Lew Wasserman, the last of the old-time Hollywood moguls, died Monday at his Beverly Hills home of complications from a stroke he suffered May 17. The 89-year-old, who parlayed a small talent agency into the Universal media empire, had been at the center of Hollywood power for six decades and had continued to hold court at the studio, even in retirement, until his stroke last month.
Wasserman joined a talent agency called Music Corporation of America in 1936. Ten years later, he was its president and one of the most well-connected agents in town. Decades before Michael Ovitz came along, he invented the back-end deal and made client James Stewart the first actor who could demand a percentage of a movie’s gross and have creative control over choosing the director and cast. By the end of the 1950s, MCA had purchased Universal and would eventually build the business beyond the film studio to include TV production, a major record label, and theme parks. He was instrumental in nurturing the careers of directors from Alfred Hitchcock to Steven Spielberg.
Even presidents paid obeisance to Wasserman. Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter sought him for their cabinets, but he turned them down, preferring to serve as a power broker behind the scenes. (He almost never granted interviews.) Bill Clinton valued his fundraising prowess, and Ronald Reagan (Wasserman had been his agent when he was an actor) valued his advice. In the mid-1960s, Wasserman lured away Johnson adviser Jack Valenti and got him the job running the Motion Picture Association of America, leading to the creation of the current movie ratings system. Valenti, who still holds the post, said in a statement yesterday, ”He was the tallest redwood in the Hollywood forest, and there’s nobody else around. I guess Lew becomes a mythical, legendary figure and the industry is going to miss the hell out of him.”