Hollywood was paying tribute yesterday to the last great movie mogul Lew Wasserman, who died at the age of 89 on Sunday in Los Angeles. The patriarch of Universal Studios - or MCA/Universal as it was in his day - who ate lunch at his usual table on the lot years after he had quit the day-to-day running of the studio, Wasserman was a beloved figure in the entertainment community whose long reign saw the embrace of television, the emergence of the blockbuster and the arrival of foreign conglomerates in the film industry.
'Lew Wasserman was the bigger-than-life part of my life,' said Steven Spielberg in a statement. 'Along with Sid Sheinberg, I owe Lew more than I can say. For decades, he was the chief justice of the film industry. Fair, tough-minded and innovative. I feel that all of us have lost our benevolent godfather.'
Wasserman first entered the industry in 1936 as an agent at Music Corporation Of America (MCA), a music talent agency which branched out into film under Wasserman's guidance. Named president in 1946, he represented clients such as Clark Gable and Bette Davis and famously engineered the dismantling of the long-term contract system which kept stars locked to certain studios.
Keen to bring the agency into film and TV production, Wasserman bought Universal's backlot in 1958 for $11.3m and developed it into a fully functioning film studio as well as the famous amusement park. So successful was the venture that MCA was forced to drop its agency business when the government started to investigate antitrust issues at the company.
Wasserman and his chief lieutenant Sid Sheinberg created blockbusters such as The Sting, Jaws and ET-The Extra-Terrestrial in the 70s and 80s, making a home for Steven Spielberg and his Amblin Entertainment at the studio which would generate films such as the Back To The Future trilogy, Jurassic Park and Schindler's List.
But as MCA's share price dropped in the 80s and Wasserman watched as other studios became subsumed by large corporations such as News Corp and Viacom, he agreed to sell the studio to Japanese electronic giant Matsushita in 1990 for $6.6bn. But the marriage was not a happy one, and five years later, Matsushita sold MCA to Seagram for $5.7bn behind Wasserman's back. He and Sheinberg subsequently resigned from their posts but Wasserman remained in a consultancy position at the company till he died.