Sidney Jay Sheinberg, filmmaker, movie studio and record company mogul, attorney, and civil rights advocate, the son of Harry Sheinberg and Tillie (Grossman) Sheinberg, was born on January 14, 1935, in Corpus Christi, Texas. His parents, Jewish-European immigrants, moved to South Texas to escape violence and anti-Semitism in their home countries of Poland and Ukraine. Sheinberg attended Menger Elementary School in Corpus Christi and graduated from Ray High School in 1952. He worked as a deejay and English-Spanish newscaster for a local radio station.
Sheinberg attended Columbia University in New York for his undergraduate career and graduated in 1955. He went to the University of Texas Law School. However, after a disagreement with the administration over the treatment of African American students, he transferred to Columbia Law School where he received his law degree. On August 19, 1956, he married Lorraine E. Gottfried, an actress who used the stage name of Lorraine Gary and who was attending Columbia University when Sheinberg was there. Together they had two sons, Jonathan and William. In 1958 he moved to California where he taught briefly at the University of California in Los Angeles.
In 1959 he went to work at Revue Productions, the television production branch of MCA, Inc., which later became Universal Television. Lew Wasserman, chairman of MCA, made Sheinberg head of television production in 1970, and in 1973 he was elected president and chief operating officer. Under the two men’s partnership, Universal achieved success in both television and film. During the 1960s Sheinberg helped pioneer efforts for made-for-television movies. The company produced popular television series such as Marcus Welby, M.D.; Columbo; Kojak; and The Rockford Files. Known as a fierce, brash competitor with a “tough-as-nails reputation,” Sheinberg also had a keen eye for talent and was very loyal. Having recognized the budding directing skills of Steven Spielberg, Sheinberg signed the young director to a television contract in 1968, and Spielberg’s early work included television episodes and the television movie Duel (1971).
Sheinberg tabbed Steven Spielberg to direct the movie Jaws (1975), which became a box office hit for Universal and catapulted protégé Spielberg into the film industry. Sheinberg later introduced Spielberg to the book Schindler’s List, which Spielberg made into a film in 1993 that won seven Oscars. Other film successes for Sheinberg and Wasserman included American Graffiti (1973), Oscar winners The Sting (1973) and Out of Africa (1985), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Back to the Future (1985) , and Jurassic Park (1993). In 1989 the Directors Guild of America made Sheinberg an Honorary Life Member.
Sheinberg also expanded Universal’s business interests with the acquisition of book publishing companies and record labels. In two multi-million-dollar deals, for example, Sheinberg led MCA’s purchase of Motown Records in 1988 and Geffen Records in 1990. Similarly, Sheinberg took Universal into the studio theme park industry, which rivaled the likes of Disney, and achieved lasting success, with parks in Los Angeles and Orlando, Florida. Sheinberg also made use of his law degree throughout his career in film. He battled Sony, unsuccessfully, all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court over the American marketing of VCRs. Universal also unsuccessfully sued Nintendo after their development of the video game Donkey Kong and cited that the company stole the concept from Universal’s King Kong (1933).
Beyond filmmaking, music, and theme parks, Sheinberg was a passionate advocate of the LGBT and Jewish communities. He served on the board of the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the board of the American Jewish Committee. He also tirelessly supported Steven Spielberg in his founding of the USC Shoah Foundation, as the two remained lifelong friends. With Sheinberg’s help the institution collected 55,000 testimonies of survivors and witnesses to genocide in the twentieth-century and after. He was also on the board of trustees of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which targeted bigotry and anti-Semitism, and a supporter of the Museum of Tolerance. In 1991, with friend Barry Diller, Sheinberg established Hollywood Supports, an organization that provided education about HIV and sexual orientation at a time when the AIDS epidemic stoked fear throughout the nation. MCA, Inc., was the first Hollywood studio to provide gay couples access to domestic partnership rights, which set a standard for other studios to follow. Sheinberg was honored by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force for his lifelong commitment to civil rights and LGBT people, and graced the cover of The Advocate, a gay magazine, in 1991. Other Honors Sheinberg received throughout his career include the Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1984, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Humanitarian Award in 1995, and the Columbia Law School’s Medal for Excellence in 1998. Additionally, Sheinberg was vice chair of the board of Human Rights Watch, an active member on the board of Research to Prevent Blindness, and the co-founder of the Children’s Action Network.
After brokering a more than $6 billion deal with Japanese company Matsushita Electric Industrial in 1990, Sheinberg and Lew Wasserman sold Universal but maintained their roles as studio heads. However, in 1995 the Japanese firm sold most of Universal’s interests to Seagram, prompting Wasserman and Sheinberg to leave for good. Sheinberg then partnered with his sons to create the Bubble Factory, which was headquartered in Beverly Hills, and produced ten films. The studio never found great success as his earlier ventures did. Sidney Jay Sheinberg died at the age of eighty-four in Beverly Hills, California, on March 7, 2019, after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. His longtime friend Steven Spielberg, recalling Sheinberg’s comments about the business that a “lot of people will stick with you in success. I’ll stick with you in failure…,” characterized him as having a “big personality” and a “tender heart.” Spielberg commented, “He was the tallest, most stand-up guy I ever knew.”