Tom Pollock Pays Tribute to "Misunderstood" Friend Sid Sheinberg

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From left: Tom Pollock, Lew Wasserman, Steven Spielberg and Sid Sheinberg at the 1993 premiere of 'Schindler's List' in Los Angeles.

The former Universal Motion Picture Group chairman remembers Sheinberg, who died March 7 at 84, as the "good guy" to boss Lew Wasserman's "black hat": "Sid was a nice guy, and Lew was a man who got what he wanted — let's put it that way."

Sid has always been misunderstood. People thought he was the black hat, the one who yelled, and [MCA chairman] Lew Wasserman was the good guy. It was the other way around. I saw Sid get angry, but I never saw him tear somebody down in front of other people, which Lew did often, even though he was an amazing man. I never had a fight with Sid, never had an argument. We traveled together all over the world, whether visiting Steven Spielberg in Auschwitz or the many trips to Osaka trying to deal with our Japanese overlords [at Matsushita]. Sid was a nice guy, and Lew was a man who got what he wanted — let's put it that way. They made a good team.

If it were not for Sid Sheinberg, I might still be an entertainment lawyer. Instead, I got 10 years running Universal Pictures and was really happy doing it. He liked to say he’d hired me because we’d made a deal on a movie called Howard the Duck, where I was representing George Lucas. The movie was a failure, but he liked the way I didn’t renegotiate the deal. He said he was very impressed that I didn’t give him what he wanted but did it in a way that kept the relationship going. That was his story. I don’t believe it for a second, but I don’t deny him the pleasure of that.

Sid was a lawyer who wanted to be thought of as a creative person. He went to Columbia University Law School. I, too, was a lawyer and went to Columbia Law School, and I thought he saw a little bit of me in himself. I think that’s why he hired me. 

Sid had just taken over from Lew as chief operating officer and was remolding the company in the mid-'80s in terms of the day-to-day running of the place. He’d brought in Irving Azoff to run the record company, Tom Wertheimer was there in television. Sid had fought with Frank Price, who had been running movies. (They had a notoriously bad relationship. He swore to me they did not have a fistfight in the hall, but I’ve been told by people that they did. But print the legend, as John Ford said.) Part of my deal was they didn’t get involved in the movies I did. I let them know everything I was doing — it wasn’t a secret — but I wanted to be running my own ship. Doing a little Spike Lee movie like Do the Right Thing, I didn’t ask permission to do it, but told them about it. But when it was a Spielberg movie, Sid was always involved because he was involved with anything that had to do with Spielberg.

When I got there in 1987, Steven hadn’t made any movies at Universal since E.T. in 1982. He’d been working with Warner Bros, where he was being courted strongly by [Warner Communications head] Steve Ross. So one of the big priorities was to get Steven working for us, and we were able to do that with [producer] Kathy Kennedy’s help. After Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in 1993, that great year where he did both of them, I had heard that Steven and Michael Crichton were going to do a movie about tornado hunters at Warner Bros. called Twister and they weren’t bringing to us, which was just terrible. So there I went to Sid, and Sid made sure we got half of it; we split with it with Warner Bros., something I could never have done with Steven — only Sid could have done that.  

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