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|Also Known As:||Lew Wasserman, Lewis Robert Wasserman||Died:||June 3, 2002|
|Born:||March 22, 1913||Cause of Death:||Complications from a stroke|
|Birth Place:||Cleveland, Ohio, USA||Profession:||executive, agent, usher, candy salesman|
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Once called the last of the moguls, talent agent and later corporate executive Lew Wasserman pioneered a number of business practices throughout his seven-decade career that forever changed the face of Hollywood. Starting out as a protégé of Jules Stein at the Music Corporation of America, Wasserman quickly moved up the ladder upon his arrival in Hollywood, where he spearheaded MCA's entry into the talent agency business. With his emphasis on catering to clients' needs and earning as much money as possible, he turned MCA into the entertainment industry's dominant talent agency and boasted most of the day's biggest stars as clients. Wasserman famously earned James Stewart points on his film's gross and steadfastly stood by Bette Davis as she walked out on her Warner Bros. contract. Always able to see the silver lining in any cloud, Wasserman fully embraced the new medium of television when others feared its potential effect on filmmaking. In the 1950s and 1960s, he grew MCA into a powerhouse that took over Universal Studios, which led to building the famed amusement park in 1964. After facing down antitrust proceedings, Wasserman enjoyed major film success in the 1970s, thanks to his innovation of...
Once called the last of the moguls, talent agent and later corporate executive Lew Wasserman pioneered a number of business practices throughout his seven-decade career that forever changed the face of Hollywood. Starting out as a protégé of Jules Stein at the Music Corporation of America, Wasserman quickly moved up the ladder upon his arrival in Hollywood, where he spearheaded MCA's entry into the talent agency business. With his emphasis on catering to clients' needs and earning as much money as possible, he turned MCA into the entertainment industry's dominant talent agency and boasted most of the day's biggest stars as clients. Wasserman famously earned James Stewart points on his film's gross and steadfastly stood by Bette Davis as she walked out on her Warner Bros. contract. Always able to see the silver lining in any cloud, Wasserman fully embraced the new medium of television when others feared its potential effect on filmmaking. In the 1950s and 1960s, he grew MCA into a powerhouse that took over Universal Studios, which led to building the famed amusement park in 1964. After facing down antitrust proceedings, Wasserman enjoyed major film success in the 1970s, thanks to his innovation of marketing films on television for mass release. He eventually sold MCA to Matsushita Electrical in 1990 for a tidy sum, though he spent the decade slowly losing power and influence when ownership changed to Seagram's and Vivendi. Regardless of his quiet exit, Wasserman remained a giant whose many business innovations became industry norms.
Born on March 22, 1913 in Cleveland, OH, Wasserman was raised by his Russian immigrant parents, Isaac and Minnie, who struggled to turn a profit from running a small restaurant. While attending Glenville High School - which proved to be his highest level of education - he worked as an usher at the Palace Theater from afternoon till midnight. At the time, movie theaters played host to vaudeville between screenings, which gave Wasserman the opportunity to rub shoulders with future movie stars like Edgar Bergen and Eddie Cantor. Though he wanted to attend Ohio State University following his graduation in 1930, Wasserman was unable to afford further education due to the Great Depression. Instead, he went to work in advertising and promotion at a local nightclub that booked bands through an agency called the Music Corporation of America, which was founded the previous decade by former ophthalmologist Dr. Jules Stein. In short order, Wasserman became Stein's protégé and soon married lifelong wife, Edie, in 1936, while also being entrusted to handled MCA's biggest client, Tommy Dorsey. Part of his job was making sure Dorsey made it on stage regardless of how many drinks he had consumed.
In 1938, Wasserman moved to California and helped Stein expand MCA into representing movie stars and directors. Soon Wasserman found himself representing some of Hollywood's biggest stars, including Bette Davis, Errol Flynn and James Stewart. Meanwhile, two years after the move out West, Wasserman was named vice president of MCA's motion picture division; by 1946, he was president of the entire company. Stein had taken a step back as chairman of the company and allowed the go-getting Wasserman to run the day-to-day operations, which he did tirelessly for long hours, seven days a week. Under Wasserman's control, MCA was transformed into an entertainment industry powerhouse that attracted just about every Hollywood star. He was able to attract such a wide array of talent by completely altering the way agents conducted business. Wasserman catered to the personal well-being of his clients as well as their careers, often keeping stars out of serious trouble, like covering up the drunk driving arrests of Clark Gable and keeping quiet the news of Betty Grable's surprise pregnancy prior to her rushed wedding to jazz musician Harry James.
