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Memorial Honors the Last of the Hollywood Moguls

July 16, 2002|DAVID PIERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One by one, they stood up to tell how Lew Wasserman had affected their lives: the Arkansas governor he helped turn into a U.S. president; the Oscar-winning director whose career almost was short-circuited when he didn't hit it off with screen legend Joan Crawford; the Roman Catholic cardinal who found a non-Catholic willing to help out the church's poorer schools.

Wasserman, viewed by many as the last of the Hollywood moguls, was their great friend. So said former President Bill Clinton; so said director Steven Spielberg; so said Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony.

On Monday, they came and stood with 3,000 to 4,000 other mourners at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles at a moving, yet upbeat, memorial service for Wasserman, who died of complications from a stroke on June 3.

The legendary former talent agent, who built MCA Inc. into a global entertainment powerhouse, was 89.

For decades, Wasserman had been an influential force in the worlds of entertainment and politics, and now many had come to pay their last respects.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 17, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 10 inches; 387 words Type of Material: Correction
Wasserman service--A story in Tuesday's California section on the memorial service for Lew Wasserman incorrectly implied that Cardinal Roger M. Mahony had addressed the gathering. Mahony's remarks were made in an interview outside the service.

Among the guests were former Vice President Al Gore; Gov. Gray Davis; former First Lady Nancy Reagan; House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt; Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn; AFL-CIO President John Sweeney; actors Kirk Douglas, Warren Beatty, Jodie Foster, Sharon Stone and Debbie Reynolds; MGM owner Kirk Kerkorian; DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg; director Ron Howard; and even John Ratzenberger, the actor who played a mailman on the sitcom "Cheers."

With the nation mired in business scandals, a number of speakers used the opportunity to say that, unlike those responsible for the accounting messes that have roiled such corporations as Enron and WorldCom, Wasserman was one corporate leader who ran a good ship.

At a time when business executives are under criminal scrutiny, noted Barry Diller, chairman of Vivendi-Universal Entertainment, "Lew was the gold standard."

It was Wasserman, Diller recalled, who created profit sharing for Universal employees.

"When it came to people, he was only interested in long-term commitment. I learned so many things from him," he said.

Sidney Sheinberg, the former president of MCA Inc. and longtime No. 2 executive under Wasserman, said, "Nobody ever wondered about the corporate integrity of our finances, and you never had to worry about Lew knowing what's on our balance sheets."

That's not to say that Wasserman's company--dubbed "The Octopus" in its heyday--escaped critical scrutiny.

The Justice Department forced Wasserman to split off his talent agency business from MCA's movie operations in 1962.

And in the 1980s, the company was investigated for alleged ties with organized crime, but no executives were charged.

Wasserman's biographers also noted his friendship with the late lawyer Sidney Korshak, identified in congressional testimony as the liaison between Hollywood and the Chicago mob, but no one ever accused Wasserman of the kinds of corporate misdeeds being levied against some executives today.

One former studio official who knew him well said Monday: "He never skated on the edge; he never even came close."

When discussing corporate earnings and potential bad news, Wasserman reportedly said, "Let's get it out and put it in the report, then we can always have good news later."

Clinton, for his part, said he had intended to accompany his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), to the service, "but since Lew's money helped put her [in the Senate], I figured it would be best if she stayed and do what she's supposed to do."

The former president said he met Wasserman when he was governor of Arkansas, eager to see more films made in his state.

"Lew shot the whole idea down," Clinton said, with a glint of humor.

Then he added: "He helped me become president. He helped me stay president. He helped me become a better president."

Sweeney told the crowd that it might seem ironic that a labor leader would fly across the country to honor a corporate executive, "but this was not a corporate executive. He started off at the bottom, and he never forgot where he started from.

"Lew Wasserman left giant footprints for all of us to follow."

"Grown men would quiver" when Wasserman was angry, said actress Suzanne Pleshette.

But, Pleshette noted, "they had no idea he lived in fear of a 5-foot, 2-inch woman"--his wife, Edie, who used to wag her finger at him when she was upset.

An emotional Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, called Wasserman's passing the end of an era.

"The bridge to Hollywood's past and future is down and may never be rebuilt because its largest giant among us is gone," he said.

Spielberg related a famous Hollywood tale about how Crawford had tried to get him fired from directing a television pilot when he was just starting out. Wasserman told Crawford, "Don't be angry, because they'll fire you before they fire him.' "

Spielberg called Wasserman his "guardian angel ... a living time machine to that golden era."

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