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The Last Mogul | The Nation

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The Last Mogul

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The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Wasserman went to work out of high school to support his family. He was ambitious, energetic and blessed with a rare combination of street smarts and native intellect that made him a quick study in the agency business. After a stint in MCA's New York office with Sonny Werblin and Swifty Lazar, Wasserman was sent to the West Coast in 1939, and within a year Stein gave him free rein. Working for a cash-rich company in Depression-era Hollywood, in a field overrun with hustlers and "flesh peddlers," Wasserman took Hollywood by storm. He bought out the contracts of top stars like Bette Davis and mid-range stars like Ronald Reagan. More significant, he bought entire agencies, including those of Leland Hayward and Myron Selznick, then Hollywood's top agents. The Hayward buyout in 1945 secured MCA's foothold in Hollywood, as well as Wasserman's. Hayward called him "the best agent I ever saw," and Stein described Wasserman as the "pupil who was surpassing the teacher." Wasserman was surpassing MCA's more senior agents like Werblin and Taft Schreiber as well. In 1946, at age 33 and just ten years after joining the agency, Wasserman was named president of MCA by Stein, who assumed the newly created post of chairman of the board.

About the Author

Thomas Schatz
Thomas Schatz, a professor of film studies at the University of Texas, is the author of The Genius of the System (...

Thus began Wasserman's and MCA's phenomenal postwar ascent. Jules Stein "had set the pattern," Bruck notes, but Wasserman's "appetite for power was far, far greater." MCA's dark-suited minions soon dominated the flow of talent into both the motion picture and nascent television industries even more thoroughly than Stein's troops had dominated "bands and acts." In the process, Wasserman cut deals that revolutionized the entertainment business. He devised capital gains setups for scores of stars and directors, forming independent production companies that gave talent far more income and power than ever before. He negotiated an unprecedented "back-end" deal for James Stewart giving him 50 percent of his films' revenues, which forever revolutionized profit sharing for top stars. And he cut equally extraordinary deals for Alfred Hitchcock's services with both Paramount and CBS that gave the director ownership of his films and his hit TV series, making Hitchcock an entertainment franchise unto himself and the wealthiest filmmaker in Hollywood.

The key to MCA's postwar surge was not film (or music) but television. While the movie studios were struggling and the moguls of old either dismissed or opposed the new medium, Wasserman embraced it. Recognizing television's voracious appetite for talent and programming, he created MCA-Revue to produce "telefilm" series and also, crucially, to buy old movies and TV shows for syndication. The fact that MCA was involved at all in TV production--an obvious conflict of interest for a talent agency--is further evidence of Wasserman's business savvy and agile back-room maneuvering. In 1952, as Hollywood's talent base was flocking to New York, then the center of live video production, Wasserman convinced the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) via its president (and MCA client) Ronald Reagan to grant MCA a "blanket waiver" allowing it to both represent talent and produce TV series. This gave MCA a huge advantage, and by the late 1950s it was the leading supplier of prime-time programming. MCA's syndication operation was equally successful, providing enough ready cash for the 1959 purchase of Universal City, Hollywood's largest studio lot, as a base of operations.

Wasserman then set his sights on Universal Pictures and parent company Decca Records. That and the SAG waiver invited a Justice Department investigation--one of many, notes Bruck, who marvels that "no fewer than eight investigations of MCA by the antitrust division had been aborted since 1941." Wasserman & Co. dodged yet another indictment, agreeing to terms that greatly favored MCA. The government agreed not to prosecute, on the condition that MCA completely dissolve its agency. MCA readily complied, since the agency was generating far less revenue than TV production and syndication, and since that freed MCA to purchase Decca and Universal, thus creating the first modern media conglomerate. Wasserman immediately began upgrading and expanding Universal City, culminating in the construction of the infamous Black Tower, a fifteen-story glass monolith--the tallest building in Hollywood--that announced Wasserman's regime in no uncertain terms.

Universal Television enhanced MCA-Revue's rule of prime-time programming via such innovations as the long-form series and the made-for-television movie. Scorned as a "sausage factory" by critics and competitors alike, MCA's TV operation paid the bills during the 1960s as the company struggled to find its way in a movie industry that was sliding into a deep recession. By 1969 MCA was losing money for the first time ever, which left Wasserman vulnerable to an attack that came in the form of the legendary "palace coup"--an event that has been shrouded in mystery for decades, and that Bruck describes in intimate detail. Mounted by longtime MCA rival Taft Schreiber, who deeply resented Wasserman's authority, the coup gained steam only because Stein himself had come to resent Wasserman's post-merger supremacy as well as MCA's quarterly losses. But top executives Sid Sheinberg, Frank Price and Jennings Lang all threatened to leave along with Wasserman if Schreiber took charge, and so Stein relented, publicly reaffirming Wasserman as president and CEO. And in 1973, after a half-century at the helm, Stein himself stepped down and appointed Wasserman his successor, with Sheinberg moving up to the MCA presidency.

"The seventies belonged to Wasserman," writes Bruck. He "presided majestically over a world he had been shaping for decades," thanks to a successful formula "combining inevitably volatile movie production with a stable and highly lucrative TV business." In 1973, Universal's movie fortunes improved dramatically with American Graffiti and The Sting, and then went into overdrive in 1975 with Jaws, a signal event for both the studio and the industry. Jaws put Wunderkind director Steven Spielberg on the map (it was his second feature) and provided a prototype for the modern Hollywood blockbuster: a high-cost, high-speed, high-concept entertainment machine propelled by a nationwide "saturation" release campaign, which was subsequently milked for every licensing and tie-in dollar possible, including sequels and theme-park rides. Jaws was Hollywood's first "summer blockbuster" and the first film to return over $100 million to its distributor--still the measure of a blockbuster hit. Universal kept the momentum going with Jaws II, Smokey and the Bandit, Animal House and The Deer Hunter, and by 1980 it ruled the movie industry as thoroughly as it did television. Another MCA success story at the time involved its legendary "studio tour," which dated back to the silent era but had been moribund until Wasserman revived it in the 1960s. By the 1980s it had evolved into a highly successful theme park at Universal City, and MCA was creating new parks in various locations in the United States and abroad.

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