Lew R. Wasserman, a onetime theater usher and talent agent who emerged as the most powerful mogul in post-World War II Hollywood, died Monday morning at his Beverly Hills home from complications of a stroke. He was 89.
Wasserman’s health had deteriorated since May 17, when he suffered the stroke. In keeping with his intensely private life, Wasserman’s family held services late Monday.
Effectively detached from the business for the last seven years, Wasserman was still Hollywood’s patriarch, his advice sought by executives, union leaders and politicians. His death marks the symbolic passing of an era in Hollywood that is unlikely to be repeated. Both feared and respected, Wasserman single-handedly wielded the kind of behind-the-scenes clout that could settle labor disputes, bring together studios with conflicting agendas and influence power brokers in Washington, D.C.
“For decades he was the chief justice of the film industry--fair, tough-minded, and innovative. I feel that all of us have lost our benevolent godfather,” director Steven Spielberg said.
As head of the former MCA Inc., Wasserman built the prototype of today’s entertainment conglomerates, meshing entertainment units together while leveraging successes in one area, such as movies, into profitable ventures in other businesses, such as theme parks and television. As an agent, he forged a landmark deal for actor James Stewart giving the star a piece of the profits and wide-ranging creative control, power that top stars today take for granted.
He put together a company that boasted a movie studio that gave Spielberg his break with “Jaws” and also released such Spielberg hits as “Jurassic Park,” “E.T.--the Extra-Terrestrial” and “Schindler’s List.” Other films released during Wasserman’s tenure included the Oscar-winning “Out of Africa,” “American Graffiti,” and comedies such as the raunchy “Animal House.”
When other Hollywood figures viewed television in its infancy as a threat to the motion picture studios, Wasserman saw its promise and embraced it, operating a television division that over the years produced such hit shows as “Kojak,” “Miami Vice” and “Coach.” MCA’s music conglomerate boasted top acts across the spectrum, including Nirvana, Reba McEntire and Elton John. The Universal Studios theme park Wasserman built attracted millions of visitors to Southern California each year from around the world, luring them with the glamour of touring a studio back lot where films were made.
Wasserman’s imprint went well beyond the entertainment business and into politics. Smarting from a 1962 deal with the federal government forcing him to divest his talent agency business from MCA’s movie operations, Wasserman vowed never to let something like that happen again and immersed himself in the workings of government.
A confidant of presidents and world leaders, Wasserman correctly sensed that money and access to stars spoke volumes with politicians. He became Hollywood’s most skillful executive at raising campaign funds and at forging ties to top politicians in Washington, Sacramento and at Los Angeles City Hall. From his office on the 15th floor of MCA’s Black Tower that now carries his name in Universal City, Wasserman, with a handful of phone calls, could rally Hollywood to raise millions for candidates.
Even the most powerful of moguls rarely turned down a personal appeal from Wasserman. He became the most important fund-raiser in Hollywood in an era when huge sums were needed to buy television ads and conduct national campaigns.
He was one of the first Hollywood executives to get to know Bill Clinton when the future president was a relatively unknown Arkansas governor.
Los Angeles Dodgers Chairman Robert Daly, former head of rival Warner Bros., recalled that when President Clinton visited Daly’s home for a fund-raiser, his first words were, “Is Lew here?” Clinton then sought out Wasserman before talking to anyone else, Daly recalled.
“He was one of the smartest men I ever met, and in more than intellectual ways. He just came across as someone who understood what life was all about and was pulling for people to have good lives,” Clinton told The Times on Monday.
Although a passionate liberal Democrat, Wasserman’s voice was heard by both parties. Indeed, at no time was his clout seemingly greater than it was during the Republican-dominated 1980s, when a former B-actor Wasserman once represented as an agent, Ronald Reagan, occupied the White House.
“Lew was Ronnie’s first agent in Hollywood and they became fast friends,” former First Lady Nancy Reagan said in a statement Monday about their friendship of more than 60 years. “He gave Ronnie some of the best advice in the business. It seems no matter where we’ve been--Sacramento, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles--Lew Wasserman was always there for us.”
