The Last Mogul

The Last Mogul

Lew Wasserman, who died last summer at 89, was not only the most powerful and influential man in Hollywood over the past half-century but also the most enigmatic.


Lew Wasserman, who died last summer at 89, was not only the most powerful and influential man in Hollywood over the past half-century but also the most enigmatic. Like his mentor Jules Stein, Wasserman shunned publicity, rarely spoke to the press, put almost nothing in writing and came to understand that the cult of mystery and suspicion around him–and his company, MCA-Universal–was ultimately an asset. Wasserman maintained his silence after being forced out as MCA board chairman in 1995 (at 82), despite the frequent entreaties to go on record with his own account of MCA’s remarkable history and his role as chief architect of the New Hollywood. And even after the 1998 hatchet job by journalist Dennis McDougal in The Last Mogul: Lew Wasserman, MCA, and the Hidden History of Hollywood, Wasserman declined to bow out with a self-serving (or self-defensive) mogul memoir.

Now comes Connie Bruck, a longtime staff writer for The New Yorker and author of two very good corporate biographies: The Predator’s Ball, on junk-bond king Michael Milken, and Master of the Game, on Steve Ross and the epochal Time Warner merger. Bruck began writing about Wasserman after the Seagram buyout, and was sufficiently intrigued to start a book-length project just as McDougal’s The Last Mogul appeared. McDougal’s account essentially rehashed Dan Moldea’s 1986 book, Dark Victory: Reagan, MCA, and the Mob, assigning Wasserman’s and MCA’s success not only to the ruthless exercise of power but also to longstanding alliances with politicians like Ronald Reagan and reputed mobsters like Sidney Korshak. Bruck has a different story to tell, one that jibes far better with the industry’s more recent view of Wasserman, which has evolved from fear and distrust to grudging respect and, in some circles, outright deification.

Bruck’s account is When Hollywood Had a King: The Reign of Lew Wasserman, Who Leveraged Talent Into Power and Influence, and the title alone, cumbersome though it is, indicates her more sanguine view of Wasserman. Bruck scarcely ignores the darker side of his “power and influence,” but the overall effect of her book is to both deepen and effectively counter the earlier versions of the Wasserman-MCA saga. And rather than portray Wasserman as the last of the studio moguls, Bruck sees him as an altogether original figure in Hollywood annals. By the 1960s, writes Bruck, Wasserman had assumed “a new, imperial role of his design. There had never been one individual who spoke for the industry, and who navigated its course singlehandedly.” For the next three decades, Wasserman “wielded authority over all of Hollywood”–and not as a power-hungry, avaricious tyrant but as a benevolent dictator.

Bruck ably supports this thesis in her thorough, balanced and insightful biography, which is likely to stand as the definitive account of Wasserman’s remarkable career, due not only to the quality of her reportage but also her exceptional sources. Most uncharacteristically, Wasserman submitted to a series of interviews with Bruck. Though he initially agreed only to discuss MCA founder and his longtime mentor, Jules Stein, he eventually began talking about his own life and career as well. Bruck admits in her introduction that “much of what he said had a distinctly prerecorded quality,” but the fact is that she got closer to the famously reticent Wasserman than any other journalist or biographer, which adds immensely to the project. Bruck also gained access to Stein’s own unpublished memoirs, “as told to” Murray Schumach of the New York Times–yet another tantalizing bit of arcane MCA lore whose existence was known to Hollywood insiders, and whose unpublished status only fueled the mystery surrounding Stein, Wasserman and MCA.

The Wasserman-MCA story is largely the Jules Caesar Stein story as well, and thus a substantial portion of When Hollywood Had a King focuses squarely on the ophthalmologist whose interest in music–and making money–led to the creation of the Music Corporation of America. Stein launched MCA in 1924 as a band-booking agency in Jazz Age Chicago, and within a decade built it into a nationwide powerhouse. A brilliant and innovative businessman, Stein either invented or perfected the one-night stand, “exclusive” contracts with talent buyers, product tie-ins and, perhaps most important, “packaging,” which provided buyers with a full season’s bookings while giving MCA a packaging fee on top of its commissions, as well as a taste of actual production.

Stein understood power, and dealt astutely with the musicians’ unions, with the new medium of commercial radio and, while operating out of Chicago during Prohibition, with the mob. During the 1930s he developed a close working relationship with Sidney Korshak, a rising mob lawyer who helped Stein navigate the treacherous waters of labor relations–and who would continue to help MCA on the labor front for decades. Stein was also a man of cultivated taste and considerable intellect. His obsession with antiques furnished MCA’s far-flung executive offices for a half-century, and his fascination with tax law and the stock market proved vital to MCA’s rapid growth into an amalgam of interlocking companies.

