Inside Sid Sheinberg's Memorial Service With Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Ted Sarandos and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti

The legendary Hollywood studio executive and producer, who died March 7 at the age of 84, was remembered by Hollywood friends and family members at a memorial service Thursday.
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Sid Sheinberg

The first face to appear at Sid Sheinberg’s memorial service Thursday night in Los Angeles was the unmistakable mug of the iconic Hollywood mogul who died March 7 at the age of 84. On a giant video screen — raised over the Saban Theatre stage accentuated with gentle purple lighting and positioned above a podium fronted by dozens of white roses — there was the bespectacled Texan talking about his life, career and the one trait that would prove to be a throughline of the evening: loyalty.

“I’ve tried to live my life not in fear,” said Sheinberg in the clip. “If you’re fortunate enough to be in a place or with a person or persons that are supportive of you and where you are learning, accomplishing things, don’t jump around. Stay where you are and learn what you can from the people who have faith in you. Could I have made more money? I never asked for a raise. Could I have positioned myself in a whole other league? Probably. It wasn’t important to me. What was important to me, basically, was the people I worked with and the sense of having an opportunity to do things that I wanted to do.”

Even in death, Sheinberg was a man of his word. A 90-minute program featuring 12 speakers — among them widow Lorraine Gary, longtime friend Steven Spielberg, NBC Universal chief Ron Meyer, Casey Wasserman, filmmaker Rob Reiner, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, and sons Jon and Bill — helped paint a full 360-degree portrait of the man for an audience that included friends, family and industry notables like Netflix’s Ted Sarandos; Jeffrey Katzenberg; Irving and Shelli Azoff; Bob Daly; Carol Bayer Sager; Jon Tesh; producer John Davis; Clarence Avant; and others. The event, titled "Legacy in Entertainment and Social Activism" on the official invite, followed a private funeral held March 10 at Mt. Sinai.

Before the video played, a selection of images filled the screens, displaying a softer side of the tough executive who spent four decades with MCA/Universal alongside Lew Wasserman. There was Sheinberg lying on the beach in one photo, dressed in a cowboy hat and black suede vest in another. There were family photos of trips to Hawaii, and plenty of political fundraisers with Sheinberg seated next to heavyweights like President Barack Obama. Back to the tributes: He was loyal (married for 62 years, friends with Spielberg for 51); motivated (graduated from Columbia University in three years); philanthropic (a fierce and dedicated supporter of the Human Rights Watch); free-wheeling (he bravely set up Universal Studios in Orlando next to a seemingly dominant Walt Disney World); iron-fisted (many said the worst place to be was opposite Sheinberg at the negotiating table); and loving (dedicated to rescue dogs and his six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren).

As the screen faded to black and Sheinberg’s brief appearance was over, Gary was the first speaker to take the stage. “He’s always been a tough act to follow,” she explained, before offering a few adjectives to describe her late husband, who died following a brutal battle with Parkinson’s disease. Her words: "complex," "magical," "gruff," "grumpy," "mean" and "uptight." She then shed light on his final days, revealing that Sheinberg faced down his disease for 13 years, including the final two that were “torture.” Gary thanked his longtime assistant Melanie Chapman, his “work wife,” who helped him continue on in his career with dignity, as well as the doctors for making it “bearable and possible to live as long and as productive as possible.”

Gary, an actress best known for playing Ellen Brody in Jaws, then detailed her and Sheinberg’s courtship, which began in their teenage years while they both were studying at Columbia. A chance meeting inside a two-bedroom fraternity house led to a months-long romance that ended with a pawn shop-bought engagement ring and subsequent wedding at Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. The key to their six decades-plus marriage? “The thing you should know is that we fought all the time,” Gary noted. “We fought about everything except dogs, art and political justice. … We stayed together because we argued, communicating feelings because we couldn’t hold them in.”

Aside from his professional partnership with Wasserman, Sheinberg is perhaps best known for his relationship with Spielberg, who followed Gary to the podium. He called Sheinberg a big personality, mentor and friend for 51 years and detailed their dining dates at Spielberg’s mother’s kosher L.A. restaurant, The Milky Way. “Even sitting at our customary table … having omelettes for lunch while Sid was in failing health, he was commanding,” said Spielberg, who then traced back their creative partnership and Sheinberg’s risk-taking wins. Sheinberg was the first to champion the director, giving him a start in television with a gig helming a 1969 installment of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. The big screen came calling, and the two famously collaborated on the would-be blockbusters Jaws (1975), E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982) and Jurassic Park (1993), among other titles, including the Academy Award-winning Schindler's List (1993).

