5 June 2002
Lew Wasserman, Hollywood mogul, was born on March 15, 1913. He died on June 3, 2002, aged 89.
One of the great Hollywood moguls: starmaker, fundraiser, friend of Presidents and a man of his word
The death of Lew Wasserman severs the last personal link between the first and second generations of Hollywood film moguls. He was a talent agent for ten years, becoming the first "superagent", and then, for 50 years, he was in charge of MCA, making him the longest-serving mogul ever. From signings such as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Wasserman went on to create the giant entertainment conglomerate that gave the world such television series as Columbo and Miami Vice, and films that included The Sting, Jaws and Jurassic Park.
During his tenure, MCA's role within the entertainment industry underwent many changes and its fortunes fluctuated, but Wasserman never lost his con-trolling grip. And his influence was not confined to Hollywood. He raised money for Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan and Clinton, being said in the 1990s to be the biggest single individual contributor to Democratic Party funds. He remained a close personal friend of Ronald Reagan, a former client and a valuable ally in certain key episodes in MCA's history.
Lew Wasserman was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and because of reduced circumstances - his father was retired and far from wealthy - he was obliged to take a job as a cinema usher while still at high school.
He later attributed his aptitude for a seven-day week and a 16-hour day to the fact that his teenage ushering job lasted from 3pm until midnight, that he was rarely home until 2am, and that he had to rise early in order to walk the five miles to his school.
After graduating in 1930 he obtained a job organising the advertising and promotion of bands for a local nightclub, the Mayfair Casino, where he was to meet Jules Stein, who several years earlier had founded a talent agency called MCA (Music Corporation of America).
Stein recruited Wasserman to join MCA as director of advertising and publicity in 1936, five months after he had married a girl from a more affluent district of the city, Edith Beckerman.
He continued to promote bands for a short while, but soon moved over to handling the bandleader Tommy Dorsey and such film stars as Bette Davis and Errol Flynn.
As MCA grew in power and prestige in Hollywood, Wasserman set a new tone for his profession, always dressing in a black suit and white shirt, and cultivating an image of precision and efficiency rather than one of lurid showmanship.
In 1940 he renegotiated the contract for a Warner Brothers actor called Ronald Reagan, who eventually became Wasserman's first million-dollar client. Stein, who had already made Wasserman a vice-president and identified him as his successor, appointed him president of MCA in December 1946.
A few years later, Wasserman devised a new method of financing film production and effectively rescued the fortunes of Universal Pictures by persuading his client, Jimmy Stewart, to take the lead in a western called Winchester '73 in return for half of the profits. This arrangement became a model for other studios and increased the industry's respect for Wasserman's ingenuity.
Another example of such ingenuity was his willingness to embrace the new medium of television, while other Hollywood figures remained cautious. In the early 1950s Hollywood experienced a slump, brought about partly by MCA having secured ever more lucrative deals for its clients, so adding to production costs. But it was Wasserman who approached the key Hollywood union, the Screen Actors' Guild, with a scheme that promised to create employment.
The guild's rules prohibited talent agents from engaging in film production on the ground of the potential conflict of interest. But Wasserman negotiated with the guild's president, his former client Ronald Reagan, to obtain an exemption from this prohibition. Within a couple of years, MCA's new subsidiary, Revue Productions, was turning out the most highly rated programmes on prime-time television, notably Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Bachelor Father, and General Electric Theater (which Reagan hosted, prompting whispers that his relationship with MCA was improperly cosy).
In 1958 MCA spent $50 million in acquiring Paramount's pre-1948 film library, and began renting its 750 titles to television stations. It also acquired the backlot of Universal Pictures for $11.25 million and cranked up its output of film production.
With all these business enterprises yoked together, Wasserman decided to restructure MCA and offered its stock to the public. In 1961 MCA earned $8.5 million from its agency interests compared with $72 million from film production, so Wasserman decided that the time had come to divest MCA of the less profitable business.