By the mid-1930s, MCA was by far the largest and most powerful booking and talent agency in the music business, whose client list (itself a closely guarded secret) reportedly included some two-thirds of the nation’s top bands. In 1936, Stein made two momentous decisions. One was to move MCA’s corporate headquarters to the West Coast and broaden its focus to include the movie industry. The other was to hire Lew Wasserman, a tall, lean 23-year-old publicist from Cleveland who in time would take the company far beyond even Jules Stein’s grandiose dreams.

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.

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.

Wasserman, meanwhile, steadily broadened his influence into the national political and labor arenas. His close relationship with Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan proved crucial, as did his canny utilization of Sidney Korshak. In 1966, Wasserman single-handedly installed LBJ aide Jack Valenti as head of the Motion Picture Association of America, and through Valenti he exercised enormous clout in Hollywood and Washington. Wasserman unilaterally executed many vital labor contracts and guild agreements from the 1960s into the 1980s, working with Valenti to handle the guilds and unions while relying on Korshak to handle the all-important Teamsters. And Wasserman’s influence over tax laws and media regulations brought literally billions of dollars into the industry. Bruck is in her element here, tracing Wasserman’s central role in brokering an investment tax credit deal for the film studios, and in convincing Reagan to call off the FCC in the one area of media regulation (which prohibited the networks from producing, owning or syndicating entertainment programming) that insured the studios’ continued role as TV program suppliers.

When Hollywood Had a King is at its most compelling when tracing these avenues of Wasserman’s “power and influence.” Among Wasserman’s more revealing statements in the book, and one that reveals as much about Bruck’s own interests, involves the notion of power. “People misuse the word power,” confides Wasserman. “They think it implies an abuse. I don’t consider I have power. I have relationships.” Bruck clearly concurs, and she delves deeply into Wasserman’s relationships with Stein, Johnson, Reagan, Valenti and Korshak; in the process she shrewdly measures Wasserman’s style, his personality and how he got things done. Bruck assesses other relationships as well, notably the Stein-Schreiber alliance in the late 1960s, which involved not only the coup but also the company’s conservative Republican wing, a crucial factor during the Nixon years. (Taft Schreiber hosted a Nixon fundraiser on the night of the Watergate break-in, which Bruck relates in an amusing aside.)

One key relationship that is not examined quite as effectively, however, is that between Wasserman and Sid Sheinberg–no small matter, considering Sheinberg’s role as president of MCA and his close association with Wasserman from the early 1970s onward. A number of vital initiatives, especially in the burgeoning home-video arena, went awry relatively early in the Wasserman-Sheinberg regime and signaled a downturn in the company’s power–but receive rather short shrift in Bruck’s account. In the late 1970s, MCA developed a video-disc system (a precursor to DVD), whose failure cost the company tens of millions, and cost it considerable credibility and prestige as well. In a related and equally ill-fated effort, MCA took the lead in a lengthy and costly lawsuit against Sony’s Betamax VCR for copyright infringement. As the case worked its way to the Supreme Court in the early 1980s, the VCR became a household necessity in the United States and the source of massive revenues for the studios, rendering MCA’s legal challenge a futile and somewhat absurd exercise. Remarkably, Bruck mentions the video-disc failure only in a parenthetical aside, and the Sony-Betamax saga is treated long after the fact, as a minor sidebar in the Matsushita buyout in 1990.

By the time the Sony case was resolved, MCA-Universal was essentially Sheinberg’s company and Wasserman, now in his 70s, was becoming noticeably more cautious and conservative. Opportunities for favorable mergers with companies like RCA and Disney were squandered, due largely to Wasserman’s insistence that Sheinberg run any merged entity. Rivals like Warner and Fox pursued cable and other new media prospects under Steve Ross and Rupert Murdoch, respectively, while MCA kept its focus on movies and television. “While Murdoch was building an empire and Warner diversified adventurously,” writes Bruck, “MCA stuck to its knitting,” and its huge competitive advantage steadily slipped away. But as the combined forces of deregulation, conglomeration and globalization transformed Hollywood, Wasserman eventually had to act. In the wake of the 1989 Time-Warner merger and Sony’s purchase of Columbia-Tristar, Wasserman agreed to let superagent Mike Ovitz broker MCA’s acquisition by the Japanese industrial giant Matsushita, whose VHS home-video system had vanquished Betamax and, like Sony, was looking to Hollywood for a “hardware-software” alliance.

