After a Lifetime of Making Deals, Studio Chief Ends With His Biggest
Dec. 02, 1990
UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. (AP) _ During 50 years in Hollywood, Lew Wasserman made thousands of deals, from raising Ronald Reagan's salary to improving Joan Crawford's dressing room.
Yet his biggest deal came last week: The $6.6 billion sale of MCA Inc. to the Japanese electronics giant Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.
Hollywood's premiere dealmaker took an active part in the four months of behind-the-scenes negotiations, during which rumors of a collapse circulated. Then on Monday, an agreement was announced. After a few comments to the press, Wasserman returned to the relative anonymity that he has maintained throughout his career.
He has said little about his future plans, although Matsushita promised to keep current MCA management in place. Wasserman stands to reap more than $350 million in cash and stock from the takeover.
The Wasserman success story is so cliche-ridden that his own scriptwriters would be embarrassed to write it. Born March 15, 1913, in Cleveland, he started work at 12 hawking candy in a burlesque house. During high school, he ushered in a movie house, acquiring his lifelong habit of getting by on five hours of sleep nightly.
At 21, he became vice president for advertising and promotion at a theater- restaurant, the Mayfair Casino. A newspaperman introduced Wasserman to a dark- haired beauty who clerked for the May Co., Edith Beckerman. He offered her two passes to the nightclub.
''I leaped at the offer because he was a very attractive man,'' the woman who would become Edie Wasserman recalled later. ''I paid more attention to Lew than the show. After that I chased him for a year - until he caught me.''
Through the night club, Wasserman met Jules Stein, who supplied big-name bands through his talent agency, Music Corporation of America. Stein, a former Chicago eye doctor who had become intrigued by show business, offered the young man a job as national advertising director of MCA at $60 a week.
''The job has a great future,'' he told Edie.
''What so great about it?'' she asked.
''Stein is an old man. He's 40.''
In the 1930s the visionary Stein sought to broaden MCA by invading Hollywood, where big money could be made in movies and radio. Stein and Wasserman brought a new image to the Hollywood agent, who was stigmatized as a cigar-chomping loudmouth in a checkered suit. MCA agents were well-spoken and dressed in tailored grey.
They also were tough.
During one of his rare interviews, Wasserman was asked about his reputation as a hard, ruthless man. His reply:
''If negotiating in an attempt to arrive at a favorable deal comes under the heading of being hard, I would stipulate that I'm hard ... Actually I don't think the word 'ruthless' fits our time. It is outmoded. It's a carryover from robber baron days.''
In 1946, Stein became chairman of MCA and named Wasserman, 33, his successor as president. Wasserman virtually invented the package deal - selling movie contracts that included script, stars, producer and director, all MCA clients.
The postwar years were cataclysmic for Hollywood. Television would eventually cut movie attendance in half and wipe out network radio. Wasserman was determined that MCA would get its share of the new medium.
Revue Productions was founded to supply the need for a huge amount of entertainment to fill the nation's television screens. Series like ''Wagon Train,'' ''M Squad'' and ''Highway Patrol'' were ground out on tight budgets, often with over-the-hill MCA clients.
By the late 1950s, the oldtime Hollywood studios were plagued by empty stages and shuttering theaters. None was in worse shape than Universal, which had undergone a series of ownerships. Stein and Wasserman made their move.
In 1959 MCA bought Universal Studios, paying $11.3 million for the prime property in the hills just north of Hollywood. The Justice Department decreed that MCA would have to leave the agency business if it owned a studio. No problem. The Beverly Hills agency was closed, and Stein's collection of antique English furniture moved to Universal City.
From his penthouse office in the studio's Black Tower, Wasserman commanded the ever-growing MCA empire. Unlike Harry Cohn, Jack Warner and Darryl Zanuck of the previous era, Wasserman did not meddle daily in creative matters. He preferred to direct overall policy, leaving the nitty-gritty of filmmaking to executives and producers. ''I'm just a paper-pusher,'' he claimed.
His influence extended far beyond the studio boundaries. From John Kennedy to George Bush, Wasserman has had a personal relationship with U.S. presidents, as well as leading members of Congress. Thus he has been able to influence legislation and agency policy affecting the film industry.
Wasserman also earned a reputation as Hollywood's peacemaker. During bitter contract negotiations and industrywide strikes, he often provided the solution that would get cameras rolling again.
He's also been a target for demonstrators: When Universal released the controversial ''Last Temptation of Christ'' in 1988, Wasserman's home was a picket site.
At 77, Wasserman presents an imposing figure - 6 feet 2 inches tall, 160 pounds, with a healthy crop of graying hair atop his broad brow. His single nod toward eccentricity is the ever-present pair of outsized, black-rimmed spectacles.
He and Edie, who have a daughter Lynne and two grandchildren, live in a comfortable but not overly grand house on the west side of Los Angeles. The furnishings are 18th Century English and the wall decorations are by Picasso, Degas, Matisse and others.
Both Wassermans are active in charities, particularly the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital. They entertain modestly - except for their 50th wedding anniversary gala four years ago.
Guests from the political, financial and show worlds entered on Universal's New York Street and dined in the ''Back to the Future'' town square, one of several sets recently destroyed in a fire. The celebrants included clients Wasserman once represented as an agent: Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Jimmy Stewart, Charlton Heston, Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers.
The New Hollywood was represented by producers Steven Spielberg and Henry Winkler, actor Don Johnson, and studio moguls Michael Eisner of Disney and Rupert Murdoch of Fox.
From the political scene: Lady Bird Johnson, Alan Cranston, Pete Wilson, Lloyd Bentsen, Howard Metzenbaum, George Mitchell. Also Wasserman's first client when he arrived in Hollywood, President Reagan, who toasted Lew and Edie: ''Let's all get together on their 75th.''
End Adv Sunday, Dec. 2