“I don’t think Sid had any idea how to play safe. From inventing the television movie, which he did, to moving in right next to Disney in Florida with his own theme park celebrating the movies, Sid just did what he always wanted to do," Spielberg said. "In a sense, he shared some of those same impulses that writers, directors and actors act on every day. Creativity comes from places other than conscious thought. Sid made his corporate decisions almost like the creative community makes theirs and, I’m sure, he took into account all the fiduciary obligations, but he made gut calls, Sid did, one after the other."

Spielberg recalled how Sheinberg pulled him out of college at age 22 and hired him to direct Night Gallery, starring a very legendary talent. “He had this insane idea of assigning me to say 'action' for the first time in my life to the legendary Joan Crawford. I survived,” he quipped. Spielberg then fired off a long list of actions that Sheinberg took on his behalf that would seem insane to today’s studio executives. “After my first movie failed at the box office, why he didn’t fire me off Jaws when it was clear that we were heading 100 days over schedule. He gave me a leave of absence from my seven-year exclusive contract at MCA to allow me to make Close Encounters and Raiders of the Lost Ark for two competing studios. Why he invited me to be executive consultant for Universal Studios Florida in Orlando, which is the greatest sandbox this kid has ever had a chance to play in,” Spielberg explained, adding that he also partnered with Sheinberg on his son’s bris ceremony that ended with Sheinberg almost passing out right on top of Spielberg’s baby. “Maybe the greatest gift Sid Sheinberg ever gave me was the moral urge to be a mentor. Every time I discovered a new director, a new actor, a new writer, cinematographer, film editor, set designer, composer, I still to this day see Sid as the partner of all those choices of all of those big breaks.”

And he still sees Sheinberg’s name on a near-daily basis.

“I even named my company Amblin Entertainment after the short I made in college that caught Sid’s attention," explained Spielberg. "The name Amblin has always been my tribute to Sid. The two streets at Universal on the lot right in front of my corporate headquarters are Amblin Drive and Sheinberg Place. When those two worlds first intersected in 1968, I can hardly imagine what would’ve become of me without having Sid Sheinberg at the vanguard of my life. I love him truly.”

Speaking of the Universal lot, Meyer was next to the stage, and the current studio honcho praised Sheinberg’s “legendary career and contributions,” his vision and keen eye for talent. He then had the several hundred guests in attendance cracking up by admitting that he scratched out the part of his speech that originally read that Sheinberg displayed kindness at the negotiating table. “That’s not true,” Meyer admitted. “He was tough and mean … and never showed any kindness.” What Sheinberg did do, he added, was worked tirelessly with the Directors Guild of America to create a “director’s cut” that facilitated filmmakers’ creative control. “Sid was ahead of his time,” Meyer said. “A true gentleman and the last of the great studio moguls.”

Reiner came next, and he read a letter from veteran politician Barbara Boxer and praised Sheinberg’s intuition and foresight for creating studio-based production companies: “He took big chances. There are very few studio heads around that go from their gut. Most of the time they are right. The point is, what else do you have? You can look at all those numbers and move them around and say, ‘Which quadrant does this film fit in?’ and all of that. But I credit Sid Sheinberg for my company Castle Rock, because he was the first one that had the idea of investing.”

Garcetti not only spoke for himself but he, too, read a letter from politicians, but his was written by Bill and Hillary Clinton. His own remarks were just as moving: “At the end of our years, we are left with two things in our lives — who we knew and what we did. Little else matters. Seeing in this room the lives that Sid Sheinberg touched — who he knew, who he changed — speaks volumes to the man that he was.”

