Lew Wasserman, philanthropist, former chairman and chief executive of Music Corporation of America (MCA) and one of the last old-time movie moguls, died June 3 from complications of a stroke. He was 89.
Wasserman was born March 22, 1913, in Cleveland, Ohio, to Russian immigrant parents, Isaac and Minnie, proprietors of a struggling restaurant. In 1936, the same year that Carl Laemmle lost control of Universal Studios, a 22-year-old Wasserman, with only a high school education, began at the bottom at MCA's Cleveland office, a talent agency with a celebrity roster that included Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra. Wasserman worked his way up the corporate ladder and, a decade later, on Dec. 16, 1946, became MCA's president.
As Wasserman negotiated lucrative entertainment catalogue and unprecedented percentage deals for stars such as Jimmy Stewart, MCA grew in power. By 1958, MCA purchased Universal's 367-acre studio backlot for $11.25 million, then began leasing back studio space to Universal at $1 million a year. In 1962, MCA purchased Decca Records, and with it Universal Pictures. Two years later, as a result of a consent decree with the Justice Department, MCA divested itself of its talent agency business. That same year, MCA-Universal began its Universal Studios Tour and acquired Alfred Hitchcock's Shamley Productions.
When Sidney Scheinberg took over as Universal's president in 1973, Wassermann moved up to chairman of the board. Universal won Academy Awards for movies such as "The Sting" (1974), and ushered in the modern blockbuster with Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" (1975). Universal went on to produce more Oscar-winners and several record-breakers that, in their day, became the highest-grossing motion pictures of all time, including "E.T.," and "Jurassic Park," both directed by Spielberg.
When MCA was sold in 1990 to Japanese electronics giant Matsushita for $6.6 billion, Wasserman's take was put at $350 million, and he was retained as a manager. When Seagram Co. took over the company five years later, Wasserman retired from management with the honorary title of chairman emeritus. He remained on the company's board of directors until 1998.
His dedication to philanthropy rivaled his devotion to career. In 2000 alone, the Wasserman Foundation gave $10.7 million to Jewish causes such as the United Jewish Fund, World Jewish Congress, and American Jewish Committee. He was a major supporter of Jewish institutions, such as Spielberg's Shoah Foundation, and was one of the 12 original philanthropists who pledged $5 million toward Charles Bronfman's Birthright Israel endeavor.
Wasserman also gave to Catholic causes, including $350,000 to the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles. As a strong believer in education, set up many scholarship endowments at various universities and educational institutions.
Before he died, Wasserman gave $1 million toward the still-under construction Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA, for which he attended the groundbreaking in November 1998. "He was a man who was not an intensely involved Jew," said UCLA Hillel Director Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, "However, he was dedicated to sustaining the Jewish future and the state of Israel. His Jewishness was manifest in his generosity. He really understood the meaning of tzedakah."
Seidler-Feller added that Wasserman's contributions to Hillel and Birthright Israel represented a renewed commitment to his community toward the end of his life. Thanks to Wasserman, Seidler-Feller said, the new UCLA center will provide "a focus for identity, provide a setting a hangout where [students] can meet, study, socialize and enjoy life together while being actively involved in Jewish life."
"He was one of the great titans of our industry," Spielberg said of his former mentor. "A lot of what we do today is because of the foundations he set 50 years ago. He really set in stone so many of the principles that we work with today creatively -- in terms of deal-making, business structure and merging companies. I mean, Lew did all this stuff first."
Wasserman is survived by his wife, Edie; daughter, Lynne; and grandchildren, Carol Leif and Casey. Michael Aushenker, Staff Writer