Wasserman also was a prolific fund-raiser for philanthropic causes such as the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Woodland Hills, which cares for aging actors and others in the industry. He and his wife, Edie, also gave substantial amounts to the $40-million Edie and Lew Wasserman Eye Research Center building, which will join the complex of the Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA named for Wasserman’s mentor.
Scores of business and political leaders issued statements after learning of Wasserman’s death. Sen. Barbara Boxer called Wasserman “a role model.” Gov. Gray Davis said Wasserman “was the Democratic Party’s most important business leader.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein said, “Lew set a high standard. It will be interesting to see who can meet it.”
Motion Picture Assn. of America President Jack Valenti, who said he owes his 1966 hiring as the industry’s chief lobbyist to Wasserman, said Monday: “He was the tallest redwood in the Hollywood forest, and there’s nobody else around. I guess Lew becomes a mythical, legendary figure and the industry is going to miss the hell out of him.”
Tall, tan and slender, Wasserman was always immaculately dressed in a dark suit, his gray hair slicked back and his oversized black spectacles perched on his nose. His daily routine rarely varied. Rising at 5 a.m. to call the East Coast, the indefatigable Wasserman worked 60-hour weeks. He ate lunch nearly every day at the same corner table of the Universal commissary, bantering with waitresses and employees of all levels while eating tuna salad. This continued well into his retirement and only stopped after his recent stroke.
Outwardly, Wasserman ruled with a quiet style that belied his power. In contrast to many of today’s Hollywood executives who employ personal publicists, Wasserman almost never granted interviews. When he did, he revealed little.
In private, however, his temper was legendary. Executives who worked for him knew that the smallest of details wouldn’t escape him, and some to this day talk of being grilled in the elevator in the morning about such details as unexpected expenses on a film the day before.
Despite his retirement, Wasserman immersed himself in details of the industry he helped shape, having at his recall box office grosses and theme park attendance numbers. During the labor tensions last year, when major studios were negotiating with writers and actors, Wasserman took an active interest, privately advising both sides to compromise without a devastating strike.
Wasserman would entertain lunch guests with stories about Hollywood’s halcyon days: Alfred Hitchcock’s pranks, the difficulties he had as a talent agent handling temperamental stars such as Joan Crawford, or the time that mogul Jack Warner had him banned from the Warner Bros. lot--until stars Wasserman represented such as Bette Davis made it clear that was unacceptable.
“He was a loyal and good friend, and someone that could be as tough as anybody in negotiations,” said actress Janet Leigh, whom Wasserman represented. “But he also could be the kind of person who could push you into a pool at a Sunday barbecue. He was a hard businessman, but he was also fun.”
Daly recalled taking Wasserman on a tour of the Warner Bros. lot and museum only to find that Wasserman was as knowledgeable as the tour guide. “The guy on the tour would start a story about a particular star, and Lew would finish it because he had been their agent,” Daly said.
He was born Lewis Robert Wasserman on March 15, 1913, in his family home in Cleveland. His parents were Isaac and Minnie Weiserman, who had fled Russia five years earlier, changing their last name to Wasserman. Wasserman’s father worked as a store clerk.
Wasserman began his career in show business while in high school, working as an usher at the Palace Theater in Cleveland. He wanted to attend Ohio State University or Case Western Reserve after graduating from high school in 1930, but couldn’t afford it amid the Great Depression. Indeed, his inability to afford college inspired Wasserman in 1998 to donate $8.75 million for undergraduate scholarships at UCLA.
Wasserman later worked in advertising and promotion for a Cleveland nightclub that booked bands through the Music Corp. of America, founded by a former ophthalmologist, Dr. Jules C. Stein. In 1936, Stein hired Wasserman for $60 a week as his national director of advertising and public relations, and Wasserman became Stein’s protege.
“The job has a great future,” Wasserman told his bride, the former Edie Beckerman. “What’s so great about it?” she asked. “Stein,” replied the 23-year-old Wasserman, “is 40. He is an old man.”