Garcetti met Sheinberg at the age of 27 and was admittedly intimidated by the veteran studio executive. They struck up a friendship over shared activism in Human Rights Watch, and Garcetti eventually leaned on Sheinberg when he launched his political career. “I decided to run for City Council, and I remember picking up the phone and calling Lorraine and Sid, and I got Sid and my hands were shaking,” he recalled of the phone call. “I kind of said, ‘I’m running for City Council and there are 13 people and I’m sure you’re friends with them, but would you support me?’ He said, ‘Sure, kid, I’d be happy to do something at our house.’ I came over to the house and saw the dogs and I remember speaking — I probably didn’t know what I was saying back then — and it meant the world to me that somebody like him came up to me afterward and said, ‘Kid, you’re going to be OK. I think you’re going to win.' He believed in me.”

Continued Garcetti: “Today, we celebrate a brilliant man, somebody who changed this city. On behalf of four million grateful souls, thank you for what you did for this City of Angels. But more than that, you showed us how to be an angel in the City of Angels. Let your wings spread in heaven, look down on us to inspire us in the work that we do. Always cut a tough deal, be a great negotiator, but at the end, you’re defined by how you lead with your heart, and Sid Sheinberg’s heart was unmatched.”

Loyalty also weaved its way into the touching words shared by Lew Wasserman's grandson, Casey, who started his tribute by sharing what the film E.T. meant to him and how it spoke to his grandfather's relationship with Sheinberg. "It was magical. It really got what it felt like to be a kid back then. And most of all, I loved the unlikely friendship at the heart of the movie. Two characters who couldn’t be more different on the surface — they literally came from different planets — yet shared a deeper bond," Wasserman explained. "It was about a deep connection. Having each other’s back — loyalty." 

He continued: "When I got a little older, I learned something else. The men who made that movie possible had the same unlikely but powerful bond. One of them was my grandfather, Lew Wasserman. The other was Sid Sheinberg. On the surface, they might have come from different planets. Aside from being tall Jews, they had little in common. Sid was a big, blunt Texan. My grandfather, well, wasn’t. But they were both intensely loyal and driven. They didn’t suffer fools, and beneath the sometimes-tough surface, they were both enormously kind and generous."

The two, aside from being two of Hollywood's most notorious moguls, were basically "work husbands," Wasserman said, because of how much time they spent together. It paid dividends, too. "There’s another movie that I think says a lot about Sid and Lew: Schindler’s List. Like ET, it was the result of their amazing connection with Steven Spielberg, a partnership which gave the world so many great films. And it reflected a core belief they shared together — that those with power have a responsibility to use it for good," he said, adding that after the film, Spielberg gifted his grandfather and Sheinberg a replica of the ring from the film with the inscription, “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” "Sid Sheinberg saved a lot of lives with his activism. And he changed a lot of lives, too," Wasserman noted in his closing. "The millions who saw his movies, the thousands he worked with at MCA, and the mogul down the hall who never had a better partner."

Longtime friend, mentee and fellow activist Skip Paul said Sheinberg’s loyalties to the LGBTQ community were also unmatched. He praised him for being the first studio head who offered same-sex benefits to employees at a time when it was the opposite of the norm. “He was a man whose compassion and sense of justice ran so deeply,” he added.

Paul welcomed members of Sheinberg’s Human Rights Watch family — Ken Roth and Jane Olsen — to the stage, and the duo shared details of their decades-long partnership and friendship with Sheinberg. They recalled how Sheinberg was the rare volunteer who never missed a board meeting or travel opportunity, and he served twice as long as anyone else ever had. He also checked every word of the organization’s financial and policy statements. “He caught every single mistake,” Olsen noted.

Sons Jon and Bill Sheinberg closed out the tributes by sharing that when their father ended his run at Universal in 1995 after the acquisition by Seagram, he chose to go into business with them by launching the production company Bubble Factor. Recalled Bill: “It was amazing to go to work with this brilliant icon who had achieved greatness through dedication and hard work.” But on day one of their new company, he was surprised that his father was preoccupied with office minutiae. “He wanted to know where pens and paper clips and stationery were going to come from,” Bill said. So, when they finally opened the doors, he presented him with a crystal dish filled with five pounds of paper clips.

After the service, which ended with a candle-lighting ceremony and a performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Storey Sheinberg, guests filed into the Saban lobby, where the menu included Sheinberg’s favorite things — dirty martinis with Chopin vodka, Bombay Palace Indian appetizers and Krispy Kreme donuts. “He loved anything sweet — sugar was his passion,” Gary said in her remarks. “I loved him, and I'll love him forever.”