Six months later MCA bought both Decca Records and Universal Pictures, spurring the Attorney-General to launch anti-trust actions against it. The deals were finally allowed to go ahead, though only on the condition that MCA undertook not to return to the talent agency business and not to make any further corporate acquisitions for seven years.
While abiding by these conditions, MCA was free to invest both in live theatre in New York and in a burgeoning roster of film and television productions indeed, it pioneered the made-for-television movie, the mini-series and the one-hour cop show.
Wasserman also showed an acumen for property development by constructing new buildings on the Universal lot and expanding its acreage.
In 1966 Wasserman was elected for the first of seven terms as chairman of the board of the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers, and the next decade or so witnessed impressive growth in MCA's profits from film, television and record production, enabling him to slash the company's debt from $100 million in March 1974 to $52 million six months later.
Yet, from 1975 onwards, the gross revenues from these traditional entertainment activities began to decline, and MCA was forced to diversify in order to maintain its stock value, although with mixed results.
The company continued to acquire real estate, and also bought a mail-order business and a gift shop chain, the New York publishing house G P Putnams, and ABC records.
A costly joint venture with Phillips and Pioneer to promote a home entertainment system called DiscoVision was a casualty of the video revolution, and bids to purchase Sea World and the Los Angeles bottling plant of Coca-Cola ended in failure. Yet Wasserman was the prime mover behind the lucrative Universal tour, and later one of his proudest achievements was CityWalk, the theme park of urban architectural styles that is one of the main tourist attractions at the Universal lot in Burbank. Revenues from CityWalk in its first year of operation were $100 million, twice what MCA had expected.
Throughout the 1980s, Wasserman was able to fend off hostile raiders because of his substantial personal shareholding of 25 per cent in MCA and his political connections - although at one low point in the company's fortunes his ill health coincided with an 11-point climb in the share price, eliciting his dry suggestion: "If the stock gets too low, just park an ambulance in front of my house".
In November 1990 Wasserman sold MCA to Matsushita, the Japanese electronics conglomerate, for $6.6 billion, personally receiving stock worth $30 million per annum in dividends in return for his five million MCA shares.
Under Matsushita, Wasserman remained as chairman, agreeing to a five-year contract that was said to pay a $3 million salary. When Matsushita sold MCA to the Seagram Company in 1995, renaming it Universal Studios, Wasserman became "chairman emeritus" and kept his office in the Black Tower, MCA's executive office building, which was renamed the Lew Wasserman Building at the insistence of the incoming owner, Edgar Bronfman Jr.
Throughout his career, it had been said that Wasserman was a demanding taskmaster, although he rarely had to raise his voice above a whisper.
He was a rapid maker of decisions, able to slash through the egomaniacal posturing that often dominates business negotiations in Hollywood, and he was known for his personal courtesy and his trustworthiness in handshake deals.
Jimmy Carter attempted to enlist Wasserman in his Administration in 1976 as Secretary of Commerce (as Lyndon Johnson is said to have done a decade earlier), but Wasserman preferred to remain an eminence grise in Washington as well as in Hollywood.
However, he lost no opportunity in pursuing business goals through his influential political contacts. While Ronald Reagan was Governor of California, he ensured the passage of state laws that gave the Hollywood studios huge tax-breaks on their film libraries - a lobbying triumph for which Wasserman was given credit.
Years later, when Carter's Department of Justice chose to put restrictions on the cable television industry, in which MCA had an interest, Wasserman's relations with Carter cooled and he switched his support to the White House challenger Ronald Reagan. During Reagan's Administrations, Wasserman and his fellow Hollywood moguls persuaded the government to reduce its interference in the industry.
In 1992 Bill Clinton was in the middle of his presidential campaign when he called Wasserman from his bus and asked him to take over the organisation of a Hollywood fundraising dinner at which a meagre $68,000 had been committed. With Wasserman in control, the take rose to $1.7 million.
In September 1995, President Clinton presented Wasserman with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Wasserman remained on the board of directors until 1998. He is survived by his wife, Edie, whom he married in 1936, and a daughter.
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