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King Lew the elusive

Biographer Connie Bruck had rare access to MCA mogul Lew Wasserman, enough to find herself in controversial waters.

June 08, 2003|James Bates | Times Staff Writer

It's fitting that the most candid revelation from the late Hollywood mogul Lew R. Wasserman in Connie Bruck's new biography, "When Hollywood Had a King," is Wasserman's admission that the dumbest thing he ever did was selling his beloved MCA Inc. to a Japanese electronics company in 1990.

As someone who throughout his life was Hollywood's sphinx, Wasserman's confession is significant. He became one of the industry's most powerful figures in part because he never let his guard down and didn't second-guess himself, especially in public.

But up until he died a year ago last week, from a stroke at age 89, Wasserman remained one of the industry's most perceptive minds. He couldn't help but agonize watching what once was one of Hollywood's most stable institutions suffer under a series of inept corporate parents that succeeded him.

Starting with Japan's Matsushita Electric Industrial, the company was passed to liquor giant Seagram Co. and finally to France's Vivendi Universal, which today is a financial shambles. Within a few months, Universal Studios, its theme parks and music group will likely be sold to their fourth owners since Wasserman made his fateful decision 13 years ago.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 12, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction
"Psycho" -- In the June 8 Sunday Calendar, an article on Lew Wasserman said that his studio, Universal, released the Alfred Hitchcock film "Psycho." In fact, Wasserman arranged for Hitchcock's deal and provided the studio lot for the film, but Paramount Pictures released it in 1960. Universal later acquired the rights to the movie, which has long been part of the Universal library.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 15, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
"Psycho" studio -- In the June 8 Sunday Calendar, an article on Lew Wasserman said that his studio, Universal, released the Alfred Hitchcock film "Psycho." In fact, Wasserman arranged for Hitchcock's deal and provided the studio lot for the film but Paramount Pictures released it in 1960. Universal later acquired the rights to the movie, which has long been part of the Universal library.

Against this backdrop comes Bruck's biography of a towering figure who even in death casts a shadow over the industry. Wasserman built the forerunner of today's media giants. His studio released some of Hollywood's classic films, including Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" and "The Birds," and gambled on young talent such as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

Bruck's book is about as close to an authorized biography as anyone will ever get. Wasserman sat for eight one- to two-hour interviews with Bruck, on the condition that the subject be limited to MCA, although Bruck says he eventually tiptoed into personal matters. He also put out the word to friends and associates that it was OK to talk to Bruck. Still, Bruck says, Wasserman was cautious, telling stories that it was obvious he had told numerous times before.

"He never liked the idea of being questioned," Bruck said in an interview at a cafe near her Brentwood home. "He was just so used to ruling that he wouldn't subject himself to it." A staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, Bruck made Wasserman the subject of her second biography of a major mogul, the first being her 1994 book "Master of the Game" about the late Time Warner Chairman Steve Ross. She also wrote the 1989 bestseller "The Predators' Ball," about junk-bond czar Michael Milken and the takeover artists of the 1980s.

Bruck interviewed Wasserman briefly for a New Yorker piece when he sold the company to Matsushita and thought he might make a good subject for a biography. She launched into it after moving in 1997 to Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband, former Congressman Mel Levine.

That Wasserman would offer any cooperation was unusual. He almost never granted formal interviews. What contacts he did have with reporters, even after he retired to a patriarchal role in the business, came with the strict understanding that even the most innocuous tales were off the record.

For years, Wasserman resisted suggestions to write his memoirs, preferring to take his secrets to the grave. That included reportedly turning down Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who wanted to publish them when she worked for Doubleday. In characteristic competitive zeal, Wasserman reportedly told her that if he were going to publish a book, he'd do it through his own company.

Blair Westlake, a former top Universal TV executive, traces Wasserman's reluctance to talk publicly to his early days as a Hollywood agent. Wasserman's lifelong code, Westlake said, was stay in the background, let his stars take credit and don't share their secrets.

"He could have filled volumes but chose not to," Westlake said. "Lew lived to his very last day by the principle that he wasn't going to tell tales out of school. Even the stories he told were stories that were not in any way revealing or embarrassing."

Bruck said her take on Wasserman was of a brilliant man who saw Hollywood's big picture like no other mogul did. When his fellow executives wanted to squash television, fearing it would keep people from theaters, Wasserman embraced it and proved studios could make a fortune in the medium. He recognized after a bruising antitrust fight with the Kennedy administration that Hollywood couldn't isolate itself from politics, and that its money and celebrities could speak volumes in Washington.

Controversial associates

But he also was a ruthless executive with a notorious temper who often associated with questionable figures, notably alleged mob lawyer Sidney Korshak and reputed mob chief Moe Dalitz. That part of Bruck's book is likely to prove most controversial to Wasserman's admirers.

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