Lew R. Wasserman was a onetime theater usher and talent agent who emerged as the most powerful mogul in post-World War II Hollywood.
Effectively detached from the business for the last seven years of his life, Wasserman was still Hollywood's patriarch, his advice sought by executives, union leaders and politicians. His death marked the symbolic passing of an era in Hollywood that is unlikely to be repeated. Both feared and respected, Wasserman single-handedly wielded the kind of behind-the-scenes clout that could settle labor disputes, bring together studios with conflicting agendas and influence power brokers in Washington, D.C.
"For decades he was the chief justice of the film industry — fair, tough-minded, and innovative. I feel that all of us have lost our benevolent godfather," director Steven Spielberg said.
As head of the former MCA Inc., Wasserman built the prototype of today's entertainment conglomerates, meshing entertainment units together while leveraging successes in one area, such as movies, into profitable ventures in other businesses, such as theme parks and television. As an agent, he forged a landmark deal for actor James Stewart giving the star a piece of the profits and wide-ranging creative control, power that top stars today take for granted.
He put together a company that boasted a movie studio (Universal) that gave Spielberg his break with "Jaws" and also released such Spielberg hits as "Jurassic Park," "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" and "Schindler's List." Other films released during Wasserman's tenure included the Oscar-winning "Out of Africa," "American Graffiti," and comedies such as the raunchy "Animal House."
When other Hollywood figures viewed television in its infancy as a threat to the motion picture studios, Wasserman saw its promise and embraced it, operating a television division that over the years produced such hit shows as "Kojak," "Miami Vice" and "Coach." MCA's music conglomerate boasted top acts across the spectrum, including Nirvana, Reba McEntire and Elton John. The Universal Studios theme park Wasserman built attracted millions of visitors to Southern California each year from around the world, luring them with the glamour of touring a studio back lot where films were made.
Wasserman's imprint went well beyond the entertainment business and into politics. Smarting from a 1962 deal with the federal government forcing him to divest his talent agency business from MCA's movie operations, Wasserman vowed never to let something like that happen again and immersed himself in the workings of government.
A confidant of presidents and world leaders, Wasserman correctly sensed that money and access to stars spoke volumes with politicians. He became Hollywood's most skillful executive at raising campaign funds and at forging ties to top politicians in Washington, Sacramento and at Los Angeles City Hall. From his office on the 15th floor of MCA's Black Tower that now carries his name in Universal City, Wasserman, with a handful of phone calls, could rally Hollywood to raise millions for candidates.
|1973||Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award||Win|