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A NEW TAKE ON A HOLLYWOOD LEGEND

Nov 10, 2003  •  Post A Comment

During the six decades that he held sway over Hollywood, the late Lew Wasserman used his influence and even a bit of fear to put off would-be biographers by telling them that he saw no value in personal publicity.
As head of MCA, which owned a powerful talent agency and then Universal Pictures, Mr. Wasserman reigned as arguably the most powerful behind-the-scenes figure in Hollywood from the end of World War II until the mid-1990s, when the empire he built was sold out from under him by its then-Japanese owners to the Bronfman family.
In recent years there have been hundreds of articles, and since his death in 2001, obituaries, about his role in shaping and creating modern corporate Hollywood, TV, movies, politics, labor and philanthropy. There have also been, as his ability to stop them waned, two well-researched biographies: “The Last Mogul: Lew Wasserman, MCA, and the Hidden History of Hollywood,” by former Los Angeles Times reporter Dennis McDougal, published in 1998; and “When Hollywood Had a King: The Reign of Lew Wasserman, Who Leveraged Talent Into Power and Influence,” published earlier this year by New Yorker magazine writer Connie Bruck.
It is hard to believe the world needs a third volume on the subject, but now comes a fresh look not only at Mr. Wasserman but also his wife, Edie, who wielded a considerable amount of influence in her own right. This latest tome, by Boston Globe correspondent and veteran business writer Kathleen Sharp, is called “Mr. and Mrs. Hollywood: Edie & Lew Wasserman and Their Entertainment Empire.”
Mrs. Wasserman, still living quietly in Beverly Hills, Calif., celebrated her 88th birthday last week. She did not grant interviews for the books, but she did not stop her friends from talking to Ms. Sharp.
In fact, after years of turning down biographers, Mr. Wasserman gave interviews in his final days to both Ms. Bruck and Ms. Sharp. There were still subjects he would not discuss. “He would say, `We’re not going to talk about that,’ so we didn’t,” explained Ms. Sharp, who lives in Santa Barbara, Calif.
“It is a fabulous story and there are many, many parts to it,” said Ms. Sharp, explaining why she felt a third book was needed. “It touches so many aspects of our culture. Not just entertainment but also politics, labor and culture. I felt I had a different part of the tale to tell than the other books.”
A dogged researcher, Ms. Sharp talked to more than 450 sources over more than five years of research. She realized the way to tell her story was what she called a “dual biography” that dealt with both Mr. Wasserman’s obvious influence and Mrs. Wasserman’s much harder to define role.
“She was the original Hollywood wife at a time that was not a derogatory term,” said Ms. Sharp. “She kind of gathered around her all of the MCA stars in the ’40s and ’50s and the wives of the agents, and nurtured them and advised them … She was also instrumental in creative decisions concerning MCA’s clients.”
MCA has now faded from the corporate landscape, but in its day it did evoke awe, jealousy, controversy and fear. The talent it touched included such stars as Jimmy Stewart, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland and Jane Wyman. It was founded by Mr. Stein but came into its own under Mr. Wasserman, who took power at the exact right moment in history.
As various circumstances, from government antitrust suits to the arrival of TV, brought down the old Hollywood studio system, Mr. Wasserman was there to realign the star system. Where talent was once the captive of a studio, he saw that in the new order, talent itself was the power. First as an agent, then as a producer, Mr. Wasserman with MCA turned that talent into huge profits from movies, TV shows, personal appearances, endorsements and much more. He cut the first deals to give talent a real percentage of profits, creating the blueprint for the modern mega-star who is a producer and has an on-screen presence.
In terms of TV, it would take several more books to define all of the Wassermans’ influence and involvement. In the early ’50s, when the movie studios were rightly afraid of the impact of TV, most refused to produce for the new medium or to sell their libraries of old movies for rebroadcast. Mr. Wasserman, already the top talent agent in town, rewrote the rulebook to break all those barriers. He oversaw the creation of companies that not only produced for TV but also helped define it. He played a role in the creation of the first hour-long dramas, action shows, quiz shows, the movie-of-the-week and the concept of “backdoor pilots” (series spun off from TV movies) and more. He played a central role in the development of NBC, put Alfred Hitchcock on TV and all but created the modern Ronald Reagan, who went on to become president. And he sold not only the backlog of titles held by Universal Pictures but also the pre-1948 Paramount library. In the process, he invented the TV syndication business, making millions in profits.
Mr. Wasserman did business with kings, king makers and mobsters, often all in the same day. He touched the lives and careers of a generation of TV’s top creative talent, many of whom continue to be active, from Stephen J. Cannell to David Chase.
There are far too many stories, too many achievements, too many tales to tell in this space. In reality, even three books are probably not enough to tell the entire story, though they are an impressive start.