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The Don of Dons

1.

Lew Wasserman, longtime head of MCA-Universal, a man thought by many to have the sharpest and best-disciplined business mind ever to exercise executive power at a major American movie studio, died just a year ago, of a stroke, after having been a sometimes distant but always respected presence in Hollywood since the early Forties. His family, faithful to his orders, buried him quietly on the very day of his death, but eventually, with some reluctance, allowed a memorial service to be held; the reason for their reluctance was the shabby treatment they felt he had received, in the last decade of his life, from three successive owners of the great company he had labored so carefully to build. The owners were in turn Japanese (Matsushita), Canadian (Seagram), and French (Vivendi). We’ll get to the shabby treatment in a bit.

The memorial service, largely organized by the media baron Barry Diller, was held in the Universal Amphitheater. Picasso reportedly said that no one had looked as hard at Matisse as he had: similarly, I doubt that anyone has made a closer study of Lew Wasserman’s method and practice than Barry Diller, although the agent Michael Ovitz probably runs him a close second. MCA was principally a talent agency for forty years. For Diller, Lew Wasserman was the gold standard, and he said as much when he addressed the crowd. So many of the great and famous were crammed into the amphitheater that day that, had an earthquake swallowed the place, it would have been necessary to more or less start over with Hollywood.

Connie Bruck has written a fascinating, if, of necessity, somewhat constrained book about this shock-and-awe-inspiring man. It is neither a full biography nor yet a narrowly defined history of Wasserman’s business career. Lew Wasserman was, for example, married to Edie Wasserman for more than sixty-five years, but the reader will have to skip and dip to locate even five pages about what would normally be called Lew Wasserman’s “personal life.”

By contrast the several chapters Ms. Bruck devotes to the crucial years between 1946, when Wasserman became president of MCA, and 1962, when he and the founder of the company, Jules Stein, agreed to dissolve their talent agency in order to avoid being put out of business altogether by an antitrust action, are so packed and dense with business detail that I had to read them three times in order to feel that I had the sequence of events more or less clear.

Ms. Bruck’s task was not made easier by the fact that Lew Wasserman was a quiet man in a loud town—quiet, that is, unless he was in the process of losing his terrible, blistering temper; when that occurred, as it not infrequently did, I don’t know if the Black Tower—as sufferers call the Universal headquarters building in Studio City—itself actually shook, but you can bet the people in it shook. Many wept, some fainted. And yet, in calm times, Lew Wasserman was less colorful on a day-to-day basis than many people who played a part in his story.

Jules Stein, his longtime boss, was more colorful. Wasserman was thought to be press-shy when in fact he was just press-savvy; he had, after all, begun his career in show business as a press agent for various clubs around Cleveland. It seemed to me that something of Cleveland remained with him, which is not a slur. I like Cleveland. What remained, perhaps, was a natural reticence—few Clevelanders are big talkers, in my experience. Wasserman didn’t really keep the press at arm’s length, he kept it at whatever length was most useful to him. In a Time magazine profile in 1965, for example, he allowed it to be known that he and his wife slept separately, a detail that certainly wouldn’t have surfaced had he not wanted it to. Why he wanted it to is anybody’s guess.

On the back of the book jacket there are quotes in praise of Wasserman from President Clinton, Barry Diller, and Jack Valenti. But below these more or less to-be-expected accolades is a remark once made by Wasserman himself. He is speaking to his favorite president, Lyndon Johnson, and what he said was “I’m a very simple man.”

A very simple man? It’s hard to agree, since virtually every page of Connie Bruck’s book contradicts the comment. I met Mr. Wasserman only once, but saw him quite a few times and once found myself right behind his famous white Mercedes as he moseyed up Coldwater Canyon. “Simple” would probably be the last adjective I’d apply to him; it would certainly be the last adjective I’d apply to Lyndon Johnson. “Scary” would do, for both of them. Self-mischaracterization occurs everywhere, of course, but it’s epidemic in the great capital of Delusion which is Hollywood, where the many Sanchos like to suppose that they’re Dons, and the few Dons sometimes find it useful to pretend to be Sanchos. Lew Wasserman was the Don of Dons: how he achieved that eminence is the subject of Connie Bruck’s absorbing book.

2.