A decade later, Stein turned over the presidency of MCA to Wasserman, then just 33. The two continued a close association until Stein’s death in 1981 at age 85.
At the time, MCA was the largest talent agency in the band business, representing such stars as Tommy Dorsey and Kay Kyser, and building a growing business of movie stars such as Davis, Errol Flynn and James Stewart.
The deal Wasserman negotiated for Stewart in 1950 for the film “Winchester 73" foreshadowed today’s contracts in which top actors have not only a financial stake in a film’s success but also wide-ranging creative control. For that film, Wasserman got Stewart a piece of the film’s profits, made sure his name appeared on screen before the film title, and gave him the right to pick the director and his co-stars.
Wasserman and Stein together built the world’s largest talent agency, and after that a giant motion picture and television company with one of the largest film libraries anywhere.
Wasserman bought the Universal Pictures lot in North Hollywood in 1959, then acquired Universal Studios and its parent company, Decca Records, three years later. The acquisition drew attention from the U.S. Justice Department, which charged that MCA couldn’t represent talent while owning a studio and producing television. MCA signed a consent decree, agreeing to dissolve the talent agency business that had given the company its start.
It was Wasserman’s bitter experience with that deal that made him realize the importance of political clout, causing him to become a voracious fund-raiser and student of the political scene.
He turned down a Cabinet job offer from President Lyndon B. Johnson, who wanted him as his secretary of Commerce. Wasserman later was active in developing the late president’s library in Texas.
In a statement Monday, Lady Bird Johnson and her daughters, Luci Baines Johnson and Lynda Johnson Robb, said that Wasserman “stood at the pinnacle of beloved Johnson family friends.”
MCA’s far-reaching power in entertainment and politics led to its nickname, “The Octopus,” and Wasserman’s critics argued that he sometimes abused his power. In “Dark Victory: Ronald Reagan, MCA and the Mob,” author Dan Moldea described Reagan’s early 1960s grand jury testimony, according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Reagan, according to the book, told grand jurors probing possible antitrust violations that he could not recall details of a 1952 waiver that the Screen Actors Guild granted MCA while Reagan was the guild’s president. That waiver allowed MCA to produce TV programs while representing actors, which critics said was a conflict of interest.
When he was asked if he had discussed it with Wasserman, Moldea wrote, Reagan is reported to have told the grand jury that he may have only mentioned it socially. According to Moldea’s book, MCA later arranged jobs for Reagan in Las Vegas and paid him $100,000 a year as the host of its “GE Theater.” Still, Reagan was cleared of any wrongdoing.
No criminal charges were filed against anyone in the probe, and an antitrust division attorney wrote at the close of the investigation, according to an Associated Press account, “It was thought at the beginning of the grand jury that SAG might have purposely favored MCA for some illegal consideration. However, the evidence does not show any such improper purpose.”
Other biographers would note Wasserman’s friendships with the late lawyer Sidney Korshak, identified in congressional testimony as the liaison between Hollywood and the Chicago mob. In addition, MCA during the 1980s was plagued by investigations into ties between alleged organized crime figures and some of its operating units, although no MCA executives were ever charged in that probe.
Having worked in entertainment since the Great Depression, Wasserman was rarely fazed by threats to the business or dire predictions from pundits. He ignored predictions that television would be the death of film studios, instead plunging into the business.
“Every new medium has brought predictions of the death of every other,” he said once. “Radio was said to be all washed up, but stations are selling for higher prices than ever. When television came along, the studios were prepared to sell all their product, fire their people and fold up.”
Indeed, Wasserman’s words of some 30 years ago sound much like the mantras of today’s media moguls who talk endlessly about creating entertainment “content” that can be exploited as widely as possible. Wasserman then said MCA should “create sources of supply” in all areas of entertainment through Universal Pictures, Universal Television and record and music publishing.
Wasserman’s exit from the business evolved over several years starting in 1990, when MCA Inc., then a publicly traded company headed by Wasserman, was sold to Japan’s Matsushita Electric Industrial for $6.6 billion.
