Leonard Maltin on How Sid Sheinberg Helped Turn a Talent Agency Into a Filmmaking Giant

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Sid Sheinberg (Inset: Leonard Maltin)

The film historian and author says Sheinberg, who died March 7 at 84, presided over hit movies that have stood the test of time, and posits that Universal is "much the better for his formidable contributions to it."

Without Sid Sheinberg, films like Back to the Future, Jaws and Jurassic Park wouldn't exist. But the long-term Universal studio chief wasn't a nostalgic kind of man. I intuited this in a brief conversation with him at a press event on the Universal lot some years ago. He was only interested in the here and now and the immediate future.

That outlook served him well from the time he went to work in the business affairs department of Revue, the television arm of MCA, in 1959. A graduate of Columbia Law School, he had no show business credentials, but he was a quick learner and rose through the ranks in the notoriously competitive executive offices of what was then a talent agency and TV production house. Lew Wasserman put his faith in the younger man and never had cause to regret it.

MCA left the talent agency business when it purchased Universal Pictures in 1962. The famous studio tour was launched a few years later, but there was little to show the first wave of visitors. I took that tour on my first trip to L.A. in 1969. We saw the dock where they'd shot McHale's Navy and had a meet-and-greet with Al "Grandpa" Lewis from The Munsters. The purported highlight of the day was a glimpse of Lana Turner's trailer, which the glamorous star had used when she made Madame X several years earlier.

Sheinberg rolled up his sleeves and got to work, first in television, then in feature films. The company became a dominant force in primetime network TV and a major player in the theatrical arena. Sheinberg's most famous protege, Steven Spielberg, followed him from television (where he cut his teeth on a 1969 episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery) to features (beginning with The Sugarland Express), and they both prospered.

Sheinberg and his boss stayed on through a succession of new owners but eventually had to leave the company they had built. The studio executive learned that producing films on his own was a much tougher game to play. Today's up-and-comers may not know his name, but his legacy remains unchallenged: He presided over hit movies that have stood the test of time, and the company he ran is much the better for his formidable contributions to it.

This story appears in the March 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.