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The Original Man in Black

Lew Wasserman's sleek look set the sartorial standard for Hollywood agents

June 07, 2002|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With his oversized black-rimmed glasses, elegant dark suits and pristine white shirts, the late Lew Wasserman came to personify Hollywood power. Along the way, his look became an archetype for legions of talent agents today.

As the former chairman and chief executive of the Music Corp. of America, Wasserman, who died Monday, not only created a way of doing business but also inspired the unofficial dress code that governs the way Hollywood agents look today. With his insistence on austere attire in a business that was once more gaudy than genteel, he helped improve the negative perception of talent agents as disreputable cads.

"When I became a talent agent for MCA, the word 'agent' was synonymous with 'pimp,' " Wasserman once said. "Talent agents wore green suits and hung around street corners with big cigars in their mouths.... I wanted to change the image."

The power of his image lingers over an industry that is well known for its creative boundary-breaking, where lawyers, accountants and even studio executives eschew business suits for crinkled khakis and casual shirts. In virtually any meeting of Hollywood types today, the person most likely to wear a suit is the agent.

"Every CAA agent I've ever seen wears a suit, and the ICM agents wear suits," said Marty Bauer, a former president of United Talent Agency, who now operates the Bauer Co. management firm in Beverly Hills.

Most of the other large talent agencies, including UTA, Endeavor and William Morris, are recognized by their sharp-dressing agents. Many agents adhere to some variation on the dress code Wasserman instilled in the late 1940s when MCA invaded Hollywood. The code would be updated in the '80s by the ultra-stylish Giorgio Armani-clad Michael Ovitz when he headed the Creative Artists Agency.

Though even stodgy corporate America long ago relieved many employees from having to wear suits, agents continue to embrace traditional business attire whether they're at lunch, a hip night spot or a movie premiere. "It's to maintain a degree of professionalism," said Bauer, who credits Wasserman at MCA and others at the William Morris agency for setting the standard. "Those two made their people wear suits. In fact, they used to wear black suits. That kind of custom has continued to maintain itself." As the agencies traded employees, their traditions cross-pollinated, helping to spread the gospel of the well-cut suit.

Astute agents haven't forgotten Wasserman's sartorial contributions to their craft.

"In a business where people pride themselves on being creative and distinct, it's important for the more business-minded people to dress the part," said Marty Bowen, a 33-year-old agent at UTA. "Agents wear suits so their clients don't have to."

Across the gender line, the code rules: "I think the customary or unwritten dress code is a business suit for a woman, as well," said Carrie Stein, 42, an agent at ICM. "In the last few years, they have become a little more creative for women, but for men, it's very standard."

Bowen chafes at the discomfort of neckties but learned as a young agent to appreciate the meta-message. "When you're out there, you have to be taken seriously. People are asking you to take control of their career. In some ways, they want to see you as a buttoned-up figure."

Wasserman expertly synthesized his personality, his power and his appearance into a package as sleek and commanding as the black glass skyscraper that he built as chairman at Universal Studios. Like others who reach icon status, Wasserman inherently understood the details of the character he represented. The original MIB--man in black--he was both mysterious and compelling but always correct in his inky, traditionally cut suits that set off his controlled white hair. He didn't have roots in the garment business like his studio mogul predecessors Samuel Goldwyn, Adolph Zukor and Louis B. Mayer, but as a fellow Jew, he understood what many generations of outsiders learn about the value of good clothes: First impressions count, and without the best attire, it's easy for the establishment to count you out.

"There is a certain sort of nattiness that defines you as a player in Hollywood," said Wanda McDaniel, who from her executive post at the Beverly Hills Giorgio Armani boutique has for years dressed the power elite. Wasserman, however, was old school and knew to imitate old money. For his suits, he choose the Chicago-made, $2,000-plus Oxxford suits, said his longtime clothier John Carroll, owner of Carroll & Co. in Beverly Hills.

"Titans of industry wear Oxxford clothes," said Carroll, who listed both presidents Bush as Oxxford acolytes. Whatever the weather, he also wore black cashmere socks.

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