November 27, 2017
Hall of Fame

Lew Wasserman: Hall of Fame Tribute

Rip Rense

Lew R. Wasserman is simply one of the shrewdest and most prescient businessmen in the history of Hollywood. Make that the United States of America. Make that the world. (Can't go beyond that, unless NASA really knows something we don't.) An argument can be made that Wasserman is the shrewdest and most prescient businessman in Hollywood.

His age now a credible golf score, and his hard-core power-broking days (probably) behind him, Wasserman finds himself a mogulus emeritus — ready to accept recognition from things like, well, the Academy of Television Hall of Fame. It's a profoundly moot thing, such an honor. Without the likes of Wasserman, there might not be things like a Hall of Fame. He's an architect of the house that contains the Hall.

His is a great American story, from small-time talent agency to ivory tower (or, more appropriately, Black Tower, as his MCA Matsushita, nee MCA, headquarters is popularly known). His lithe, black-suited, owl-spectacled, practically mythic presence has been a bulwark in the entertainment industry for half a century — frighteningly potent, yet astonishingly low-key. He has seldom — almost never — granted interviews, and has courted public attention slightly more than the latter-day Howard Hughes.

The attitude is consistent with his no-nonsense philosophy of work. If ever there was a man in Hollywood whose actions speak for themselves, it is Lew Wasserman. This man is his work; the work is the man. Anything not strictly in the interests of expedience and efficiency is excess. As The New Yorker too plainly wrote when the man added the word "emeritus" to his MCA chairmanship in 1995, "Wasserman is action-oriented and not disposed to dally or dither. The silence of power hung over his antiseptic office … "

It's an understatement, really (except for that "silence of power" part). Wasserman screens out unnecessary expenditures of energy with shark-like acumen. As he explained to the Los Angeles Times, years ago, in one of his blue-moon interviews, "I've been fortunate in disciplining myself so that I can focus my attention without distraction. I just blank out whatever else there might be, to achieve the benefit of concentration."

That's all — that simple. Just "blank out" like Wasserman, and you, too, can wind up in charge of one of the most monumental entertainment corporations in history. Fat chance. It goes a light-year beyond that, of course. Wasserman has the kind of business judgment and foresight that many people would mortgage against a one-way trip to Hell; the kind that is granted by genies, Leprechauns and fairy godmothers. How did he come by it? Well, how did Anthony Hopkins learn to act? Where did Pavarotti get his voice?

The truest way to know Wasserman is not to know his mannerisms, habits, quirks, wit, what he eats for lunch (tuna sandwich, incessantly, for decades). It is to know his achievements. Here, brought about by what he modestly terms "the benefit of concentration," are a few of them:

• In 1943, he turned a small, mostly big-band-oriented agency (Music Corp. of America) into a Hollywood powerhouse — in part, by refusing an offer to go to work for rival agency Hayward-Devereaux. Instead, he merged MCA with Hayward-Devereaux.

• He was named president of MCA in 1946 at age 33, managing a roster that included Bette Davis, Betty Grable, John Garfield, and Jane Wyman. His preceding 10 years at the agency had been marked by all manner of innovation, such as the now common practice of "packaging" — the creation of radio programming featuring not one, but a whole batch of its own clients.

• He pioneered the movie percentage fee for actors, as opposed to flat payment. In 1950, Wasserman offered James Stewart to Universal to star in the movie Winchester 73 for a percentage of the film's profits in place of the actor's $250,000 salary. Every actor who gets a percentage today has Wasserman to thank.

• Ever the visionary, Wasserman saw in the advent of television not a pesky horseless carriage, but a potential American Dream on whitewalls, with plush leather interior and cruise-control. One of the first owners of a TV set in Southern California, he set about making MCA a major producer in the still-unsteady medium. His Revue Productions, begun in 1952, achieved the remarkable distinction of a blanket-waiver from the Screen Actor's Guild, allowing MCA to act both as agency and producer. (Well, maybe not so remarkable. As is well-known, the president of SAG who granted the waiver was an old MCA client named Ronald Reagan, who went on to host Revue's GE Theater — and later, to host a larger production back in Washington, D.C.). One of the great early Revue series came from a longtime MCA client, Alfred Hitchcock. His Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which ran from 1955 through 1962, endures today in classic reruns. Wasserman saw to it that MCA became nothing less than one of the dominant forces in TV production by the end of the '50s. By the early '60s, Wasserman's company could boast having created such television classics as Wagon Train, Laramie, Mike Hammer, and Bachelor Father.

• In a move that anticipated the exponential appreciation in value of motion pictures (notably after the advent of video), Wasserman's MCA paid $10 million for Paramount's pre-1948 film library in 1958. While many saw the purchase of old black-and-white movies as downright weird — at any price, let alone $10 million — Wasserman turned around and sold TV broadcast rights for the flicks (which included The Lost Weekend and Going My Way) for, ahem, $30 million.

• MCA bought Universal Pictures in 1958 for $11.25 million, and subsequently went public. Wasserman and other MCA executives, who held 53 percent of the company, became instant millionaires.

• Wasserman's only major setback ultimately brought about a new wrinkle in his career. The purchase of Universal was an attempt to, as he once described it, have an "all-inclusive" manufacturing plant. The U.S. Justice Department saw this — having a production company and agency under one roof — as too "inclusive," and brought successful antitrust action. MCA became a full-fledged production company, and Wasserman went on to take a greater interest in politics and Hollywood leadership. He mediated a writers' strike against TV producers in 1960 (and in 1981), and served as chairman of the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers Inc. (the industry's official arbitration representative) from 1966 to 1975. Ultimately, he became something of
Hollywood's liaison to Washington. President Lyndon Johnson offered to make him secretary of commerce. His advice has been sought on entertainment-related issues by Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and the current administration. Last year. President Clinton presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor that can be bestowed.

