Kim Masters on Sid Sheinberg: The Tough Mogul Behind a Megatalent
His boss Lew Wasserman got the commissary's best table, but Sheinberg, who died March 7 at age 84, was the one who discovered Universal's secret weapon (22-year-old Steven Spielberg) and ushered the studio into the blockbuster age.
Sid Sheinberg was the first person to take my call when I started covering Hollywood.
Knowing literally no one in L.A., new on the beat, working for the Daily News (the one in the Valley), I called Sid, the president/COO of MCA, the parent of Universal Pictures. In other words, he was a big freaking deal. I'm not exaggerating when I say that no one at his level or even many rungs below it would have bothered talking to me. (And I tried.)
If memory serves — and it may not, fully, as this was, incredibly, more than 30 years ago — the reason for the call was awkward: There were rumors that he and Frank Price, then president of Universal and vice president of MCA, had gotten into an altercation that had turned physical. The idea of a hook-out between two executives at that level was irresistible, though whether this actually happened never became clear. When I asked Sid about it, he said, "Keep asking questions like that and you won't work in this town."
Consider it the perversity of a reporter that I was thrilled. People really talked that way in Hollywood! I found it hilarious, although anyone who ever dealt with Sid knows that he really could be pretty scary.
Yet we kept talking even though I kept asking questions. Sid had a great gift for partnerships. He worked with Lew Wasserman, the legendary mogul (who may have had mob ties, but that's a story for another day), for 36 years. He married Lorraine Gary when he was 19, and they were together for 62 and a half years. (She wants credit for the half-year.)
Despite many achievements, Sid became best known for having spotted a young Steven Spielberg. At Sid's somewhat private funeral March 11, Spielberg entered with the Sheinberg family. He remembered how when Sid brought him into the studio, he said, "I will protect you in success. More importantly, I will protect you in failure." He remembered Sid's habit of calling him "sir" — in the first conversation they ever had, as well as the last.
Spielberg spoke of dark days when it looked like Jaws might be a disaster. "He stuck with me when it all started falling apart," he told the hundred or so friends and family at the memorial service. Sid offered to shut down the movie if Spielberg felt that would salvage his budding career. When Spielberg told him he wasn't ready to give up, Sid told him, "Go finish the picture." What followed was a wildly successful partnership, of course, and the friendship between the two lasted 50 years.
With me, Sid could be gruff, yet he was invariably kind. When at one point I wrote something that was damaging to someone very close to him — I won't dredge it up here — you know what he said to me? Not one word. Bear in mind that there are studio bosses who will yell at a reporter about a single adjective. But I think Sid had a deep sense of fairness. That was why he got into an old-school feud with Michael Eisner, then CEO at Disney. He had extended a hand of friendship when Eisner took the job, only to get no response. Then he became convinced that Disney had stolen the idea for a studio tour in Florida. And he saw it as a sign that the industry was changing. "We were the last knights," he told me wistfully. "We were trying to behave by a code of chivalry that I guess may have been out of date."
When Wasserman sold MCA to Matsushita in 1990, Sheinberg was shocked by the dismissive way the Japanese electronics giant treated him and, more importantly, Wasserman. (Of course, he and Wasserman made many millions on the deal.) When he left the company in July 1995, I remember him telling me over lunch how upsetting it was when Matsushita returned his portrait, as if it were irrelevant after his years at the company.
Once he was no longer part of MCA/Universal, he complained, young agents at CAA who couldn't get on the phone fast enough before were no longer answering his calls. "Sid," I said, "you have the fuck-you money everyone dreams of. Isn't there anything else you want to do besides worrying about this business?" The answer was no (though he was a devoted supporter of Human Rights Watch).
Sid was very sick for a long time. I last saw him several months ago, and when we hugged, it was like holding a bunch of dry twigs. It was painful to see such a powerful man in such an unwinnable struggle. Yet though he became so frail, Sid was such a force that when Spielberg said at the funeral, "I can't believe he's gone," it was easy to understand what he meant. "Sid was supposed to stick around for the whole game," he said. Still, he continued, he didn't believe Sid wasn't on the way back. "Sid will come around," he said. "Stay open for it. He's here."
This story appears in the March 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.