Jules Stein, the founder of MCA, was born in South Bend, Indiana, in 1896. By age seventeen he was booking bands in the Chicago area in order to put himself through college. He did put himself through college, and also medical school, meaning to be an eye doctor. He even spent a year in Vienna, doing eye research. But when he returned to America he went back to booking bands. By 1924 he was doing so well that he founded the Music Corporation of America. (Even as I write, MCA, a fabled name, is about to pass into history: what’s left of its music label will be folded into Geffen Records, a part of Vivendi Universal Entertainment.)

Early in his career as a handler of talent Jules Stein got into a little trouble with the unions—in this case the American Federation of Musicians. What it taught him is that if he wanted to succeed as a band-booker he needed a very solid ally in the union hall, and the very solid ally turned out to be James C. Petrillo; fifty-nine years after he and Stein formed their relationship, when Jules Stein died, James Petrillo was announced as an honorary pallbearer, along with Cary Grant, James Stewart, President Ronald Reagan, and Lew Wasserman.

Besides the union there was, from the first, the mob to consider. In Capone-era Chicago it would have been impossible to do much band-booking if the mob had not been kept happy. Jules Stein to begin with and Lew Wasserman after him treated the mob as simply a fact of life in the profession they had chosen. Once MCA moved to Los Angeles the man they dealt with most often and most confidentially was Sidney Korshak, the Chicago mob’s fixer in Hollywood. Ms. Bruck thinks Sidney Korshak was perhaps Lew Wasserman’s closest friend. Wasserman, as head of a by-this-time public company, may have moved away from him in his last years, but he never disavowed the friendship, and Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Korshak celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary at the Wassermans’ house.

It was Bill Stein, Jules’s brother, who first saw promise in the gangly young press agent from Cleveland. Lew and Edie had just married, and were living with Edie’s parents. Wasserman was making $100 a week. Jules Stein, dubious at first, only offered him $60, but one of Lew Wasserman’s greatest assets was the ability to immediately recognize potential. He took the $60, came to MCA in 1936, and ten years later was president of the company, although Stein didn’t fully hand over the reins until 1973. Stein died in 1981—until then Wasserman deferentially kept him in the loop.

Jules Stein was probably as secretive as Wasserman, and, corporately, as frugal, once upbraiding an employee for writing him two letters in a single day, thus wasting a stamp. But he also went to England in the depths of the Depression and bought several Rolls Royces, meaning to resell the ones he didn’t want. He had a lifelong passion for fine English furniture and bought it in quantity. When I first worked for Universal in the Seventies I recall seeing several tables that looked as if they belonged at Chatsworth rather than Studio City. Stein also had a lively and attractive wife, Doris, a woman so socially energetic that he once said she would go to the opening of a door.

It is impossible to know what Jules Stein and Lew Wasserman really thought and felt about each other. Stein dictated a memoir before his death, but it has not been published. Why? What’s clear is that the two men made an effective team. In a town where the level of intimacy in a friendship is often exaggerated, I’ve met a good many people who claimed to have known Jules Stein well, but almost no one who made the same claim where Wasserman is concerned. My own late agent, Irving Paul Lazar, boasted of close acquaintance with every living king (of Spain, Morocco, etc.), but did not in my hearing claim to know Lew Wasserman well, although he twice worked at MCA, leaving, in part, because his fashion-loving soul could not tolerate the sartorial austerities that Wasserman insisted on. Another MCA dropout, Freddy Fields, a producer and one-time head of production at MGM, tried to take the curse off the MCA uniform—dark suit, dark tie, white shirt—by allowing that one didn’t really have to wear a black knit tie (emphasis mine). The only use Irving Lazar would have had for a black knit tie would be to hang himself with it.

3.

One matter in which Lew Wasserman was way ahead of his boss and everyone else was his instant recognition of what television would become.* He owned a set by 1940, one of two in Los Angeles, it is said. Of course the programming was skimpy—mostly cartoons of Aesop’s Fables—but MCA would soon remedy that. Wasserman even anticipated the choices the nascent networks would soon have to make: between live shows or taped, for example. He favored taped, thus reruns, and, as an old talent agent, he didn’t mind allowing actors to share in this long-term bonanza. But it was the television programs that MCA produced in the Fifties that brought it to the brink of antitrust disaster.

