The Last Mogul

Never interviewed in print or on camera, superagent-turned-MCA Universal studio head Lew Wasserman (1913-2002) left neither a tell-all autobiography nor carefully spun memoirs — his aversion to committing anything to paper was so profound he didn't even write memos. Fortunately for Canadian filmmaker and ad executive Barry Avrich, Wasserman crossed paths...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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Never interviewed in print or on camera, superagent-turned-MCA Universal studio head Lew Wasserman (1913-2002) left neither a tell-all autobiography nor carefully spun memoirs — his aversion to committing anything to paper was so profound he didn't even write memos. Fortunately for Canadian filmmaker and ad executive Barry Avrich, Wasserman crossed paths with just about everyone who was anyone in Hollywood, many of whom were delighted to discuss the ruthless power broker behind the sober-suited facade. Wasserman's parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia; he grew up in a rough Cleveland neighborhood and entered the entertainment business as a vaudeville house usher. He booked bands for mobbed-up clubs, worked as a publicist for local casino owner Moe Dalitz and worked his way up at the talent agency MCA (Music Corporation of America), founded by Chicago ophthalmologist Jules Stein, who preferred the glamour of big bands and girl singers to diseased eyeballs. At a time when agents and managers were typed as vulgarians in loud suits, Stein's protégés dressed like bankers, and Wasserman made Stein's motto — "dress British, act Yiddish" — his own. When Stein took MCA to Hollywood, Wassermen and his shrewdly social wife, the former Edie Beckerman (whose father was indicted by virtue of his association with Dalitz) followed. Wasserman and MCA developed the practice of "packaging" talent — making desirable clients available only in combination with other, lesser-known talent — and revolutionized stars' salaries by negotiating a contract for James Stewart to appear in WINCHESTER '73 (1950) for a small up-front salary and a percentage of profits on the back end. Wasserman maintained a lifelong association with reputed mob lawyer Sidney Korshak and helped mold the career of Ronald Reagan, one of MCA's first Hollywood clients. Wasserman also helped get Reagan elected president of the Screen Actors Guild, which then allowed MCA to circumvent SAG's rule that talent agencies couldn't also be production companies, positioning MCA to dominate TV programming in the '50s and '60s. The company's innovations included one of the first made-for-TV movies, 1964's The Hanged Man. Finally, MCA's 1962 merger with venerable Universal Studios put Wasserman at the top of the Hollywood heap, from which there was nowhere to go but down. Avrich's colorful account of Wasserman's career starts out looking like a puff piece, but quickly reveals a refreshing willingness to delve into the dirty side of a glamorous business.

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  • Released: 2005
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: Never interviewed in print or on camera, superagent-turned-MCA Universal studio head Lew Wasserman (1913-2002) left neither a tell-all autobiography nor carefully spun memoirs — his aversion to committing anything to paper was so profound he didn't even wr… (more)

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