Wasserman quickly became known for his zealous loyalty both to MCA and its clients, and along the way, earned reciprocal devotion from the stars he represented. In 1950, he unflinchingly backed Bette Davis' decision to walk out of her contract with Warner Bros., infuriating studio head Jack Warner to the point of barring Wasserman from ever stepping foot onto the studio lot again. Warner also threatened to blackball Davis from the industry, but Wasserman landed his star a lucrative payday to star in "All About Eve" (1950), which earned the actress an unprecedented $130,000 - a near-record amount of money at the time. From there, Wasserman managed to earn his clients - and by extension, himself - more money by avoiding high taxes by incorporating themselves. He also granted them greater power by negotiating which films they wanted to make, script changes and approval, casting and director choices, and even a percentage - called points - on the gross, the latter of which he initiated with James Stewart on his popular Western "Winchester '73" (1950). Wasserman further enhanced MCA's business by packaging his clients, wresting control of virtually all of the radio business, embracing the new medium of television while others shunned it, and delving into the production side of television and film.
Becoming involved as a producer as well as an agent was an obvious conflict of interest for MCA, but Wasserman earned a blanket exemption from the Screen Actors Guild, thanks to then-president Ronald Reagan, who was both a close friend and grateful client. As a producer and distributor of small screen programming, and boasting a formidable client list, MCA had emerged as a major force in the new medium by the end of the 1950s. Also at the time, Wasserman spearheaded the purchase of Paramount Pictures' pre-1948 library, which proved lucrative when television stations were looking to fill programming needs by airing old movies. In 1958, Wasserman's MCA bought the Universal Studios back lot for a song, which included over 360 acres of prime, undeveloped real estate. The deal led to a number of MCA clients like Doris Day, Cary Grant, Lana Turner and Alfred Hitchcock signing lucrative contracts with Universal. With MCA completing its takeover of the studio in 1962, Wasserman instituted the modern studio tour that included walkthroughs of the lot and actual productions, and eventually led to building a full-blown amusement park in 1964 called Universal Studios Hollywood.
In following in the footsteps of Walt Disney, Wasserman turned Universal Studios into a tourist attraction and paved the way for future developments, including Universal City Walk. Also in the early 1960s, Wasserman purchased American Decca Records and merged the label into the MCA umbrella. His rapidly developing reach into various mediums and industries led to MCA being dubbed the Octopus, which led to antitrust proceedings spearheaded by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. In response, Wasserman organized union protests, but ultimately agreed to give up MCA's talent agency, which by then represented a mere fraction of the company's business. The loss led him to seek greater influence in the political arena in order to protect its financial interests. Wasserman helped create the President's Club, which granted executives greater access to the president in exchange for political contributions. He also became a prolific fundraiser for the Democratic Party and in 1966 personally installed Jack Valenti - a former aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson - to become president of the Motion Picture Association of America, Hollywood's lobby in Washington, D.C. The year prior, Johnson had offered him a cabinet position as Secretary of Commerce, which Wasserman politely declined.
In 1969, a serious threat to Wasserman's reign emerged from none other than his former benefactor, Jules Stein, who was worried about the nearly $100 million in debt that had been accrued from unsuccessful movie ventures throughout the 1960s. Meanwhile, Wasserman allegedly suffered a heart attack, and when the press learned of the board's plan to oust an ill man, the maneuver was thwarted. The bulletproof Wasserman not only maintained control, but was named chairman and CEO of MCA in 1973. Universal's film fortunes changed dramatically in the 1970s, thanks to blockbusters like "The Sting" (1973), "American Graffiti" (1973), "Jaws" (1975). "Smokey and the Bandit" (1977) and "Animal House" (1978). On the small screen, Wasserman pioneered the production of miniseries and police procedurals, while continuing to enjoy massive success in movie theaters. In fact, it was his marketing innovations with "Jaws" that helped spawn the first $100 million movie, changing forever how films were promoted. Instead of a small release and strong word-of-mouth, Wasserman used television to advertise the film nationally and opening it in over 1,000 theaters its first weekend. The results were striking and immediate, and led to sweeping change. Wasserman's successful template was quickly adopted by other studios, helping pave the way for blockbusters like "Star Wars" (1977) and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981).