Few lines are as firmly drawn in Hollywood as the one prohibiting talent agencies from having an ownership interest in the shows their talent works in. Even now the talent agencies are trying to broadjump this line. The reason MCA was able to obtain from the Screen Actors Guild an unlimited waiver to produce television shows had to do with problems that arose in the late Forties.

When Lew Wasserman became president of MCA in 1946 there were, according to Ms. Bruck, forty-three talent and craft unions operating in the movie industry—far too many to suit the studios, who wanted particularly to crush the craft unions. Bitter fights raged and long strikes were called. Were this not bad enough, in 1948 the Supreme Court issued what is called the Paramount Decree, which required the studios to relinquish their extremely lucrative theater chains. Also, the studios’ desire to run television networks as coercively as they had run the theater chains was blocked, causing the old guard to turn their wrath on television, which they saw as the agent of their destruction. Box office was already dropping and lots of actors were out of work.

Stein and Wasserman took the opposite tack from most of their peers in the industry. Wasserman at that time represented Ronald Reagan, and he and Stein were not long in recognizing that Reagan could be a lot more valuable to them as a politician than he ever would be as an actor. Even before he became president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Reagan was arguing that it should remain neutral in the craft union wars. Ms. Bruck does her best with this heated period but there still needs to be more: perhaps a book just about Reagan, MCA, and the unions.

Television was so new that SAG and other unions had not yet formulated clear rules for dealing with it. The reason MCA’s request for a waiver from the Screen Actors Guild succeeded was not complicated: all actors always need to be working, and in 1952 a lot of them were not. Ronald Reagan felt sure the guild membership would approve a waiver, but he was not so sure about the union’s board. The person who carried the day for MCA was the fatherly, much-beloved Walter Pidgeon, whose contract with MGM had terminated. “Look around you, so they want to produce, what do we have to lose? Is anybody working?” Walter Pidgeon asked, and evidently nobody was, because the unlimited waiver was granted and MCA raced into the television business with such an advantage that at one point they owned at least a piece of about 45 percent of prime-time shows.

Stein and Wasserman knew of course that they were asking for trouble from the antitrust forces, who had had their eye on MCA anyway, mainly because Wasserman, when he first became president of the company, bought up so many talent agencies—including the Leland Hayward–Nat Deverich agency, which handled nearly three hundred established players—that it seemed as if MCA was going for a monopoly. Wasserman wouldn’t have minded a monopoly on talent but was too shrewd to suppose that was a realistic possibility.

Trouble from the antitrust forces finally came in 1962, after MCA had milked their waiver for a good long while. Lew Wasserman went to Washington to settle with them and did so by offering to dissolve the talent agency. He usually knew when to hold and when to fold.

4.

In the late Fifties, not long before it ceased to be an agency and became a studio, MCA made a deal which is still spoken of with wonder in the film community. For a mere $11.25 million it acquired Universal Studios from its parent Decca Records; Universal then even agreed to rent its former facilities back from MCA for $1 million a year. At a stroke MCA acquired about 440 acres of exploitable real estate, plus all buildings and equipment. If you buy Decca-Universal for $11 million, the record mogul David Geffen mused, how do you buy anything else? A good question, and yet somehow, in 1990, MCA-Universal bought Geffen Records in an all stock-deal valued at about $545 million.

It could be, though, that the Universal deal set a benchmark that was ultimately inhibitory. Many potentially profitable acquisitions may have simply looked paltry after the Big One.

Power” is a word often on the lips of Hollywood folk. So-and-so is said to wield “enormous” power, possibly even “unrivaled” power. It’s usually not true. Studio heads always had bankers to answer to: now they have mega-capitalists on the order of Rupert Murdoch and Sumner Redstone. And sometimes even the genuinely powerful don’t get everything they want. The very expensive triumvirate of Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, the principals of DreamWorks SKG, initially wanted to build a studio facility on the flats between Santa Monica and LAX. There’s no sign of it, although limo drivers are fond of pointing out where it was supposed to be. DreamWorks is still making do with their dominion on the Universal lot: it’s the size of Luxembourg, it’s as well manicured as Luxembourg, and it’s as hard to get into as Albania used to be.

It is true, though, that for a good number of years Lew Wasserman did have lots of power. He couldn’t sit down with a few advisers and make a war, as President Bush has just done, but he could greenlight movies, make acquisitions, invest in new technologies, hammer the unions, lobby Congress, and twist potentially useful arms at the regulatory agencies, this last a skill that has become increasingly important in this era of mega-mergers.

