Lewis Robert "Lew" Wasserman (March 22, 1913 – June 3, 2002) was an American talent agent and studio executive, sometimes credited with creating and later taking apart the studio system in a career spanning more than six decades. He was also the manager of MCA.
Under Wasserman, MCA branched out into representing actors and actresses in addition to musicians and in the process created the star system, which drove up prices for studios. MCA struggled to gain ground in Hollywood since major agencies like those belonging to Charles Feldman, Myron Selznick, and Leland Hayward had already grabbed up most of the major talent. However, in the mid-1940s, when it purchased Hayward's agency, MCA finally gained bargaining leverage with the studios. As an agency, Wasserman's MCA came to dominate Hollywood, representing such stars as Bette Davis and Ronald Reagan, whom Wasserman was instrumental in helping to become president of the Screen Actors Guild.
Wasserman was an influential player and fund-raiser in the Democratic Party, but was also a lifelong and instrumental advocate, mentor, and close friend of Reagan. The Newsmeat Power Rankings identify Wasserman and his close friend Jack Valenti as two of the top five "most famous and powerful Americans whose campaign contributions result most often in victory."
At MCA Wasserman expanded upon a business practice known as film packaging (something established by earlier agents like Feldman and Selznick). Since studios reduced output after WWII, they let more actors off of long-term contracts and big agencies like MCA could negotiate stronger terms for their clients. Agents like Wasserman would pitch packages (say, a writer client, director client, and actor or actress) to the studios, who only needed to finance it. Agencies therefore began doing the job the studios used to in some respects – namely, assembling films.
Wasserman expanded on practices established by earlier agents. For example, Feldman and Selznick realized in the late 1930s that an actor could pay much less tax by turning himself into a corporation. The corporation, which would employ the actor, would own part of a motion picture the actor appeared in, and all monies would accrue to the corporation, which was taxed at a much lower rate than was personal income.
Wasserman used this tax avoidance scheme with actor James Stewart, beginning with the Anthony Mann western Winchester '73 (1950). This marked the first time an onscreen talent ever received "points in the film" – a business tactic that skyrocketed after Wasserman's negotiation and Stewart's ensuing success.
Following the rising postwar popularity of television and the resulting near bankruptcy of many studios, Wasserman purchased Universal Studios and Decca Records in 1962 and merged them with MCA. In 1966, he singlehandedly installed Jack Valenti as head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Together they orchestrated and controlled much of how Hollywood operated, and was allowed to do business, for the next several decades. Wasserman ran the combined company for nearly 30 years before selling it to Japanese consumer electronics conglomerate Matsushita Electric in 1990.
In 1993, Wasserman created Universal CityWalk and made numerous, substantial changes to the University City area. Wasserman pocketed an estimated $350 million from the sale of MCA and remained as manager, but with vastly diminished power and influence, until Seagram bought controlling interest in 1995, which then resulted in his role becoming even more marginalized. Wasserman served on the board of directors until 1998. On September 29, 1995, Wasserman was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton. In 1996, he was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame.