The Last Mogul

The Last MogulSynopsis: “If Hollywood was Mount Olympus,” says movie industry lobbyist Jack Valenti in Barry Avrich’s The Last Mogul: The Life and Times of Lew Wasserman “then Lew Wasserman was Zeus.” Over sixty years as power broker at MCA and head of Universal Studios, Wasserman rewrote the behind the scenes Hollywood rulebook. In this “highly entertaining” (NY Post) documentary, Avrich succeeds in doing the impossible – piercing the shroud of silence surrounding a man who kept no notes, gave no interviews, and remains as feared in death as he was in life.

Lew Wasserman mastered the art of the deal with a ruthlessness and style all his own. “Dress British, think Yiddish,” the invariably power-suited Wasserman advised his underlings. It was that mixture of cold-blooded imperialism and matzo-mafia chutzpah that brought Wasserman from Cleveland’s red-light rackets to Hollywood, and eventually extended his career-making and destroying reach from Sunset Boulevard to Pennsylvania Avenue. Out of the ashes of the studio system, Wasserman’s MCA became the first-ever entertainment conglomerate, gobbling up artists and contracts, pioneering the modern blockbuster, and forging sweetheart deals with union bosses, gangsters and US Presidents alike.

Featuring frank, juicy interviews with everyone from Robert Evans to Michael Ovitz to former President Jimmy Carter (“I don’t know if intimidation is the right word, but I took his calls”), The Last Mogul reveals show business’ ultimate kingmaker in “sprightly, fast moving style” (New York Times) through the voices of those who knew him and feared him the most.

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The Last Mogul 7.5

eyelights: the revelatory look at the power structure of Hollywood.
eyesores: the superficial look at Wasserman’s criminal connections.

‘The Last Mogul’ is an insightful feature-length documentary on the most powerful person in Hollywood for a large chunk of the 20th century: Lew Wasserman. If you knew nothing about him, you’re not alone: I also had no clue who he was before watching this film. And yet, in the industry, he was known to everyone.

But he eschewed interviews and the spotlight. While he had everyone’s ear and had reach everywhere, to the general public he was an unknown figure, the man behind the silver screen behind the red curtains. In fact, he kept under the radar to such an extent that he left no memoirs, no papers of any significance following his death.

‘The Last Mogul’ attempts to shed some light on his life.

Lew Wasserman’s parents came from Russia in 1907, bringing their three children with them (Lew was the last of the lot). Changing their name in 1913, they started a new life in the east end of Cleveland – the hard part of town, well known for its criminal activity at the time. He would come to know that world intimately.

Wasserman started work selling candy at vaudeville shows, eventually becoming doorman. But it was his gig as usher at the Hippodrome that really changed his life. He would see all the movies there, and, when he saw ‘The Jazz Singer’, he was immediately pulled to the movie-making business. It wouldn’t be long before he jumped in.

He was making crime connections, however. He was hired to run the Mayfair Casino, which was owned by gangsters. Most of the business in his neck of the woods were mob-related in some fashion, so this wasn’t uncommon. But those connections remained: he would eventually hire Sid Korshak, a man who represented teamsters and mob figures, as his lawyer.

Wasserman became a publicist for MCA and moved to Chicago with his new wife. MCA ran 90% of the country’s dance bands then. By working at bottom he learned to put deals together and close them. Soon he became an agent, made connections in N.Y. and then went to L.A. He started to buy talent agencies with MCA’s cash.

MCA became the biggest talent agency in the world. He was 37 when he became president.

Unlike most of the talent agents of the time, who were considered scum by many in the business, he affected a professional demeanour and always dressed like a businessman. He could be calm and soothing, but he scared people – especially when crossed. Soon MCA represented 700 actors and 300 Broadway stars. They had a monopoly.

Wasserman was a visionary, and, despite the incredulity of the rest of the industry, he went ahead with his projects:

  • He changed the game with ‘Winchester ’73’. Universal Pictures was short on cash and couldn’t afford James Stewart, so Wasserman made a deal to do the picture for less money in exchange for a part of the gross. This was a first. And a successful one at that: Stewart netted $600,000 at the time – in 1950s dollars!
  • He also foresaw that TV was going to be a big deal. So he started a TV production company and put Ronald Reagan, a former client, at the head of the Screen Actors’ Guild to fix the rules for him – which he did to great effect. He would later help Reagan get elected as Governor, and assist him financially. There were close for years.
  • He made history by producing the very first TV movie, ‘The Hanged Man’. It was broadcast second, after ‘See How They Run’, but its success ensured that more would be made (broadcasters were hesitant to get into the production business until then).
  • He bought all the land and facilities at Universal for MCA, brought back the Universal tour, charged admission and put a hotel on the property. He also made MCA/Universal diversify beyond just movies and television, expanding to music and other interests.

