Lew Wasserman

The man who ruined movies.

Lew Wasserman: the mogul of the cineplex

Even by the standards of unctuous funereal tributes, it is hard to match Jack Valenti’s weepy valedictory for motion-picture executive Lew Wasserman in Daily Variety: “When he breathed his last, he entered into that place where legends live on. He is non-xeroxable. His like will never be seen again in our industry.” About all that was missing from Valenti’s rhetoric was a riderless horse.

But what did this 89-year-old talent-agent turned Universal Studios titan, the man whom the New York Times dubbed the “Last of the Hollywood Moguls,” accomplish beyond outliving his contemporaries? How are we, the movie-going public, richer because Lew Wasserman walked this earth?

Missing from all the gushy epitaphs is an example of a single great picture that got made because of Wasserman’s vision. When they run the memorial film reel at next year’s Oscars, there will be the obligatory clips from Psycho, The Sting, and Jaws. But even during the drug-induced brilliance of 1970s Hollywood, Wasserman’s taste at Universal was always conservative, middle-aged, and middlebrow: no Coppolas, no Altmans, no Scorseses. As Dennis McDougal points out in The Last Mogul, his unauthorized 1998 biography of Wasserman, the Universal kingmaker even balked at the choice of young Steven Spielberg to direct Jaws. Wasserman asked his underlings, “Wouldn’t you be better off with one of the sure-handed guys who’s done this kind of picture before?”

With Jaws, Wasserman spawned the blockbuster culture that dominates the modern movie industry. If the only movies playing at your local cineplex are Spider-Man and the new Star Wars epic, Wasserman deserves much of the blame. Despite his initial doubts about Jaws, Wasserman (maybe because he understood sharks) knew how to market it. Defying the movie industry’s natural suspicion of television, he saturated the airwaves with ads for coming attractions. And in place of the traditional model of premiering a movie in New York and Los Angeles, Jaws simultaneously swam onto screens across the country. The movie made $192 million in its first year, single-handedly driving serious movies off the summertime calendar.

Wasserman’s entire career was built around an unspoken credo: The deal, no matter how cynical, is an end in itself. His great triumph as an agent was the 1950 arrangement under which Jimmy Stewart starred in the film Winchester ‘73 for a hefty cut of the profits rather than a flat fee. It was an epic transformation in the fiscal life of Hollywood. Where once the studios reigned supreme during the golden age of the movies, power shifted to the stars and the big-name directors, most of whom were represented by Wasserman’s agency, MCA. As film historian Neal Gabler summed up in the Los Angeles Times this week, “In effect, Wasserman was the man who put the inmates in charge of the Hollywood asylum.” Yet as head of Universal, Wasserman was reluctant to indulge the inmates.

Stubbornly press shy, Wasserman was as monochrome as the black suits, white shirts, and dark ties he began wearing when he joined MCA, then exclusively a talent agency, in the 1930s. He left behind almost no memorable quotes or colorful anecdotes. Virtually his only personality quirk was a preternatural ability to inspire dread through volcanic explosions. As Frank Rose put it in a 1995 Los Angeles Times profile, “The legendary rages would begin with an ominous tapping of the sword-like letter opener on his immaculate antique desk and proceed to a fury so total that it could leave a grown man in a $1,500 suit hugging the toilet in fear.”

Small wonder Wasserman felt a natural affinity for Lyndon Johnson. Facing a relentless Justice Department investigation in the early 1960s, Wasserman discovered the river of power that flowed from channeling Hollywood money to Democratic candidates. LBJ’s 1964 campaign marked his elevation into the top ranks of Democratic fund-raisers. In The Power and the Glitter, his 1990 book on Hollywood and politics, Ronald Brownstein writes, “Wasserman, Hollywood’s toughest operator, eased into this rugged environment as if he were born to it.”

But Wasserman, unlike the left-wing Malibu Democrats, was never an ideologue, as evidenced by his 1968 support for Hubert Humphrey. From Johnson to Clinton, his cause was making sure that the film industry had a pipeline to a Democratic White House. In his equation of politics with business, in his understanding that money buys access, Wasserman was no different than the conservative Texas oilmen who bankrolled the rise of LBJ.

Wasserman personally made an estimated $500 million from the 1990 sale of MCA (which owned Universal) to the Japanese conglomerate Matsushita. And even during his five unhappy years working for Matsushita, he remained a towering figure. He had reached a stage in life where he no longer had to scream; his often laconic presence radiated power and commanded instant respect. (Except to the Japanese, who in a final 1995 humiliation sold Universal to Seagram without ever informing Wasserman.)

One last story that I heard from a friend of Wasserman’s: A stickler for punctuality, the mogul and his wife, Edie, were seen sitting awkwardly at a table set for four at the old-guard restaurant Chasen’s in early 1990s. Looking angrily at his watch, Wasserman grumbled, “Our guests are 15 minutes late.” A few minutes later, Ronald and Nancy Reagan belatedly joined the couple at their table. Maybe that should be the epitaph of Lew Wasserman, a man who for more than 60 years zealously pursued power for its own sake: He only waited for presidents.