Although he stayed on as chief executive, Wasserman’s new Japanese bosses frustrated the mogul and his longtime second-in-command, MCA President Sidney J. Sheinberg.
The two felt Matsushita frequently undercut them, spurning their efforts to expand MCA through such promising deals as acquiring the CBS television network. Reacting to Wasserman’s death, Sheinberg said: “The image that comes to my mind is that this giant tree has fallen.”
In the wake of the bitter falling out with Matsushita, liquor giant Seagram Co. in 1995 bought 80% of MCA for $5.7 billion. Although Seagram gave him the symbolic title of chairman emeritus, Wasserman was effectively pushed aside and rarely consulted. Although frustrated, he never expressed it publicly. At the same time, Wasserman’s health began to deteriorate, with a painful knee problem that limited his mobility. Seagram renamed the company Universal Studios Inc., selling it in 2000 to France’s Vivendi.
Toward the end of his life, Wasserman continued to host political fund-raisers. But his presence was missed in Hollywood.
No executive emerged to take on the statesman-like role that Wasserman held, one that allowed him to speak without challenge for the entire industry on political, labor and other issues.
“Lew had become a god in Hollywood, but an old and tired god,” wrote Dennis McDougal, author of “The Last Mogul,” an unauthorized biography of Wasserman in 1998.
The sales of MCA made Wasserman a wealthy man, with the most recent estimate of his net worth coming in 1998 when Forbes pegged it at $500 million. In later years, Wasserman became especially close to his grandson, Casey Wasserman, making him president of his foundation and considering bankrolling a National Football League franchise in Los Angeles with him.
Lew and Edie Wasserman were instrumental in raising money, especially for the Motion Picture & Television Hospital in Woodland Hills. Wasserman helped Dorothy Chandler raise money to build the Music Center. He also was active for the foundation Research to Prevent Blindness, one reason he was awarded in 1995 the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, by Clinton.
Wasserman was a director of the Music Center, founding president of the Center Theatre Group, chairman emeritus of the Assn. of Motion Picture and TV Producers, and trustee of the John F. Kennedy Library, John F. Kennedy Center of Performing Arts and California Institute of Technology. He was a recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science in 1973. He was active in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and introduced Pope John Paul II during a speech to Hollywood leaders when the pontiff visited in 1987.
Wasserman leaves his wife and daughter, Lynne Kay Wasserman, grandson Casey and granddaughter Carol Leif.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions to the Motion Picture & Television Fund.
A memorial service for Wasserman will likely be scheduled in the coming weeks.
Times staff writers Jane Allen, Mark Z. Barabak, Ronald Brownstein and Lorenza Munoz contributed to this story.
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Key Events in Wasserman’s Life
1913: Born in Cleveland, Ohio.
1936: Hired by Music Corp. of America (MCA) founder, Dr. Jules Stein, after working as a theater usher, candy salesman and band booker. Marries Edie Beckerman.
1946: Appointed president of MCA.
1952: Negotiates an exemption from Screen Actors Guild conflict-of-interest rules that prohibited talent agencies from acting as producers.
1958: MCA acquires Paramount Studio’s entire pre-1948 film library; acquires the Universal Studios lot in the San Fernando Valley.
1962: Under threat of a government investigation of MCA regarding antitrust violations, Wasserman announces MCA will liquidate its talent agency and concentrate on film production. MCA buys Decca Records and its Universal Pictures unit; government files suit against MCA for “predatory practices.” MCA reaches compromise agreement, allowing it to hang onto Decca and Universal, while promising to stay out of the talent business and to make no corporate acquisitions for seven years.
1965: Offered Cabinet position, secretary of Commerce, by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Wasserman declines offer.
1973: Elected chairman of the board and CEO of MCA.
1990: MCA sold to Japan’s Matsushita Electric Industrial.
1995: Spirits giant Seagram buys 80% of MCA for $5.7 billion and names Wasserman chairman emeritus; Wasserman awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton.
2002: Died June 3 from stroke complications. ..TE: SOURCES: Celebrity Biographies; Current Biography Yearbook, 1991; Who’s Who; Company Histories; Los Angeles Times