Wasserman became rich. In 1954, Jules Stein, head of MCA took the company public and shared the profits with his employees. Wasserman got 20% in shares and became wealthy beyond belief overnight, at the age of 46. He had a hold on MCA. With his union contacts and Korshak’s able assistance, everything was running smoothly.

Edie Wasserman, his wife, was instrumental in his success. She apparently complemented him very well, being his strength where he was weak. She was equally sharp and did her work in social circles, befriending the industry leaders’ spouses and connecting everyone behind the scenes. They were considered a power couple.

Trouble would soon enter Wasserman’s life, however.

In 1962 the Antitrust Division of the United States Department of Justice decided take a look at MCA and their apparent monopoly. Bobby Kennedy hit them with an antitrust suit, taking MCA down. Rightly so: MCA produced 60% of prime time TV shows and ran 80% of the talent. It was a very difficult time for Wasserman.

He became more of a political player. He had huge connections with key Democrats, such as JFK and Lyndon Johnston. He even had Jack Valenti put in place at the MPAA; they were close friends; together they rigged the rules in his favour. Hollywood’s current sphere of power has everything to do with his efforts and achievements.

By the ’70s, Universal was doing crap business – as were many studios. It became an embarrassment to Jules Stein who considered firing Wasserman. Warning Stein that he would leave with all of the company’s key executives, Stein backed down. Then Wasserman got a massive hit with ‘Airport’, followed by ‘The Sting’ and ‘American Graffiti’.

Wasserman became CEO.

Under his leadership came ‘Jaws’. Despite having clinched an unprecendented roll-out in 600 cinemas, Wasserman insisted on reducing the number to half of that so that people would be forced to line up to see it, turning it into an event. He became obsessed with the grosses, watching carefully as the film broke all box office records, becoming a monster hit.

The ’80s would change everything.

In 1981, Jules Stein died and Ronald Reagan became President. Wasserman couldn’t possibly have been more powerful. But, in 1983, Salvatore James Pisello was hired by MC to make deals for them. He had mob connections but wasn’t discrete about it, so the Justice Dept was onto them. Wasserman spoke with Reagan and, soon thereafter, the case was dropped.

By 1989, however, he had a weak stock and some hostile takeovers were in the making, so he sold to Matsushita/Panasonic. It was the beginning of the end. He fell off the radar, as the new owners didn’t consider him in the way that Hollywood people did. The company sold to Seagrams not long after. He was 76 and suddenly lost all of his power.

He died in 2002. His funeral was a huge event, equal to that of a head of state.

While I found Wasserman’s story interesting, I found the documentary a bit short on details. With a life such as his, and the dealings that he’s had through the years, you’d half expect an epic motion picture – I would have loved to hear about the wheelings and dealing in greater detail. Buy I suppose that’s why they still publish books.

Either way, knowing about Lew Wasserman has given me some perspective on the industry. I always wondered why Hollywood, of all things, was one of the biggest lobbyist groups in Washington. I think I get it now. Wasserman wasn’t just a visionary: he was also exceptionally crafty, making connections no one else had. He left quite the legacy.

Hollywood owes him a huge debt.

Date of viewing: March 30, 2014

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2 responses to “The Last Mogul

  1. It’s kind of an irony that even his life resembled a powerful Hollywood movie and the documentary fell short on that matter. Maybe that is why he didn’t like the media so much, they always change the perception of things..

    • Honestly, I don’t know how you could do justice to a story like this one without doing a full-on mini-series. There’s just way too much to cover. Not only had he been in the business for decades, but he did so much and there are so many facets to everything.

      They did an okay job, all things considered. 🙂

      Yeah, the media do change the perception of things tremendously. The filmmaker of another documentary that I watched recently, ‘The Kid Stays in the Picture’, claims on the audio commentary that all documentaries are subjective – that there is no objectivity.

      So he decided to make his documentary more like a film; he didn’t bother to give the allure of objectivity. 😉

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