While success was overflowing in the 1970s, MCA suffered declining stock prices during the 1980s and was almost taken over by casino entrepreneur Steve Wynn until Wasserman managed to shore up financial backing from outside sources and put an end to the threat. After a post-colon surgery accident brought Wasserman to the brink of death in 1987, Wasserman eventually conceded to the inevitable and agreed to let MCA be acquired by Japanese industrial giant, Matsushita, which purchased the company for $6.6 billion in 1990 and effectively created the largest entertainment conglomerate in the world at the time. The deal with Matsushita, which was facilitated by then-head of Creative Artists Agency, Michael Ovitz, brought MCA an immense injection of cash. Wasserman retained his chairman and CEO posts and was ensured that, should he leave, his right hand, Sidney Sheinberg, would take his place. But the pair were frustrated with their new owners almost from the start, especially after Matsushita scuttled a promising deal for MCA to acquire the CBS television network.
If anything marked the beginning of the end for Wasserman's active career, it was the sale of MCA to Matsushita. Just five years after the deal, the Japanese conglomerate sold MCA to Seagram's Edgar Bronfman Jr. for $5.7 billion. Sheinberg resigned as president and Wasserman was named chairman emeritus - a pleasant sounding title that in reality meant he was pushed aside. Despite his ignominious departure, the sale of MCA made Wasserman an exceedingly wealthy man and he saw his name appear on Forbes' esteemed list of wealthiest people with an estimated net worth in excess of $500 million. As is the case with many prominent business leaders, Wasserman was also a philanthropist who donated time and money to a number of causes over the years. He and his wife were instrumental in raising money for the Motion Picture & Television Hospital and the Dorothy Chandler Music Center, as well as being active in the foundation Research to Prevent Blindness. His time and money spent on charities and other philanthropic efforts earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995, awarded to him by President Bill Clinton.
For the remainder of his days, Wasserman dutifully showed up to work at Universal Studios, even after Seagram's was taken over by the French media conglomerate, Vivendi, in 2000. He continued to make $1 million in salary a year, though he confessed at the time that he did very little to earn it. He spent his last years raising money for politicians, but his power and influence in Hollywood had rapidly diminished. Wasserman died on June 3, 2002 of complications from a stroke in his Beverly Hills home. He was 89 years old and left behind an incalculable legacy. He paved the way for increased clout for actors, helped create the modern entertainment conglomerate, and altered the way movies are advertised to maximize profits on opening weekend. His pioneering revelations were eagerly copied by all and sundry, permanently changing the way Hollywood conducts business.
By Shawn Dwyer
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CAST: (feature film)
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"Beyond MCA, Lew's achievements have enabled him to expand his philanthropy so that this and future generations will have a better life. We all need his computer brain and his compassionate heart." --Steven Spielberg, quoted in Variety, August 25, 1995.
"I never cease to be amazed at his instant analysis. He is so sharp that he would call me with matinee figures on opening day and then accurately project the film's ultimate performance ... It's been said that Lew Wasserman can guess the gross on a picture just by looking at the first hour's receipts." --Steven Spielberg in Variety, August 25, 1995.
"Tall, thin and taciturn, Wasserman fused his life with his company; he was monastic in his total dedication to MCA. No one in Hollywood worked harder or schemed more creatively ... Wasserman saw himself as more than the successor to the original moguls; he seemed to view himself as an improvement over them, as a streamlined and modernized version of the crude and willful studio executives who ruled the Hollywood of his youth." --Ronald Brownstein author of "The Power and the Glitter: The Hollywood-Washington Connection", excerpted in the Los Angeles Times Calendar, December 2, 1990.
"Using his considerable negotiating skills, Wasserman quietly stepped in to craft a compromise that ended a 1960 writers strike against the television producers. From that point on, he routinely took a leading role in Hollywood labor negotiations. His preeminent position was formalized a few years later when he was named chairman of the Assn. of Motion Picture and Television Producers Inc., the producers' collective bargaining organization" --Ronald Brownstein in Los Angeles Times Calendar, December 2, 1990.
Wasserman was named on Forbes' list of the 400 wealthiest people in the US at $130,000,000 in 1983.
Associated with work for blindness charities, Wasserman was elected president of Research to Prevent Blindess (1976), gave $500,000 to the University of California's opthamology department, and received a distinguished public service award from the American Academy of Opthamology (1985).
Among his other endowments were a $1 million scholarship fund to the California Institute of the Arts, and $5 million to the Motion Pictures and Television Fund.
Wasserman was the chairman of the Association of Motion Pictures and TV Producers (AMPTP) from 1966-1974, and was named to the governing board of directors for the Center of the Democratic Policy.
He has received a honorary doctorate of humane letters from NYU (1985), was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1995), the first Arthur B Krim Award (1996), and was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame (1996).
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