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Obituary Lew Wasserman, Jewish Movie Titan and Philanthropist, Dies at Age of 89

June 5, 2002
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Lew Wasserman, one of the biggest Hollywood moguls of the 20th century, died Monday at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif.

A major giver to Jewish causes, Wasserman was credited with building the Music Corporation of America and changing the talent agency business.

Born in Cleveland in 1913 to Russian immigrants, Wasserman oversaw production of such blockbusters as “Jaws,” “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial” and “Jurassic Park.”

Wasserman’s stature often was cited by anti-Semites who argued that Jews controlled Hollywood and the media.

In 1936, a 22-year-old Wasserman, with only a high school education, began at the bottom at the Cleveland office of MCA, a talent agency with a celebrity roster that included Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra.

Wasserman worked his way up the corporate ladder and became MCA’s president in 1946.

MCA grew in power as Wasserman negotiated lucrative entertainment catalog deals and unprecedented percentage deals for stars such as Jimmy Stewart.

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.

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” and ushered in the modern blockbuster with Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” in 1975.

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.

Wasserman’s dedication to philanthropy rivaled his devotion to career. In 2000 alone, the Wasserman Foundation gave away $10.7 million for Jewish causes such as the Los Angeles Jewish federation, the World Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee.

He was a major supporter of Jewish institutions, such as Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History 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, he set up scholarship endowments at various universities and educational institutions.

In a statement, Cardinal Roger Mahony extended his sympathies to the Wasserman family and praised the Wassermans’ commitment to education and their participation in the construction of the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles

“His generosity to our Catholic inner city elementary and secondary schools has no equal,” Mahony said, “and for this, I express my deepest gratitude in the name of those young people and their families.”

Before he died, Wasserman gave $1 million toward the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA, which is still under construction.

“He was a man who was not an intensely involved Jew,” said Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, the director of UCLA’s Hillel. “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,” or charity.

Wasserman is survived by his wife, Edie, a daughter and two grandchildren.

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