Wasserman The Wizard

by Mark Lacter

One of the very few times Lew Wasserman ever broke his no-interview policy came in 1990 days after he and Sidney Sheinberg sold MCA Inc. to Japan's Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. for $6.6 billion (picking up $327 million of preferred Matsushita stock). I was business editor at the Daily News and mindful of Wasserman's mantra that, "publicity is for clients, not for us" a reference to his many years as a theatrical agent.

But he couldn't help himself this one time. He and Sheinberg, then president of MCA, had just come back from Japan where they had cut the deal, and after minimal prompting his office notified us (and a few other media outlets) that Mr. Wasserman would be available for interviews. Still wiped out from the trip, he got on the line and politely answered our questions. It wasn't much of an interview: Yes, he would like to stay on at least six more years and no, there won't be any major changes in how the company is run. He hinted that under Matsushita, MCA would be in a better position to buy up other companies. As for new software technologies that the Japanese were developing, Wasserman was abrupt. "That's their world, not mine."

That was pretty much it sitting atop the Black Tower in Universal City, the Wizard of Hollywood ambled back behind the curtains, where, with few exceptions, he remained. It was easier that way no uncomfortable queries about his subsequent bitter struggles with Matsushita or his embarrassing loss of power (the Japanese wound up selling the company just five years later without letting him know), or anything else involving his often-imperious life.

Wasserman, who died last week at age 89, was the ultimate non-celebrity celebrity. Even towards the end, when it would have been natural to sound off a little to Barbara Walters or Mike Wallace, he steadfastly refused to become a public person.

Not that he was in any sense reclusive; with those oversized eyeglasses, he would be easy to spot, whether at Nate 'n Als in Beverly Hills or a little Italian place in West L.A. I saw him at last year with his wife. There's also that tired reference of his eating tuna fish each day at the same table in MCA's commissary accessible, in theory at least, to anyone with the guts to walk up to him.

But considering that he was the chairman of an entertainment conglomerate with revenues, pre-Matsushita, of $3.5 billion, his public face was practically nonexistent. That would be unthinkable in today's corporate media world, where Diller, Eisner, Redstone, Case and Murdoch are more widely quoted than many of their stars (and just as likely to wind up on the gossip page).

Even at the time Wasserman sold out, MCA was branded a company too set in its ways. True, he long had been decreed the Hollywood Godfather who was both feared and respected and who, later in life, served as a behind-the-scenes industry arbiter. Yet studiously avoiding the spotlight is not only hopelessly out of date, it doesn't assure image enhancement, as Global Crossing's embattled and media shy Gary Winnick is discovering. Same for the rarely seen Kirk Kerkorian, who claims he is not the father of the child his former wife bore and who is embroiled in an ugly, and very public, custody dispute.

It's a different world from the time when Wasserman was content to orchestrate Hollywood from the wings. Nowadays, publicist, nutritionist and speech coach in tow, everyone gets their moment in the sun, whether they like it or not.

Mark Lacter is editor of the Business Journal.

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