Sidney Sheinberg, mogul behind Universal and Spielberg, dies at 84

Mr. Sheinberg aided Steven Spielberg’s early career.
Associated Press/File 1989
Mr. Sheinberg aided Steven Spielberg’s early career.

Sidney Sheinberg, an irascible Universal Studios executive who discovered and nurtured Steven Spielberg, put “Jaws” into production, and helped to turn Hollywood into a blockbuster-focused business, died Thursday at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 84.

His death, following years of Parkinson’s disease, was confirmed by his son, Jonathan.

Mr. Sheinberg was for much of his career the forthright top deputy to Lew Wasserman, the chairman of MCA, a conglomerate that encompassed Universal. The ultimate mogul, Wasserman defined power in Hollywood in the decades after World War II.


But Mr. Sheinberg, openly intimidating as president and chief operating officer, kept the gears turning. When the two men left MCA in 1995, Mr. Sheinberg had worked for the company for 36 years, the last 22 as president.

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During that time, he helped transform Universal into an international entertainment giant, complete with a sprawling theme park empire.

He played a major role in pivotal films like “Back to the Future,” in 1985 (and a few hall-of-fame flops, like “Waterworld” 10 years later), and turned Universal into a television superpower. The company had the No. 1 show in 1970 with “Marcus Welby, M.D.,” about a kindhearted physician starring Robert Young, and churned out 20 movie-of-the-week projects annually.

Mr. Sheinberg was also credited with seeing opportunity in music — he led MCA’s purchases of Motown in 1988 and Geffen Records in 1990 — and putting Universal into a competitive position with Disney in the global theme park business.

Mr. Sheinberg relished a court battle, sparring about copyright issues with Sony over the VCR and with Nintendo over its “Donkey Kong” game.


“Sheinberg dealt with all people like a battering ram: Do it his way or get out of the way,” Dennis McDougal wrote in the 1998 biography “The Last Mogul: Lew Wasserman, MCA, and the Hidden History of Hollywood.”

Most important, Mr. Sheinberg discovered Spielberg. It was 1968 and the director, in his early 20s, had just completed a short film, “Amblin’,” a love story about hitchhiking hippies. Based on what he saw, Mr. Sheinberg put Spielberg under contract and gave him a job directing television shows. An episode of “Marcus Welby” was one of the first. In 1971 came “Duel,” Spielberg’s thrilling TV movie about a commuter terrorized by a truck driver.

With a line that has come to epitomize loyalty in the often fickle movie business, Mr. Sheinberg told his protégé at the time: “A lot of people will stick with you in success. I’ll stick with you in failure.”

Mr. Sheinberg, who could be as tender as he was prickly, was the one who allowed Spielberg to make “Jaws,” giving him a budget of $3.5 million (about $17 million in today’s money). A problem-plagued shoot pushed the cost to more than twice as much.

But Mr. Sheinberg, developing a father-son relationship with Spielberg, continued to support the film, which went on to become the prototype for the wide-release summer blockbuster.


“Sid created me, in a way, and I also re-created Sid, in a way,” Spielberg was quoted as saying in The New York Times in 1997.

Under Mr. Sheinberg’s watch, Universal released two more hits from Spielberg, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982) and “Jurassic Park” (1993). It was Mr. Sheinberg who handed Spielberg Thomas Keneally’s novel “Schindler’s List,” which the director turned into his masterpiece of the same title. Released in 1993, it won seven Academy Awards, including best picture.

“My heart is broken,” Spielberg said in a statement Friday. “For now, let me just say that Sid had a big personality and a tender heart. He was the tallest, most stand-up guy I ever knew.”

Sidney Jay Sheinberg was born on Jan. 14, 1935, in Corpus Christi, Texas, to Harry and Tillie (Grossman) Sheinberg, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. They ran a dry goods store that catered mostly to Mexican-Americans.

As a teenager, Mr. Sheinberg worked as an announcer and occasional disc jockey at a local radio station. He graduated from Columbia University in 1955 and enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin for law school.

But he later transferred back to Columbia to earn his law degree after a dispute with Texas administrators over their treatment of black students. It was a demonstration of his concern for discrimination that would lead him to become involved with Human Rights Watch and prompt him to push Hollywood studios to provide same-sex benefits, landing him on the cover of the gay magazine The Advocate in 1991.

“I sat in his office as he made those phone calls, and it was not a quick ‘Yes, yes, yes’ from everyone” at those studios, said Skip Paul, a senior adviser at the investment bank Centerview Partners, who was groomed by Mr. Sheinberg at MCA. “When Sid believed in something or somebody, he didn’t just have your back — he pushed on your back.”

In 1956, Mr. Sheinberg married a Columbia classmate, Lorraine Gary. They settled in Southern California, where she had grown up and would become an actress, starring in “Jaws” and its sequels. He accepted a teaching job at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1958. The next year, he joined the legal department at Revue Productions, a television subsidiary of MCA, which eventually became Universal Television.

As he rose in MCA’s television business, Mr. Sheinberg drew the attention of Wasserman. Though not similar in style — Wasserman was smooth and diplomatic, while Mr. Sheinberg had rough edges — the men bonded over their backgrounds: They were both sons of families who had fled Eastern Europe’s anti-Semitism and settled in Middle America. (Wasserman, who died in 2002, grew up in Ohio.)

“Lew took note of Sid because he was one of the very few people who would stand up to him,” director and actor Jerry Adler said in “The Last Mogul.”

Mr. Sheinberg leaves his wife and sons and a sister, Alice Schenk.