Wasserman did all these things and more, but, once he had a studio to run, he discovered what no doubt he had long suspected: that it’s possible to lose money in the movie business. Hits that should materialize often don’t. The late Sixties were bad years at Universal, but the Seventies were good. They had The Sting, then later Jaws, then in 1982 E.T. (The big one they could have had, but didn’t, was Star Wars, which Wasserman’s anguished deputy Ned Tanen urged on him to no avail—it was Tanen who then got tabbed with having turned down Star Wars, in the cinematic equivalent of Gide’s rejecting Swann’s Way.)

In the Eighties some of Wasserman’s staunchest admirers, such as Barry Diller, began to perceive a certain inflexibility in Wasserman’s business behavior. There were by then young upstarts, such as Steve Ross at Warners, who were beginning to challenge Wasserman’s position as industry leader. Some felt that Wasserman had switched from offense to defense—he didn’t want, at the end, to make a big mistake and tarnish his record.

Meanwhile new players began to show up in town. The Tokyo-based Sony Corporation crossed the waters and bought Columbia Pictures. Powerful interests began to look covetously at MCA-Universal. Their attentions were not welcomed, but it was no great surprise when, at the end of the Eighties, Michael Ovitz showed up, with Matsushita in tow. The negotiations that followed seem to have been a torture for all concerned (except Ovitz). Lew Wasserman’s deal- making style had long been well refined. He decided exactly what he wanted from a deal, and if he didn’t get it to the letter he politely stood up and went home. At one point he told the Matsushita team that it would be fine if they made a deal, and fine, also, if they didn’t. The torture, however, never got less torturous. Perhaps Wasserman feared the effect on the company’s share price if he did his walking-away act one more time.

A deal was made—MCA-Universal was sold to Matsushita—but neither side went home jumping for joy, nor was there to be any joy, ever, in the two companies’ efforts to work together. A little over four years later, without bothering to inform Lew Wasserman, Matsushita sold its almost-brand-new acquisition to Seagram. Young Edgar Bronfman Jr. took over and did what he could to make Lew Wasserman’s company his own. One of the things he did was take the MCA plates off the elevators in the Black Tower. He had in mind to build a new headquarters building designed by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, but that plan remains in never-never land along with DreamWorks’ unbuilt studio. By the time the century turned, Edgar Bronfman Jr. was gone too. MCA-Universal became the property of the French water utility Vivendi. (I’m having a hard time keeping ahead of history, because Edgar Bronfman Jr. has leapt once more into the breach. He wants to buy the company, or most of it, back. In all this shuffling of cards Barry Diller did some Wasserman-like leveraging, acquiring from Seagram, among other things, the USA cable network, with access to some 73 million homes. In the present struggle for Vivendi Universal, Diller seems to be in the catbird seat. What the sly catbird will do only he knows.)

5.

Lew Wasserman had always been discreet: he could make himself colorless and odorless when it suited his purpose. What he thought about these three foreign companies owning the company he built would have been revealed only to his competent deputy, Sid Sheinberg, or other close associates. By then age was upon him. In his last years this man who had never been approachable—once when his secretary, Melody Sherwood, complimented him on his tie, he told her not to get personal—became approachable. By then he had a grandson, and doted on him. In time he even began to tell stories to Melody Sherwood, perhaps at times mixing in some of Jules Stein’s stories with his own. Once Melody Sherwood asked who he would want to be, if he could be anyone other than himself. “Clark Gable,” he said. When she asked who he might have wanted to marry had there been no Edie he said, “Bette Davis.” These answers suggest a kind of basis for the “very simple man” remark. If not really simple himself, he may have felt that he represented a simpler time, a time when men were men and women were supposedly glad of it.

Though at first ambivalent when Connie Bruck told him that she was writing a book about MCA, he began to talk to her; interviews spread over a period of four and a half years. At one point he broke off the talks; he felt that he was “cooperating sideways,” as he put it. But when, after a time, Ms. Bruck called again, he saw her and they continued their talks. He had no doubt concluded by then that she respected what he was and what he had done.

It may also have been that he was lonely.

  1. *

    Decades later he was not so prescient about cable.

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