.

Though he led the losing fight, taken all the way to the Supreme Court, against Sony’s importation of VCRs into the American market, Sheinberg was in many ways forward thinking. And the Wasserman-Sheinberg team vastly increased MCA’s revenues and market value. By 1987 MCA was generating $2.7 billion annually, three times the company’s revenue from a decade before, due to expansion into broadcasting (thanks to such hits as “Miami Vice” and “Murder, She Wrote”), theme parks (studio tours in Los Angeles and Florida), exhibition (the Canadian Cineplex/Odeon chain, in which MCA had a sizable holding), merchandising and book publishing (Putnam, Grosset & Dunlap, Berkley Publishing). During the ’80s Universal was one of the leading suppliers of network TV programming, pumping up its television library to 12,000 titles, added to its 3,000-title film library that included Paramount’s pre-1948 titles.

By that time Sheinberg was one of the highest-paid executives in the country. And he had claim on 5.2 million shares of the parent company. Despite his tough-as-nails reputation, Sheinberg was notable for allowing his division chiefs free rein in running their operations.

A low point of his time at Universal was the studio’s litigation against Nintendo claiming that the videogame “Donkey Kong” was a ripoff of the studio’s “King Kong” property. Several courts sided with Nintendo and ruled that Universal had acted in bad faith.

After a failed 1985 attempt at a merger with RCA that Sheinberg opposed because of the bureaucratic problems of incorporating the NBC network into the operation (which, ironically, would later happen anyway), he and Wasserman engineered a $6.13 billion sale to Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. in 1989 and remained in their positions and as part of an MCA executive committee. Sheinberg signed a five-year contract at $8.6 million annually and $21 million in incentive pay.

But the marriage between the Japanese electronics giant and MCA proved shaky and, in 1995, Matsushita sold 80% of its holdings in the company to Seagram, and soon thereafter Wasserman and Sheinberg stepped down.

Sheinberg formed the Bubble Factory, an independent production unit based at Universal with his sons William and Jonathan, which produced such movies as “Flipper” (based on the Universal TV series), “McHale’s Navy” (another TV adaptation), “That Old Feeling,” “The Pest” and Tim Allen-Kirstie Alley comedy “For Richer or Poorer.”

The deal was terminated in 1997, and Sheinberg proved frank as always in his assessment of Seagram’s management of the company he and Wasserman had built.

The Sheinbergs continued to produce films at the Bubble Factory, including “Slappy and the Stinkers,” “Playing Mona Lisa,” “Bad Girls From Valley High,” “Made in Brooklyn” and 2011 horror film “Creature,” which the Sheinbergs decided to release themselves.

In 1989 the Directors Guild of America named Sheinberg a Lifetime Honorary Member for his decades of service on the DGA-AMPTP Creative Rights Committee.

In addition to his executive duties, Sheinberg was a tireless fund-raiser in both the political and charity arena. In 1991 he created Hollywood Supports with another top executive, Barry Diller, which promoted education about HIV and sexual orientation. MCA was the first studio to grant domestic partnership rights to gay couples. He also co-founded the Children’s Action Network and was on the board of trustees of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the National Board of Human Rights Watch.

At a February 2008 ceremony attended by Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg, Sheinberg Place, a street on the Universal Studios lot, was dedicated in honor of the former studio chief.

Born in Corpus Christi, Texas, he became a professional disc jockey and English/Spanish newscaster at a local radio station as a teenager, his first taste of show business. After snagging degrees from Columbia U. and Columbia Law School, Sheinberg moved to Southern California, taught law for a year at UCLA and then accepted a position in business affairs at Revue, MCA’s television production unit, in 1959.

Sheinberg is survived by his wife, the former actress Lorraine Gary, whom he married in 1957; two sons, Jonathan and William; and a number of grandchildren.

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