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An Appreciation

Wasserman Made Old Hollywood Into New

June 05, 2002|NEAL GABLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Lew R. Wasserman, who died Monday at age 89, was the only film executive of the last 40 years whom one could compare to the great generation of movie pioneers: Carl Laemmle, William Fox, Adolph Zukor, Louis B. Mayer, the Warner brothers, Harry Cohn. Wasserman was not one of them--he came much later--but he was their equal in rank because, like them, he shaped the institutions of the industry and fashioned its culture after his image. Where he led, everyone followed. In many respects, they still do.

Wasserman, however, was a different breed from the pioneers, different at first by circumstance and then by intention. That first generation, mostly Eastern European Jewish immigrants, had muddled their way into the movie industry through exhibition; they understood public taste and brought that understanding to production. Wasserman pushed his way into the industry by representing performers as an agent; he understood talent.

He was born in Cleveland in 1913 and gravitated early to show business, selling candy at a burlesque theater, ushering and managing a nightclub before hooking up in 1936 with the Music Corp. of America, a talent agency headed by an ophthalmologist named Jules Stein. Stein mentored Wasserman--the agency represented most of the biggest bands in the '30s and '40s--and Wasserman, who became president of MCA in 1946, repaid Stein's faith by expanding the company's reach into Hollywood, where his stable of stars included Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart, Marilyn Monroe, Burt Lancaster and Ronald Reagan.

The timing was auspicious. In the postwar period, the film industry was beleaguered. The Justice Department, invoking its antitrust powers, had forced the studios to sell off their theaters. Television and other new recreations were siphoning off audience. The House Un-American Activities Committee hearings shook Hollywood's confidence and intensified its fractiousness. And the moguls themselves were aged and weary, and no longer had the stamina to prevent their studios from crumbling. In time, nearly all these iron-fisted dictators would be unceremoniously deposed.

And that is where Lew Wasserman came in. Like Lyndon Johnson, who would later become his close friend, Wasserman understood power. He saw that with the demise of the studios there was now a power vacuum, and he realized that the most natural force to fill it was talent. It was Wasserman who fought the unconscionable studio contracts that effectively made his clients indentured servants, Wasserman who engineered the first deals that ensured his prime clients a percentage of the profits of a picture rather than a straight salary and, above all, Wasserman who facilitated the first independent production companies run by stars. In effect, Wasserman was the man who put the inmates in charge of the Hollywood asylum.

What Wasserman erected remains to this day. The film industry is still fundamentally talent-driven, which means that big stars and big directors are even more powerful than the executives who must vie for them. But Wasserman, again like Johnson, was not content to let himself be an adjunct to those he represented. He knew that while talent was the source of power, a man who could merge the talent with production would be the wielder of that power and the reaper of its rewards.

Like Adolph Zukor, who vertically integrated production, distribution and exhibition at Paramount back in the teens, Wasserman attempted to integrate his agency and production with himself at the fulcrum. Among the first to see the future of television, he created a television arm of MCA to produce programs with the agency's clients. That led to a much bigger gambit: MCA bought a controlling interest in Universal-International. Though the Justice Department decided that it was a conflict of interest for a talent agency to own the studio that would employ its clients, thus forcing Wasserman to divest himself of MCA, the moment was nevertheless symbolically significant. It certified that talent and the studios were now partners.

This achievement would have been enough to engrave Wasserman's name in movie history. But if Wasserman understood the exercise of power, he also understood the importance of its style, especially for an industry predicated on aesthetics, and he bequeathed that too. The old moguls ruled with bluster and bombast. They were bulls. Wasserman ruled with seigniorial coolness. He was a shark. He wore plain, dark suits and trademark oversized horn-rim glasses that, along with his perfectly coifed silver hair, gave him the appearance of a Wall Street broker, though his detractors claimed that this hid a dark side.

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