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The Guardian (05/Jun/2002) - Obituary: Lew Wasserman

(c) The Guardian (05/Jun/2002)

Lew Wasserman

Deal-maker who was Hollywood's last mogul

Lew Wasserman, who has died from complications of a stroke aged 89, was the former chairman and chief executive of the Music Corporation of America. He was called the "last mogul" for his power and influence in half a century of making deals in music, television and the movies at MCA-Universal Pictures. He transformed the industry, breaking the hold of the major studios, creating the summer blockbuster with Jaws in 1975, and involving Hollywood in political fund-raising.

Quiet, lean, silvery-haired and with thick-rimmed spectacles, he was not a commanding figure. Yet he could send employees to the washroom to vomit after one of his tongue-lashings in his 15th-floor office, situated in the block that bore his name in Universal City - the 415-acre corporate city-state in Los Angeles - a cube of stark black glass that reminded employees of their boss.

Wasserman wanted no loudly dressed "flesh peddlers" as agents. At MCA he had instituted a dress code when it was Hollywood's leading talent agency: black suit, white shirt and black tie, giving his team the nickname "black Mafia".

In 1950 he delivered the final blows to the studio system of retained stars. Bette Davis had walked out on Warner Bros but, outside that studio, Wasserman won her the lead and $130,000 in All About Eve. A contract he drew up with James Stewart, when the actor was trying to escape an MGM contract, arranged for Stewart to get 50% of the net of a new film Universal was developing. It was Winchester 73 and became a huge money-maker. This led to the "package" system, in which agents sold an entire film, usually starring their own clients.

The studios' stranglehold was over and two years later Wasserman won a dubious but lucrative deal with an actor he represented, Ronald Reagan, who was then head of the Screen Actors Guild. A guild rule preventing agents producing for television was going into effect. Reagan obtained a waiver for MCA and he was subsequently investigated by a grand jury. No charges were brought, but it made MCA the biggest seller and buyer of talent in Hollywood within a few years.

Wasserman's other achievement, if that is the word, was to anchor Hollywood to Washington as a political fund raiser, in return for favourable treatment for the industry. This had begun in the early 1960s, when John Kennedy was president.

Although Wasserman was always nominally a Democrat, he quietly funded Republicans, just in case. Into the 1990s, it was a Hollywood rule that, whoever was in the White House, he would take a call from someone at MCA.

Wasserman never gave interviews and disliked talking about himself. He was born to Russian Jewish parents - who had fled Russia in 1908 - in Cleveland, Ohio, and only finished high school. He was a cinema usher at the Palace Theatre in Cleveland before getting a job in post-prohibition Cleveland at a casino owned by organised crime. Wasserman was its publicity agent and hired musicians.

This was how he met his mentor, Jules Stein, a former ophthalmologist who had created MCA in Chicago as a booker of bands. Stein hired Wasserman in 1936, six months after Lew had married Edie, the woman who remained his wife for the rest of their lives. She asked him what the prospects were at MCA and Wasserman replied: "Good. Jules is not a young man."

Wasserman had to wait to become chairman until 1973, when Stein finally retired, aged 77. MCA handled Xavier Cugat, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Guy Lombardo, and business boomed. Stein moved the firm to Hollywood in 1939 and the following year named Wasserman vicepresident of their new film division. His first coup was to sign Bette Davis and, by buying out lesser agents, he got Ronald Reagan. In 1945 he had added James Stewart, Gene Kelly, Myrna Loy, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Dorothy Parker and Dashiell Hammett, and Wasserman astonished Hollywood by signing Reagan to the industry's first $1m contract. At this time MCA had its first legal trouble over monopoly allegations and a judge in a civil case denounced it as "the Octopus", with "tentacles reaching out and grasping everything in showbusiness".

Wasserman pushed on regardless. In 1957 Paramount's pre-1948 films were bought for $50m - netting MCA lucrative rental fees from TV stations - and in 1958 he and Stein bought the Universal Pictures lot, followed three years later by the studio itself and its parent, Decca Records. MCA-Universal was now huge and its methods made many enemies. Despite Wasserman's cultivation of Washington, in 1962 Robert Kennedy's justice department began investigating anti-trust charges against the Octopus, which also stood accused of contributing to what a federal official memorably called "the vast wasteland" of American television.

By 1962 it was obvious MCA would have to split the company; as television and films were more lucrative, it dumped the agency. With its expanded lot, an MCA executive had the idea of busing tourists to eat at its money-losing restaurant, and the idea of the Hollywood theme park was born. In 1964 the Universal Studio Tour was launched.

Wasserman presided over Universal's years of blockbusters. It was also his marketing skills which helped make such films as The Sting and American Graffiti (1973), Jaws (1975), Smokey And The Bandit (1977), Animal House (1978), On Golden Pond (1981) and ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) such huge successes. The television division's shows included Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Kojak, Miami Vice and Murder, She Wrote. But in 1987, after colon surgery nearly killed him, Wasserman decided to sell the company to the Japanese conglomerate Matsushita, for a record $6.2bn.

For the first time, Wasserman had misjudged a deal. The Japanese did not warm to him or his corporate president Sidney Sheinberg. Both were frozen out when Matsushita sold the company to the Canadian beverage firm, Seagram, in 1992. Wasserman, now in his 80s, retired on a $1m annual retainer and lived to see the Hollywood giant he built change hands again in 2000, when it was acquired by the French corporation, Vivendi.

He is survived by his wife, daughter and two grandchildren.