In the words of Jack Valenti, the longtime president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA): “If Hollywood is Mount Olympus, Lew Wasserman is Zeus.” Wasserman, an agent and studio executive who was arguably the most influential mogul in Hollywood for some 40 years after World War II, died on this day in 2002, at the age of 89.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Wasserman was the son of Orthodox Jews who emigrated to the United States from Russia. He began his career in show business doing publicity for vaudeville acts, and later took a job in the mailroom at Music Corporation of America (MCA) in Chicago. In 1938, MCA founder Jules Stein sent his rising protege to Los Angeles to build the company’s business in Hollywood, and by 1948 he had made Wasserman MCA’s president. Wasserman began aggressively expanding MCA’s movie business, signing numerous Hollywood stars as clients and taking over other talent agencies. After World War II, MCA’s client list grew to include nearly every major actor in the business, including Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, James Stewart, Judy Garland, Henry Fonda, Myrna Loy, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Jack Benny, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Gregory Peck and Gene Kelly. Other creative talents in the Wasserman fold included the directors Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock.
In 1948, the U.S. Justice Department succeeded in breaking up the Hollywood studio system after a long antitrust suit decided in its favor by the Supreme Court. Wasserman took the opportunity to effect the most influential change of his career: He renegotiated his clients’ contracts with the now more vulnerable studios to include a percentage deal instead of a flat salary. This new system allowed the non-studio talent in the motion-picture industry–actors, directors and independent producers–to make far more money from their movies. With Wasserman’s new rules in effect, MCA supplied much of the talent in Hollywood, often negotiating “package” deals that benefited its star clients (and the agency itself).
Wasserman then decided to get his company directly involved in film and television production. Despite the potential conflict of interest involved in MCA’s hiring its own clients to work on its productions, Wasserman finagled an exemption from Screen Actors Guild (SAG) rules, with the cooperation of then-SAG president (and MCA client) Ronald Reagan. Wasserman was one of the first entertainment moguls to see the potential of TV, which most movie producers regarded as a huge threat. Starting with low-budget game shows such as Truth or Consequences, MCA rose to become a dominant force in TV by 1959, producing The Ed Sullivan Show and The Jackie Gleason Show, among other hits. A year earlier, MCA had purchased the back lots and soundstages (used for TV production) of the struggling Universal; in 1962, Wasserman bought the rest of Universal for $160 million. Finally, facing an antitrust suit, Wasserman agreed to shut down MCA’s talent agency, which by then accounted for less than 10 percent of its profits (according to Wasserman’s obituary in the New York Times).
The 1970s reaped even more spectacular profits for MCA/Universal and Wasserman, who was credited with masterminding the marketing campaigns that made such films as Jaws, E.T. and the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchisesinto huge summer blockbusters. In 1973, Wasserman took over MCA/Universal upon Stein’s retirement. But the good times didn’t last forever, and by 1983 the company’s stock prices were falling and rumors flew that Wasserman (then 70) was nearing the end of his reign. In 1990, Japan’s Matsushita Electric Industrial Company acquired MCA/Universal for $6.59 billion. According to the New York Times, after signing Wasserman to a five-year contract to continue managing the company whose course he had guided for nearly five decades, Matsushita sold MCA/Universal to Seagram Company without informing him. The aging Wasserman stayed on as a “media consultant” to the company–which was renamed Universal Studios–but failed to retain his former degree of influence.