January 19, 2020

Sidney Sheinberg, 84, Discovered Spielberg

As president of Universal/MCA, Sidney Sheinberg left his mark on American culture: green-lighting hit movies such as “Back to the Future,” “ET: The Extraterrestrial” and “Out of Africa,” producing long-running TV shows, including “Marcus Welby, M.D.,” “Kojak” and “Columbo” and opening movie-based theme parks around the world. But probably nothing Sheinberg, who died March 7 at the age of 84, did had as much impact as a single decision: discovering Steven Spielberg, and in 1974, tapping him to direct  “Jaws,” released the following year. 

He stuck with that choice throughout the troubled production, even as the movie’s budget ballooned. His faith was rewarded as “Jaws” went on to be a record-setting hit, grossing nearly $500 million. It also changed the way movies were marketed and distributed, becoming the template for the wide-release, tent-pole blockbuster releases of today. Perhaps even more profoundly, in 1982 he gave Spielberg a copy of Thomas Keneally’s “Schindler’s List.” More than a decade later, Spielberg adapted the book into the movie many consider his masterpiece; it won seven Oscars, including best picture and Spielberg’s first best director award. 

Sidney Jay Sheinberg was born on Jan. 14, 1935, in Corpus Christi, Texas. His parents, Harry and Tillie, emigrated from Poland and the Ukraine, respectively, and owned a general store. He graduated from  Columbia University and Columbia Law School. He married actress Lorraine Gary in 1956; the marriage lasted more than 60 years. She survives him, as do their two sons, Bill and Jon. 

In 1958, Sheinberg moved his family to Southern California. After a year teaching at UCLA, he started work at Revue, the television production arm of MCA, the talent agency that became Universal. Sheinberg’s drive and success brought him to the attention of Lew Wasserman, MCA’s powerful chairman, who named him head of television production in 1970. In 1973, Sheinberg was elected president and chief operating officer of Universal/ MCA.  

He was the tallest most stand-up guy I ever knew. … We were a team for 25 years and he was my dear friend for 50. … For the rest of my life, I will owe him more than I can express.”
— Steven Spielberg

Wasserman and Sheinberg expanded the reach of Universal. Under their watch, the studio moved into publishing and music, theme parks and developed the 420-acre tract known as Universal City, while producing a steady stream of movies hits (“American Graffiti,” “The Sting,” the “Jurassic Park” series) and TV (“McMillan & Wife,” “Miami Vice,” “Murder, She Wrote”). They were so successful that in 1990, they sold the company to Japan’s Matsushita Electric Industrial for $6.6 billion.

The relationship between Sheinberg and Wasserman and the new owners was rocky, and both left Universal in 1995, after Matsushita’s sale of the company to Seagrams. He started his own production company, The Bubble Factory, with his sons but had trouble duplicating his earlier success. 

A gruff but loyal man, Sheinberg also was active in the community. He served on the national board of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the board of the American Jewish Committee, the board of Research to Prevent Blindness and the board of trustees of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The Wiesenthal Center honored Sheinberg and his wife with its 1995 Humanitarian Award. He was the vice chairman of Human Rights Watch and the co-founder of the Children’s Action Network. 

Responding to Sheinberg’s death, Spielberg released a statement saying “(M)y heart is broken at this news. … He was the tallest most stand-up guy I ever knew. He gave birth to my career and made Universal my home. … We were a team for 25 years and he was my dear friend for 50. … For the rest of my life I will owe him more than I can express.”