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LEW R. WASSERMAN 1913 - 2002

A Feared and Respected Force From a Past Era

June 04, 2002|ROBERT W. WELKOS, ANITA M. BUSCH and CLAUDIA ELLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

When Lew R. Wasserman rose to power in post-World War II Hollywood, the studios were ruled by men with names like Mayer, Warner and Goldwyn. By the time he exited the stage decades later, Wasserman had outstripped them all. But the Hollywood he once dominated had become a place that no longer could create a mogul in such a singular mold.

Although Wasserman helped bring down the old studio system, by the end of his reign he had become something of a relic, a bridge between Hollywood's legendary past and its corporate future, one in which giant media conglomerates would supplant the unique culture of an industry built on individual clout.

Courtly, yet tough as nails, Wasserman often was called the last of the moguls, and with good reason. His influence extended from movies to television, music, theme parks, the Hollywood labor front and even politics, making him one of the most respected and, in some ways, feared men in the entertainment business.

"What has changed vastly is the structure of the business," said actor-director Warren Beatty, who had regular lunches with Wasserman, the last time only a few weeks ago at Morton's.

"When entertainment companies were not affiliated with larger companies, they had more common interests, so it was possible for Lew to unify those companies," Beatty said. Now, "it's very difficult to unify the interests of the parent companies whose interests are often legitimately disparate."

When Wasserman arrived on the scene, stars such as Robert Taylor, Clark Gable and Lana Turner were held in virtual economic servitude by the studios where they were under long-term contract. Wasserman helped break those chains. In today's system, stars such as Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts, who each command salaries of $20 million or more a picture, routinely top the industry power lists and exert so much influence in the moviemaking process that they are, in many respects, mini-corporations.

Robert Daly, who with Terry Semel ran Warner Bros. throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, said no one will ever attain Wasserman's power because the business of Hollywood has changed so drastically since Wasserman ruled MCA and Universal.

"There won't be anyone like Lew Wasserman again because these companies are too big," said Daly, now the Los Angeles Dodgers chairman. "It was an industry town and totally controlled by the studios and the networks. He was the guy that was the No. 1 guy at the networks and the No. 1 guy in Washington for the industry."

In those days, Daly said, it was clear who the good guys and bad guys were. Daly characterized Wasserman as the "town marshal who made sure the law was enforced" in what was then a simpler time.

"It reminds me of the old westerns because you knew who wore the white hats and who wore the black hats," Daly said. "That's the way the town was. It's not like that anymore. In your own companies, you aren't sure who is wearing the black hat. In your own company people have different agendas."

Wasserman's power is unlikely to be rivaled in yet another arena.

From the 1960s through the 1980s, Wasserman was the premier political fund-raiser in Hollywood, the first contact most Democratic politicians sought to open wallets on the West Coast. "Any time you went to Los Angeles, one of the first calls you made was to Lew Wasserman, and this was going on for 40 years," said longtime Democratic fund-raiser Terry McAuliffe, now chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Wasserman played such a central political role partly because he developed strong personal relations with politicians from Lyndon Johnson to Ronald Reagan (whom he had represented as an agent decades before) to Bill Clinton. But his influence in Washington also depended largely on his power in Hollywood: He became the undisputed point of contact for politicians because he was so clearly seen as the first-among-equals among the studio chiefs.

For that reason, many analysts believe that Wasserman's predominant political role is unlikely to be replicated. Today most of the studios are divisions in larger entertainment conglomerates; that has reduced the ability of the studio heads to speak for their own companies, much less the industry.

Haim Saban, who built an empire on "Power Rangers," is one of Hollywood's largest Democratic Party donors. He said he wanted to follow in Wasserman's footsteps in his desire to play a role in Washington.

"To reach the same level of influence would be very difficult today," he said. "The system has changed. I should be so lucky that I could fill one-tenth of Lew's shoes in the political world."

When Wasserman was climbing the corporate ladder, Hollywood was, in many ways, a small town where everyone knew one another and deals were often sealed with a handshake.

The stars and moguls would lunch together and make deals at the Brown Derby. Movie stars often lived next to each other. Their kids would have birthday parties together.

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