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LEW R. WASSERMAN : 1913 - 2002

The Hollywood Mogul and Kingmaker Dies at 89

Legacy: As MCA chief, his behind-the-scenes clout guided an industry and extended to politics.

June 04, 2002|JAMES BATES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lew R. Wasserman, a onetime theater usher and talent agent who emerged as the most powerful mogul in post-World War II Hollywood, died Monday morning at his Beverly Hills home from complications of a stroke. He was 89.

Wasserman's health had deteriorated since May 17, when he suffered the stroke. In keeping with his intensely private life, Wasserman's family held services late Monday.

Effectively detached from the business for the last seven years, Wasserman was still Hollywood's patriarch, his advice sought by executives, union leaders and politicians. His death marks the symbolic passing of an era in Hollywood that is unlikely to be repeated. Both feared and respected, Wasserman single-handedly wielded the kind of behind-the-scenes clout that could settle labor disputes, bring together studios with conflicting agendas and influence power brokers in Washington, D.C.

"For decades he was the chief justice of the film industry--fair, tough-minded, and innovative. I feel that all of us have lost our benevolent godfather," director Steven Spielberg said.

As head of the former MCA Inc., Wasserman built the prototype of today's entertainment conglomerates, meshing entertainment units together while leveraging successes in one area, such as movies, into profitable ventures in other businesses, such as theme parks and television. As an agent, he forged a landmark deal for actor James Stewart giving the star a piece of the profits and wide-ranging creative control, power that top stars today take for granted.

He put together a company that boasted a movie studio that gave Spielberg his break with "Jaws" and also released such Spielberg hits as "Jurassic Park," "E.T.--the Extra-Terrestrial" and "Schindler's List." Other films released during Wasserman's tenure included the Oscar-winning "Out of Africa," "American Graffiti," and comedies such as the raunchy "Animal House."

When other Hollywood figures viewed television in its infancy as a threat to the motion picture studios, Wasserman saw its promise and embraced it, operating a television division that over the years produced such hit shows as "Kojak," "Miami Vice" and "Coach." MCA's music conglomerate boasted top acts across the spectrum, including Nirvana, Reba McEntire and Elton John. The Universal Studios theme park Wasserman built attracted millions of visitors to Southern California each year from around the world, luring them with the glamour of touring a studio back lot where films were made.

Wasserman's imprint went well beyond the entertainment business and into politics. Smarting from a 1962 deal with the federal government forcing him to divest his talent agency business from MCA's movie operations, Wasserman vowed never to let something like that happen again and immersed himself in the workings of government.

A confidant of presidents and world leaders, Wasserman correctly sensed that money and access to stars spoke volumes with politicians. He became Hollywood's most skillful executive at raising campaign funds and at forging ties to top politicians in Washington, Sacramento and at Los Angeles City Hall. From his office on the 15th floor of MCA's Black Tower that now carries his name in Universal City, Wasserman, with a handful of phone calls, could rally Hollywood to raise millions for candidates.

Even the most powerful of moguls rarely turned down a personal appeal from Wasserman. He became the most important fund-raiser in Hollywood in an era when huge sums were needed to buy television ads and conduct national campaigns.

He was one of the first Hollywood executives to get to know Bill Clinton when the future president was a relatively unknown Arkansas governor.

Los Angeles Dodgers Chairman Robert Daly, former head of rival Warner Bros., recalled that when President Clinton visited Daly's home for a fund-raiser, his first words were, "Is Lew here?" Clinton then sought out Wasserman before talking to anyone else, Daly recalled.

"He was one of the smartest men I ever met, and in more than intellectual ways. He just came across as someone who understood what life was all about and was pulling for people to have good lives," Clinton told The Times on Monday.

Although a passionate liberal Democrat, Wasserman's voice was heard by both parties. Indeed, at no time was his clout seemingly greater than it was during the Republican-dominated 1980s, when a former B-actor Wasserman once represented as an agent, Ronald Reagan, occupied the White House.

"Lew was Ronnie's first agent in Hollywood and they became fast friends," former First Lady Nancy Reagan said in a statement Monday about their friendship of more than 60 years. "He gave Ronnie some of the best advice in the business. It seems no matter where we've been--Sacramento, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles--Lew Wasserman was always there for us."

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