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Lew Wasserman

  • born: 22/Mar/1913 (Cleveland, Ohio, USA)
  • died: 03/Jun/2002 (Beverly Hills, California, USA) - complications from a stroke


Lewis Robert Wasserman was an American talent agent and studio executive credited with first creating and then taking apart the studio system in a career spanning more than six decades.

Wasserman was born in Cleveland, Ohio to Russian Jewish immigrants Isaac Wasserman and Minnie Chernick. He began his show business career at the very bottom as an usher in a Cleveland theater in 1933. Wasserman started out as a booking agent for the Music Corporation of America (MCA) under its founder Dr. Jules Stein.

Under Wasserman's watch, MCA branched out into representing actors and actresses in addition to musicians and in the process created the studio system, which drove up prices for studios. As an agency, Wasserman's MCA came to dominate Hollywood, representing such stars as Bette Davis and Ronald Reagan, whom Wasserman was instrumental in helping to become president of the Screen Actors Guild. Wasserman was an influential player and fund-raiser in the Democratic Party, but was also a life-long and instrumental advocate, mentor, and close friend of Reagan. Additionally, at MCA Wasserman pioneered a business practice known as film packaging. During the days of vertical integration, studios produced, distributed, and exhibited their own films. This meant that studios did their own casting. After the dissolution of this system, however, big agencies like MCA remain the place for contacts and Wasserman decided that he would start "packaging" films, or filling the available roles with people talent represented. He would then pitch these packages to the studios, who only needed to finance it. Agencies therefore began doing the job the studios used to in some respects -- namely, assembling films.

Known as "The Pope of Hollywood," agent Wasserman was the genius who realized that an actor could pay much less tax by turning himself into a corporation. The corporation, which would employ the actor, would own part of a motion picture the actor appeared in, and all monies would accrue to the corporation, which was taxed at a much lower rate than was personal income. Wasserman pioneered this tax avoidance scheme with his client James Stewart, beginning with the Anthony Mann western Winchester '73 (1950). It made Stewart enormously rich as he became a top box office draw in the 1950s after the success of Winchester and several more Mann-directed westerns, all of which he had an ownership stake in. This marked the first time an onscreen talent ever received "points in the film" - a business tactic that skyrocketed after Wasserman's negotiation and Stewart's ensuing success.

Following the rising postwar popularity of television and the resulting near bankruptcy of many studios, Wasserman purchased Universal Studios and Decca Records in 1962 and merged them with MCA. In 1966, he singlehandedly installed Jack Valenti as head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Together they orchestrated and controlled much of how Hollywood operated, and was allowed to do business, for the next several decades. Wasserman ran the combined company for nearly thirty years before selling it to Japanese consumer electronics conglomerate Matsushita Electric in 1990.

Wasserman pocketed an estimated $350 million from the sale and remained as manager, but with vastly diminished power and influence, until Seagram bought controlling interest in 1995, which then resulted in his role becoming even more marginalized. Wasserman served on the board of directors until 1998. He died of complications from a stroke in Beverly Hills in 2002 and was interred in Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City. He was honored posthumously with 2,349th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on October 5, 2007.



With Hitchcock...

  • Vertigo (1958) - thanks, 1996 restoration

See Also...

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