• In 1973, Wasserman became chairman of MCA, succeeding founder Jules Stein. The company was worth $160 million. By 1985, MCA's net worth was estimated at $3.6 billion — including the Universal Studios amusement parks in Los Angeles and Florida.

• In 1990, MCA was sold to the Japanese electronics giant, Matsushita, for $6.6 billion — about twice what Wasserman's company had been valued at five years earlier.

In short, Wasserman captained an organization whose contributions to entertainment have been almost unimaginable. MCA/Universal's television creations alone are staggering. Consider a brief list of Universal classics: The Rockford Files, McCloud, Miami Vice, Simon and Simon, Magnum, P.I., Murder She Wrote, The Six Million Dollar Man, Columbo, Kojak — well, talking about Universal's place in TV history is practically like talking about the camera's place in entertainment.

Small wonder, then, that accolades have come easily from Wasserman's peers, like entertainment industry mogul Barry Diller, who once called the man simply "the number-one guy in the profession." Or veteran entertainment lawyer Ed Hookstratten, who touched on the obvious key to Wasserman's success: "He collects manpower, dominating whatever he undertakes. His business has become his recreation."

Wasserman's own analysis of his skills? Characteristic humble remarks about MCA's achievements aside (he routinely credits the many people working for the company), he has admitted to being adept at reducing complex deals to bottom-line questions (virtuosic is a better word for it). And that he sometimes is not too terribly gentle. As Wasserman once explained to an interviewer, with his usual brevity and understatement: "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."

Perhaps it's more accurate to say that his style is doggedly, almost supernaturally cut-to-the-chase pragmatic. As The New Yorker observed, “what irritated him most was any failure by his executives to communicate important information, and, by his standards, any scrap of information could be important in the grand design of a deal." His expertise is seldom questioned by accountants or attorneys.

Tales of Wasserman's temper are legion, yet always qualified by the fact that his wrath usually had a logical foundation and was professional, never personal. As former MCA agent George Chasen, whose clients included Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, once remarked of the dreaded summons to Wasserman's office:

“If you were called in, it was for a drubbing down. But he was never wrong. And he never let a man leave his office unhappy. After he'd scold somebody, he'd put his arms around their shoulder, assure them it was strictly professional, and then offer them a drink or dinner.”

The story of Lew Wasserman is indeed a story of dollars, cents, bottom lines, hard negotiating, bedrock leadership, inspired decisions — of a professional with a nearly ascetic devotion to his work. It's also a story of an enterprising young man who saw a good opportunity a long time ago in Cleveland, Ohio; of a dedicated husband who's been married to the same lady, the former Edith T. Beckerman, for 60 years(!); of a philanthropist who, with his wife, has donated about $12 million to the Motion Picture and Television Fund alone (and raised many millions more); of a political activist who is said to be the current biggest single contributor to the Democratic Party.

Growing up in Cleveland, Wasserman discovered his affection for work at age 12 — hawking candy in a burlesque house. While in high school, he went to work full­time as a movie theater usher (between studying and the job, he settled into his lifelong habit of sleeping only five hours a night). By his early 20s, he graduated to managing a theater/nightclub called the Mayfair Casino. Not long afterward, a newspaperman introduced him to Edith, a perky clerk at a local May Co. Wasserman promptly bestowed on her two passes to the Mayfair — passes that, as Mrs. Wasserman was to later remember, "launched our romance … I chased him for a year — until he caught me." They were married in July 1936.

While continuing his work at the Mayfair, Wasserman had the temerity to criticize the way MCA publicized its big bands. Word of this filtered to headquarters in Chicago, and Wasserman was soon summoned there to meet with MCA founder Jules Caesar Stein. The 40-year-old Stein promptly offered 23-year-old Wasserman a job, and thus began one of the greatest associations in Hollywood history. ("I know I'm a genius," Stein once remarked, "because I picked Lew Wasserman.")

"[My wife and I] made a joint decision to join MCA, although it meant a reduction in salary," Wasserman explained in a 1982 interview with W magazine. "[We] ended up sharing a Murphy bed for six months."

In fact, to hear Mrs. Wasserman ("Madam," as Mr. Wasserman refers to her) tell it, money was not a top priority: “When we married, we didn't talk along lines of wealth," she told an interviewer some years ago. "We wanted success, certainly, and I knew he was ambitious. But I never thought of him as an empire builder. In the 1930s, all you worried about was where your next dollar was coming from. We were Depression kids."

The Depression kid, now 83, if you're counting, still maintains an office at MCA (he was recently allowed to keep his English antique furniture, collected by Jules Stein after World War II, despite a Matsushita modernist makeover), but is wont to step out for a proud stroll through Universal City's Citywalk (his wife calls it "Wasserland") now and again. And to, as per his longtime habit, take his beloved grandson, Casey, to Saturday breakfast at Nate n' Al's in Beverly Hills. (Mr. and Mrs. Wasserman have two grandchildren from daughter Lynne: 21-year-old UCLA student Casey, and 29-year-old stand-up comic Carol Leif.)

And as the one-time nightclub manager from Cleveland, Ohio, reflects on a life spectacularly (he might say effectively) lived, there is perhaps one achievement that means more than any other — particularly to a guy who has prided himself on strict self-discipline and hard work: in an industry where people change jobs almost as often as they change their therapists. Lew Wasserman remained loyal to exactly one company.

And the entertainment-loving public reaped the rewards.

This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Lew Wasserman's induction in 1996.

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