THE LAST TYCOON There were movie moguls who loved the glitz and the starlets — Darryl Zanuck, Jack Warner, and Harry Cohn. And there were the cool-eyed titans who stayed out of the headlines and quietly amassed power: Harry Warner, Adolph Zukor, and — the last of the breed — Lew Wasserman. When he died June 3 at 89 in Beverly Hills, Wasserman left behind an industry he had completely transformed. ”For decades he was the chief justice of the film industry — fair, tough-minded, and innovative,” said Steven Spielberg in a statement. ”All of us have lost our benevolent godfather.”
Born in Cleveland, Wasserman parlayed a publicity gig with a local nightclub into a job at talent agency MCA that took him to Hollywood. Within 10 years he was president of the company, breaking the studios’ contractual hold over stars and giving creative and financial independence to the likes of Bette Davis, Clark Gable, and Ronald Reagan. He helped transform the fledgling medium of television into big business, buying film libraries and licensing them to TV stations for huge profits. With his 1958 acquisition of Universal and the creation of the sprawling MCA-Universal production facilities, Wasserman became the first significant corporate oligarch of Hollywood — merging film, TV, music, real estate, and theme parks into one interconnected machine.
In the 1960s, Wasserman cemented the Hollywood/D.C. connection and helped Johnson aide Jack Valenti land a job as head of the MPAA. And in the mid-’70s, he pioneered the summer blockbuster through the novel tactic of the wide release, opening Jaws in 1,000 theaters. ”While he is thought of as an industrial visionary and consummate businessman, it sort of began and ended with his real love of stories,” says Ron Howard. Even after the mogul lost out in the corporate wars of the 1990s, Wasserman refused to disappear. ”Literally, he was in the office every day,” says Universal Studios president Ron Meyer. ”He was available for any advice and counsel. There’s great sadness on the lot.” (Additional reporting by Hillary Atkin)