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Sidney Sheinberg, who led MCA/Universal’s rise, dies at 84

Sidney Sheinberg, who led MCA/Universal’s rise, dies at 84
Sidney Sheinberg, left, and Lew Wasserman stand atop one of the hills of Universal City in 1984, when Sheinberg was MCA Inc. president. (Los Angeles Times)

Sidney Sheinberg, the longtime entertainment executive who built MCA and Universal Pictures into a top-tier force in Hollywood with Lew Wasserman, has died. He was 84.

Sheinberg died at his home in Beverly Hills on Thursday night, his son Jonathan Sheinberg confirmed.

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Sidney Sheinberg was for decades one of the most powerful executives in show business, giving Steven Spielberg his first directing job and helping nurture the career of the young filmmaker.

“Sid was an amazing man and an amazing father,” Jonathan Sheinberg said in a statement. “He would want to be remembered first as a family man, second for his philanthropy with Human Rights Watch and other groups and of course for his work at Universal. He touched thousands of peoples’ lives through his philanthropy and his work."

In a statement, Casey Wasserman, grandson of Sidney Sheinberg’s longtime boss, Lew Wasserman, said: “Sid was a giant, in stature, business and heart. He was a true partner to my grandfather and the industry, and will be sorely missed by all.”

Plainspoken, intensely private and known to be tough bordering on combative, Sheinberg worked at MCA for nearly four decades and served as its president for more than 20 years beginning in 1973 after having helped turn the company from a talent agency into a global entertainment business.

He and Wasserman oversaw a prolonged period of success at MCA and its Universal subsidiary, which won Oscars for “The Sting,” “Out of Africa” and “Schindler’s List.” Under Sheinberg’s watch, Spielberg delivered Universal blockbusters such as “Jaws,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “Jurassic Park.” The studio also released the megahit “Back to the Future.”

In a now-infamous letter to “Back to the Future” filmmakers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, Sheinberg asked the director and co-writer to consider a different title, “Space Man From Pluto,” saying it was the kind of title that has “heat, originality and projects fun.” Spielberg, the film’s producer, reportedly sent a letter back thanking Sheinberg for his “joke memo.

“My heart is broken at this news,” Spielberg in a statement. “He [Sheinberg] gave birth to my career and made Universal my home. He gave me ‘Jaws,’ I gave him ‘E.T.’ 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.”

The 6-foot-2, Corpus Christi, Texas-born Sheinberg made his first foray into the entertainment business when he was still in his teens, as a disc jockey and English/Spanish newscaster for a local radio station. He graduated in 1955 from Columbia University in New York, where he met Lorraine Gottfried as an undergrad. They married in 1956. Sheinberg studied law for a year at the University of Texas in Austin, then transferred back to Columbia.

Shortly after graduating from Columbia Law School, Sheinberg moved his family to Southern California for a one-year position teaching law at UCLA.

Sheinberg joined MCA in 1959, when the company still owned the most powerful talent agency in the world and hadn’t yet purchased Universal Pictures. He learned the TV business at the company’s television arm Revue under production executive Jennings Lang. MCA disbanded its agency in order to purchase Universal in 1962.

Sheinberg rose through the ranks as a TV production executive in the 1960s, becoming president of Universal Television in 1971, where he stepped up the quality and expense of its shows, many of which ran on NBC.

In the late ’60s, he discovered Spielberg, who had made a short film titled “Amblin” that would later become the name of his company.

Universal released Spielberg’s theatrical debut, “The Sugarland Express,” in 1974, and Sheinberg supported the director during the arduous production of “Jaws,” which was going over budget and suffering technical problems.

He was famously forthright, sometimes referring to business opponents as “idiots” and ideas with which he disagreed as “stupid.” He acknowledged he could be tough, but no more so than Wasserman at his peak.

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“I’m not sure I understand how I came to be regarded as a heavy, and Lew Wasserman turned into a nice guy,” he said in a 1987 interview with The Times at his Beverly Hills home.

In 1990, Wasserman and Sheinberg orchestrated the sale of the then-publicly traded MCA Inc. to Japan’s Matsushita Electric Industrial for $6.6 billion. But the two executives grew frustrated with their new Japanese bosses. They believed Matsushita frequently undercut them, spurning their efforts to expand MCA through such promising deals as acquiring the CBS television network. The tension boiled over when Sheinberg went public with his complaints.

Sheinberg left the company after it was sold to Seagram Co. in 1995. Seagram paid $5.7 billion for an 80% stake in MCA, which owned the Universal Studios theme parks and other assets. After the sale, Wasserman was effectively pushed aside. Wasserman died in 2002.

After Sheinberg’s departure, he and his sons, Jon and Bill, launched the Bubble Factory, a production company that made films including such flops as “McHale’s Navy” and “Flipper.”

At the new company, Sheinberg had to adjust from making big-budget blockbusters to much smaller films. In a 1999 interview with The Times, Sheinberg said that, by bankrolling his own movies, he was “violating cardinal rule [No.] 1 of Hollywood: Never use your own money.”

He told The Times he enjoyed learning about the intricacies of indie film financing. “There’s a very big difference between negotiating to borrow billions of dollars on behalf of MCA and negotiating to borrow 28 cents in connection with making independent pictures,” he said.

Sheinberg made numerous contributions to the industry outside his executive duties, serving as an inaugural member and management co-chair of the Directors Guild of America’s Creative Rights Committee established in 1964. Among the group’s key early accomplishments was establishing the right to a “director’s cut,” the DGA said. The DGA made him an honorary life member in 1990.

“Sidney Sheinberg’s contributions to the industry and his passion for films and filmmakers were immeasurable,” the DGA said in a statement. “He was committed to the success of the motion picture industry and placed a high value on his relationship with directors.”

Sheinberg is survived by his wife, the former actress Lorraine Gary, and his sons Jonathan and William.

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