Lew Wasserman was an American businessman and MCA/Universal Studios executive who was the last of the pioneering movie moguls.
Biographical fast facts
Full or original name at birth: Louis Robert Wasserman *
Error corrections or clarifications
* The majority of reference books and most of his obituaries, erroneously report "March 15, 1913" as Lew Wasserman's date of birth. The overwhelming majority of sources also mistakenly state "Lewis Robert Wasserman" was his name at birth. This is one instance where sloppy data entry, or poor research is not to blame. Lew Wasserman himself reported the 15th as his birthday, but this simply is not true. During his high school days, Wasserman puzzled classmates by changing the spelling of his first name from Louis to Lewis, and changed his date of birth from the actual date of March 22nd, to the fabricated date of "March 15" which he continued to give for the rest of his life. Some of his classmates have speculated that the 15th carried more historical mystique for him.
The most in-depth of more than two dozen sources consulted in preparing this profile:
One of Hollywood's most powerful movie moguls was born to Russian immigrants Isaac and Minnie Wasserman, March 22nd, 1913, not March 15th, as he would later claim. In 1930, former classmates recall that their friend Louis Wasserman transformed himself into Lewis Wasserman. The Cleveland high school student not only changed the spelling of his first name, but insisted he had a new birth date as well. From that moment on, he would insist March 15th was his date of birth. Birth records, school records, his own family, and childhood friends, all confirm this to be nonsense.
Wasserman began his career in "show business" at the age of twelve when he began selling candy at a local burlesque house. While in high school, he worked as an usher at the Palace Theater in Cleveland. Unable to afford college in the midst of the Great Depression, he found work at a nightclub where he crossed paths with the man who would change his life forever. Dr. Jules Stein had founded MCA (Music Corporation of America) in 1924, and it was this talent agency that provided many of the performers booked by the club. In 1936, Wasserman accepted an offer to work as MCA's director of advertising and publicity. He was named vice-president of their new film division in 1940. Just six years later, he was appointed president of the company.
What began as a talent agency specializing in musical luminaries such as Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Xavier Cugat, and Guy Lombardo, quickly expanded to handle stars such as Errol Flynn, James Stewart, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, Gene Kelly, Gregory Peck, Jack Benny, Judy Garland, Alfred Hitchcock, and later, Steven Spielberg and Kevin Costner.
With Jules Stein serving as chairman, and Wasserman the president, they built MCA into the world's largest talent agency, ultimately transforming it into motion picture and television giant Universal Studios. Their entertainment empire built one of the largest film libraries in the world.
Lew was credited with dismantling the studio system, liberating actors from the restrictive, long-term studio contracts which had prevailed in Hollywood. This allowed performers to make more money, choose their own films, have a say in script changes, and for the biggest stars, even approve directors and receive a percentage of box-office revenue.
The 1950s was a period of rapid expansion, with the acquisition of Paramount Pictures pre-1948 film library, and the 1958 purchase of Universal Pictures' massive studio lot. MCA later swallowed Universal Pictures itself, along with its parent, Decca Records. Wasserman created a new source of revenue for the company when the studio backlot was opened to the public. The profitable Universal Studios tour opened in the mid-1960s, and grew to become one of the most popular U.S. theme parks.
During his 59-year career at MCA, he foresaw the importance of television and embraced the new medium, later pioneering the made-for-television movie and the miniseries. Though he was less visible than other studio moguls such as Louis B. Mayer, Sam Goldwyn, or Jack Warner, he nonetheless wielded incredible power. Not only did his reign last far longer than the more familiar studio bosses, but his influence was felt across the entire entertainment industry. Lew Wasserman and MCA controlled aspects of radio, live music, television, film, and talent management. This created problems with federal regulators in 1962. MCA was forced to divest itself of its talent agency business when the federal government claimed it was in violation of antitrust laws by controlling all aspects of the entertainment business.
When Jules Stein finally retired in 1973, Wasserman added chairman to his long list of titles at the company.
At the 1974 Oscars, he was presented the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his charity work by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Lew was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995. He and his wife Edie Wasserman, were major fundraisers for the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, as well as the Los Angeles Music Center.
MCA was first sold in 1990 to Japanese electronics giant Matsushita, then in 1995 to liquor giant Seagram Co. After the 1995 sale, he retired from management with the title of chairman emeritus, but remained on the board of directors until 1998.
He was not only considered one of the most dominant movie moguls of his era, but in a 2000 ranking of the most powerful Hollywood players of the twentieth century, the entertainment trade paper, Hollywood Reporter, placed Lew Wasserman in the number one slot. With only a high school education, his fortune was estimated at a staggering half a billion dollars ($500,000,000) toward the end of his life. He was a close family friend of both President Ronald Reagan, and President Lyndon B. Johnson.
In 2007, Lew was posthumously honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his many years of leadership in the entertainment business.
Lew's grandson, Casey Wasserman, later carried on the family tradition of talent management, marketing, entertainment production and charitable leadership. In addition to founding and heading Wasserman Media Group (WMG), Casey spent time as the owner of the Arena Football League's Los Angeles Avengers and also headed the Wasserman Foundation, which Lew and Edie Wasserman founded in 1952 as a conduit for their philanthropic endeavors.
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