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"When Hollywood Had a King" offers insight on Universal head Lew Wasserman

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"When Hollywood Had a King" offers insight on Universal head Lew Wasserman

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I get letters like this one from TJ A. from St. Louis, MO. all the time:


Great site! It's pretty obvious that all of you have put a great deal of effort into everything you do. And you must have some amazing contacts within WDI ...

Actually, no, TJ. By that I mean: I DO have a couple of friends inside Walt Disney Imagineering who periodically hand me ultra-hot info about what the Mouse is really up. But most of the stuff that I use from my JHM articles, I end up digging up via research.

And not just in the obvious places (I.E. the authorized biographies and corporate histories that the Walt Disney Company periodically allows to be published). I find that some of the very best anecdotes that I've uncovered over the past year have come from non-Disney sources.

Case in point: Connie Bruck's new biography of Lew Wasserman, "When Hollywood Had a King: The Reign of Lew Wasserman, Who Leveraged Talent into Power and Influence" (Random House, June 2003). Buried deep down inside this truly engrossing biography of Hollywood's first real power broker are some flat-out startling stories about the Walt Disney Company.

For example: Bruck writes about that time in 1984 when ...

... MCA held talks about acquiring Walt Disney Studios when that company was trying to repel the advances of investor Saul Steinberg. "All the terms were done," said Barry Diller, who had learned what happened from one of the prinicipals. "But the Disney family said that Ron Miller [a Disney executive] had to be president. Sid [Sheinberg] said to Lew, 'It's fine.' Felix [Rohatyn, the investment banker advising MCA] said to Lew, 'Do it - a year from now, you'll get rid of Miller, and make Sid President.' But Lew said 'No. Sidney is president.'

"It was Lew's inflexibility that caused him to blow deals he should not have blown," Diller added. "He and Jules [Stein] had built the best company - they should have owned the world. And had they made this deal with Disney, everything would have been different."

Pretty bizarre, huh? That Universal/MCA came within inches of acquiring Walt Disney Productions. Only to be tripped up because Lew Wasserman insisted that he alone should be able to determine who the president of the Mouse House should be.

Mind you, this isn't the only deal that Wasserman allowed his ego and/or his tight grip on a buck. Take for example, MCA's attempt to acquire SeaWorld, Inc. ...

... the owner of three marine parks. Adding SeaWorld to the Universal Tour (which was eventually transformed from an industrial tour to movie-theme attractions) would have established MCA as a major force in the theme park business. After MCA made a hostile bid for SeaWorld in October 1976, Harcourt Brace made a slightly higher offer.

Mel Ziontz, who represented MCA in its acquisition efforts through the seventies and eighties, beginning with this deal, recalled the debate at MCA about whether to top the Harcourt bid. "When some of Lew's people said MCA should make a higher offer, Lew started screaming! He said he wasn't going to get in a bidding war and be made to look like a fool and pay more than the company was worth. His view was that we had to go significantly higher than Harcourt Brace had."

MCA dropped out, and Harcourt Brace acquired SeaWorld. Ziontz said that he later ascertained from the SeaWorld side that if MCA had raised its bid slightly, it would have won the company. Jay Stein, the head of MCA's theme park division during this period, had argued strongly that MCA should raise its bid.

Wasserman, of course, was famous for not acknowledging mistakes. Stein commented, "I only knew Lew to indirectly acknowledge a mistake one time, ten years after the fact - but it was huge. He said 'Maybe we should have bought SeaWorld.'"

You can learn all sorts of things about the theme park industry and the Walt Disney Company by reading Bruck's "When Hollywood Had a King." Weird little tidbits like how MCA founder Jules Stein and Walt Disney were good friends. Such good friends that MCA was Disney's agent for his "Disneyland" TV show. And -- even more incredible -- Connie claims that MCA actually put some seed money into the Disneyland project.

Hard to fathom, don't you think? That the Walt Disney Company's current arch rival in the theme park -- Universal Studios -- back in the 1950s actually helped to make Walt's dream a reality.

This is just a hint of some of the great stories you'll find in Connie Bruck's "When Hollywood Had a King." As you burrow through this book, you'll discover how detail oriented Lew Wasserman truly was. (EX: Lew insisted that his secretary call him ... every hour on the hour ... to tell him how many tourists were currently taking Universal Studios Hollywood's backstage tour.) You'll learn why this man is still a legend in the entertainment industry.

So you want to know what I know, folks? Well, don't make the mistake of just reading Disney-related books. Broaden your horizons. Branch out. Read great entertainment-industry-related books like Connie Bruck's "When Hollywood Had a King: The Reign of Lew Wasserman, Who Leveraged Talent into Power and Influence."

Do you want to buy this book and help support JimHillMedia.com in the process? Then order your copy of "When Hollywood Had a King: The Reign of Lew Wasserman, Who Leveraged Talent into Power and Influence" from Amazon.com by clicking the link to the right. Your cost will (unfortunately) remain the same (though it is currently 30% off!) But - if you go there through us - we get a tiny cut of what you spend. So help keep Jim Hill behind the computer where he belongs and and pick up your copy of "When Hollywood Had a King" through the link to the right.

(Note: Amazon.com currently offers a hardcover version of the book as well as a downloadable version that can be read on your computer. Either one might appear in the link to the right. You can simply refresh the page to change the available link between the two versions.)

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