Sid Sheinberg, Powerful Universal Exec and Champion of Spielberg, Dies at 84

58 FEA Steven Spielberg & Sidney Sheinberg
Art Streiber

He teamed with Lew Wasserman in one of the longest-running executive partnerships in showbiz history.

Sid Sheinberg, the iron-fisted president and CEO of MCA who ran Universal Studios with Lew Wasserman and along the way championed a young director from Cal State Long Beach named Steven Spielberg, has died. He was 84.

Sheinberg, who worked at MCA/Universal for 35 years through 1995, died Thursday, his son Jonathan confirmed in an Instagram post. 

With his mentor Wasserman, Sheinberg was instrumental in shaping the persona of the Black Tower, vaulting Universal from a studio associated with “B” pictures and low-budget horror movies to an international giant. The pair made for one of the longest-running partnerships in show-business history.

Sheinberg signed Spielberg, then 20, to a seven-year contract at $300 a week to make Universal TV shows after he saw the youngster’s 1968 student film, Amblin,’ a 23-minute road movie about a boy and girl hitchhiking from the Mohave Desert to the Pacific.

“I thought it was special because I’d been seeing a lot of stuff that was very technical; you know, all white and like Tron,” Sheinberg told The Hollywood Reporter’s Bill Higgins in 2010. “But this was a human story.”

He started Spielberg off in television, having him direct a 1969 installment of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery that starred Joan Crawford. That led to work on such made-for-TV movies as the 1971 predatory road thriller Duel at ABC.

Under Sheinberg’s watch, Universal released the highest-grossing films of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90sJaws (1975), E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982) and Jurassic Park (1993) — all directed by Spielberg.

Jaws’ success, in particular, was groundbreaking: It opened in 400-plus theaters, an unheard-of number at the time, played all summer and grossed $260 million at the domestic box office. Meanwhile, E.T., made for just $11 million, would rake in $435 million after Sheinberg bought the rights to the film from Columbia Pictures.

Universal also scored terrific box office with Spielberg proteges like Robert Zemeckis, whose Back to the Future (1985) was a big hit and spawned a franchise.

Sheinberg later urged Spielberg to adapt the Thomas Keneally book Schindler’s Ark (Shindler’s List in the U.S.) into the 1993 movie that would rake in seven Oscars, including those for best director and picture.

In a statement to THR, Spielberg said Sheinberg's death has left his heart "broken."

"For now let me just say that Sid had a big personality and a tender heart," the filmmaker said. "He was the tallest, most stand-up guy I ever knew. He gave birth to my career and made Universal my home. He gave me Jaws, I gave him E.T., and he gave me Schindler's List. We were a team for 25 years, and he was my dear friend for 50. I have no concept about how to accept that Sid is gone. For the rest of my life I will owe him more than I can express."

In 1990, Wasserman and Sheinberg struck gold when Japan’s Matsushita Electric Industrial purchased MCA for $6.6 billion, but the acquisition of 80 percent of the company by Canadian distilling giant Seagram for $5.7 billion just five years later spelled the end of their reign at Universal.

Sheinberg departed with a Seagram’s funded production deal and formed The Bubble Factory with his sons Jonathan and Bill. The company’s initial productions — it was allowed to greenlight its own films as long as budgets fell below $35 million — included the poor-performing films Flipper (1996), That Old Feeling (1997) and McHale’s Navy (1997).

Wasserman's grandson Casey said: “Sid was a giant, in stature, business and heart. He was a true partner to my grandfather and the industry and will be sorely missed by all."

"He will be forever a part of Universal Studios' legacy," NBCUniversal vice chairman Ron Meyer added, "and his contributions to the industry will never be forgotten."

Sidney Jay Sheinberg was born Jan. 14, 1935, in Corpus Christi, Texas, where his parents ran a dry goods store. As a youth, he was an announcer during his vacation periods at area radio stations. He graduated from Columbia University at age 20, and, after a year at law school at the University of Texas, he returned to New York and finished up at Columbia Law School. 

Sheinberg moved to California in 1958 and landed a position as a law instructor at UCLA. While waiting for the results of his bar exam, he joined the legal department of Revue Productions, which became Universal Television.

In 1965, Sheinberg served as an executive for Universal’s “World Premiere” projects (new motion pictures for NBC). He was responsible for TV series production, serving under senior vp Jennings Lang, and in 1971 was appointed president of Universal Television.

When Wasserman was appointed chairman and CEO in 1973 following the retirement of company founder and chairman Jules Stein, he named Sheinberg, then just 38, as president of MCA.

Sheinberg stood by Spielberg when the Jaws budget was ballooning from $3.5 million to about $10 million because of weather problems associated with filming on the water in Martha’s Vineyard.

“Sid believed in me,” Spielberg told Entertainment Weekly a few years ago. “He came out one day and said, ‘Do you really think you’re ever going to finish this movie? Are we being defeated by the elements and by technology, or do you think you have a shot at finishing this?’ And I always said to Sid, honestly, I said, ‘I will finish this film. I can’t tell you what day I’ll finish this picture, but I will finish this picture.’ And Sid let me continue.

“Sid reminded me of a fight doctor that comes into the corner to check the cut over my right eye to see whether the fight can go on. It seemed every couple rounds he’d come check my cut, and then the other cut that formed over the other eye.”

Said Sheinberg in the 2010 THR interview: “I had the benefit of being guided by Lew Wasserman. I think part of being a mentor is you have to have confidence in the people you’re guiding and mentoring.”

Sheinberg later presided over another epic filmed on the water — Kevin Costner’s Waterworld (1995). That one that didn’t work out so well.

Combative and abrasive, Sheinberg caused many to characterize Universal as a “difficult” studio. Highly memorable was his public dispute with director Terry Gilliam over Brazil (1985), which, in a twist, won the best picture award from the Los Angeles Film Critics before it even was released.

That triumph forced Universal’s hand to play it for Oscar consideration at the end of the year, and Brazil earned nominations for original screenplay and art direction/set decoration.

Sheinberg’s recent producing credits included The Devil’s Tomb (2009), starring Cuba Gooding Jr., and What Lola Wants (2015).

In 1964, Sheinberg served as an inaugural member and management co-chair of the DGA's Creative Rights Committee under the leadership of Frank Capra. Among other breakthroughs, it established the right to a "director's cut," and the guild made him an honorary life member in 1990.

In addition to his sons, Sheinberg is survived by his wife, actress Lorraine Gary, whom he met when they both attended Columbia. She played the caring spouse of Roy Scheider’s sheriff in the first two Jaws movies.