Sidney Sheinberg, Universal Exec Credited With Discovering Steven Spielberg, Dies at 84

“My heart is broken at this news … He gave birth to my career and made Universal my home,” Spielberg says

Sid Sheinberg Steven Spielberg
Getty Images

Sid Sheinberg, the longtime president and chief operating officer of MCA and Universal Studios who is also credited for discovering Stephen Spielberg, died Thursday. He was 84.

His son, producer and director Jon Sheinberg, made the news public on Instagram. A cause of death was not disclosed.

“Sadly my dad (Sid Sheinberg) died today,” Jonathan Sheinberg wrote. “He was an amazing man and will be missed very much. We loved him tremendously and will forever miss him.”

“My heart is broken at this news. For now let me just say that Sid had a big personality and a tender heart,” Spielberg said in a statement through Amblin Entertainment late Thursday. “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 a separate statement, Amblin Entertainment said: “We are deeply saddened to learn of Sid Sheinberg’s passing. Without Sid recognizing the talent in a young man with a passionate dream of becoming a director, we wouldn’t have the astonishing career of Steven Spielberg as it is. Godspeed, Mr. Sheinberg.”

Born in 1935 in Corpus Christ, Texas, to Jewish immigrant parents, Sheinberg attended Columbia University and Columbia Law School, moving to Los Angeles in 1958 for a teaching position at UCLA. The next year, he joined the legal department of Revue Productions, formerly the television subsidiary of MCA Inc., and predecessor to Universal Television. He stayed with the company for nearly 40 years.

Elected president and COO of MCA and Universal Studios in 1973, Sheinberg, alongside longtime Universal and MCA chief Lew Wasserman, guided Universal to huge success, thanks in part to his close friendship with a young director named Steven Spielberg.

Having seen Spielberg’s short film “Amblin’” in 1968, Sheinberg gave Spielberg his first job directing a segment of the pilot episode of Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery,” which led to more work and, eventually, a seven-year contract. Early on in their relationship, Sheinberg told the director: “a lot of people will stick with you in success; I’ll stick with you in failure.”

Just after Sheinberg’s promotion to president, Universal released Spielberg’s theatrical directorial debut, “The Sugarland Express.” Spielberg would go on to direct some of the most successful films of the era for the studio, including “Jaws,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List.” The two remained close for the rest of Sheinberg’s life.

Sheinberg also made Universal a power in the music industry, overseeing the $61 million purchase of Motown Records in 1988, and the $550 million purchase of Geffen Records in 1990. That same year, he achieved even greater heights when he facilitated the sale of MCA and Universal to Matsushita Electric for more than $6 billion.

After Universal was taken over by the Seagram Company in 1995, Sheinberg stepped down. He continued to produce films through his The Bubble Factory banner, which he co-founded with his sons, Jon and Bill.

“We are all saddened by the passing of Sid Sheinberg and our thoughts are with his family and friends,” Ron Meyer, vice chairman of NBCUniversal, said in a statement. “He will be forever a part of Universal Studios’ legacy and his contributions to the industry will never be forgotten.”

Sheinberg received Columbia College’s John Jay Award in 1981. He was made a lifetime honorary member of the Directors Guild of America in 1989. He received the AIDS Project Los Angeles Commitment to Life Award in 1991 and the Medal of Honor from the American Academy of Achievement in 1994.

In 1996, he received the GLAAD Media Award. He was also vice chairman of Human Rights Watch, and co-founder of the Children’s Action Network, among other accolades.

He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Lorraine Gary, and his sons.