The 1990 Matsushita deal left MCA-Universal intact with Wasserman and Sheinberg in control, but the marriage proved to be disastrous almost from the start. A severe “conflict of cultures” between the new owners and management was exacerbated by the collapse of the Japanese economy, and Wasserman’s plans for expansion were repeatedly thwarted by the parent company. Soon the merger was viewed by all involved as less a blessing than a curse, despite a remarkable run of Universal films, including Cape Fear, Apollo 13 and Spielberg’s back-to-back 1993 hits, Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. In 1995 Matsushita cut its losses and sold MCA-Universal to Seagram in another deal engineered by Ovitz, but without Wasserman and Sheinberg’s knowledge. New owner Edgar Bronfman Jr. dissolved MCA, cashiered Sheinberg and unceremoniously kicked Wasserman upstairs to “chairman emeritus” status–a title that allowed him to retain his office atop the Black Tower (now the Lew Wasserman Building) but gave him no authority or input into the newly configured “Universal.”

The Seagram deal ended Wasserman’s career, although for Bruck it seems to have ended several years before. She devotes only ten pages of When Hollywood Had a King to the five-year Matsushita-MCA era–far less than she devotes to the deal itself, in which she contends that Wasserman had “been had” by Ovitz, signaling the effective end of his half-century reign. “Wasserman lived so long that he outlasted his myth,” writes Bruck, and so the last decade of his life, and his last years atop MCA, are of little note.

Lew Wasserman outlived the myth of his own sovereignty, perhaps, but not the reality of his long-term influence, even if his vision was realized by a later generation of media barons. The Seagram buyout of MCA coincided with a number of other media deals–Viacom’s takeover of Paramount and Blockbuster, for instance, and Disney’s purchase of ABC–which endorsed Wasserman’s vision of a tightly diversified, vertically and horizontally integrated media conglomerate. Indeed, Wasserman’s MCA provided the veritable template, the new paradigm for the blockbuster-driven, synergy-obsessed media giants that now rule the global media landscape. MCA may have been dismantled, but Wasserman’s legacy survives in the very nature and structure of the New Hollywood.

Thus the tough questions at the end of Wasserman’s career are scarcely about mob ties and power plays–which seem increasingly penny ante in this post-Enron world. The tougher questions involve a cartel of media conglomerates that evolved in MCA-Universal’s image, dedicated to turning out soulless replicas of Jaws and Jurassic Park. And as the media giants grow richer and more powerful, despite their cultural and artistic bankruptcy, the toughest question of all, at least from my viewpoint, is simply: What hath Wasserman wrought?

That question is never posed in When Hollywood Had a King, not even in the funeral-cum-reflection that closes the book. This is somewhat puzzling in light of Bruck’s concerns with Wasserman’s “power and influence.” Then again, her fascination with Wasserman has less to do with cultural production and actual products–movies and TV programs, music and theme-park rides–than with the political economy of Hollywood at a “higher” level, particularly as it relates to Wall Street and Washington. In the tradition of Saul Steinberg’s legendary New Yorker cover that maps out the world as seen from 9th Avenue, Bruck’s view extends from the boardrooms and brokerage firms of Manhattan westward to the Potomac, but beyond Washington it grows more vague and indistinct. Remarkably, she scarcely ventures inside MCA-Universal itself and never even mentions many of its most vital films, from Spartacus and The Birds at the time of the merger to Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List on the eve of MCA’s demise.

Wasserman’s role in the making of these films, as well as their impact on the industry and on media culture, are simply not on Bruck’s agenda, a significant oversight, since Wasserman was in many ways a throwback to the hands-on, in-the-trenches studio bosses of old. McDougal’s muckraking aside, his title was on target; Wasserman really was “the last mogul” in the mold of Jack Warner and Darryl Zanuck. He understood power and cultivated relationships, yes, but he was also fiercely invested in talent, filmmaking and “product”–which set him utterly apart from the new breed of media barons.

A deeper concern involves Bruck’s inability, despite her direct access to Wasserman, to get beyond his formidable defenses. I too had the opportunity to talk with Wasserman in his last years and came away with the same sense that his well-worn anecdotes had been carefully edited to suit his own and his company’s needs. Interestingly enough, Bruck closes her book with a similar disclaimer to the one in her introduction mentioned above. In a telling coda, Bruck wonders whether Wasserman’s “famous stories” may have been “part of the elaborate facade Wasserman constructed, which kept others from glimpsing what was within and projected what he chose.” One has to wonder whether Bruck herself has failed to penetrate that facade.

In fact, little if any of the crucial information in her account comes from Wasserman and is pieced together by Bruck herself through other interviews and her arduous research. These efforts do pay off, however, producing an absorbing chronicle of both a man and a company that adds immeasurably to our understanding of both. And thus any concerns about Bruck’s getting “inside” either the studio operations or the man himself are easily offset by her overall achievement. When Hollywood Had a King provides a rich and evenhanded view of Lew Wasserman, doing justice both literally and figuratively to the most recent, if not the last, of the Hollywood giants.

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