When someone is called a living legend, it usually means he's washed up. But when Lew Wasserman was alive, the description fit. He was a titan, a looming figure over the cultural and political landscape. Few claimed he was nice, many said he was fair. That probably means he was indiscriminate with those he bullied, cajoled, or schmoozed.
Fair enough. People who reach that level don't do so by accepting defeat.
My grandfather always said, "Show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser. I don't know about that, but then my grandfather was a Depression-era tough guy who retired to work a cattle ranch, by himself, until age 84. Men of that time seemed to be made of stronger stuff.
Wasserman rose from so-called "humble beginnings as a Chicago club promoter.
No need to take umbrage, fellow publicists and promoters: Anyone achieving Wasserman's status inevitably has his formative years described as "humble. Within a year he impressed booking agent Jules Stein enough to be invited to join his new firm, Music Corporation of America (MCA). Under Wasserman's guidance, MCA grew into an unrivaled entertainment conglomerate.
"A lot of what we do today stems from the foundation he set in place 50 years ago, Steven Spielberg said of his longtime friend and mentor.
I have but one Wasserman anecdote to share, unremarkable except for his remarkable comment. We were separately departing a fundraiser, which he had attended to raise money, and I had attended for the free drinks. As it was the first time (and last) I saw him in the flesh, with his trademark Mr. Magoo glasses and wavy white hair, I felt the need to walk over and do something I never do: kiss a little industry booty.
"It's an honor to meet you, Mr. Wasserman, I sucked up. "I'm proud to work in the same business as you. (Not bad, eh? For someone new to the art?) He expressed thanks, shook my hand and said, "See to it that someone can say the same thing to you someday."
Impressive. My obsequious serve was returned as a profound volley.
I've often thought about that remark and how I was faring. His death makes me think about it even more. A lot of Hollywood publicists, I suspect, sometimes wonder if the work we're doing is important or meaningful. (I'd say the publicist for Porky's 3, for example, had some sleepless nights over such questions). Do we all have moments when we feel we're just cheering on the sidelines and not playing in the game?
With apologies to Mr. Wasserman, I'm not sure anyone will ever say they are honored to meet me, other than the delivery-store owner down the street, whose kids I've put through college. But the truth is, people like Wasserman are born to run the world; others just to nap in it. And I'm feeling sleepy ...