Skip Paul served as a senior executive at MCA under Sid Sheinberg and Lew Wasserman from 1985 to 1995. Paul is currently a senior adviser at Centerview Partners. He pays tribute to Sheinberg, his mentor and dear friend, who died March 7 at age 84.
I first met Sid Sheinberg when I was sitting across from him at the negotiating table. He could be terrifying. When it was all over he called me and said, “That was a good fight,” and asked if I’d come work for him.
Sid was a fierce negotiator and a towering presence — he was a tough, tall Texan —but after I’d worked with him for a while I came to know him as an unbelievably kind-hearted and warm guy. I remember sitting with him one day in the MCA commissary, and he looked tired. He told me he’d had a hard night.
“What happened?” I asked.
“My dog was dying,” he said. “I slept on the floor with my dog all night.”
I thought, “This is Sidney J. Sheinberg saying this to me — lying on the floor all night with his dog.” I realized then that he was just a big old tough guy who had a really sweet heart.
Sid was not only a mentor; he was a friend, and an important one. I loved him.
When Sid Sheinberg had your back, as he did mine, he didn’t just offer you incredible loyalty. He pushed you. He challenged you. He challenged you with his belief that you could do better. He was the wind at your back.
It was a great compliment for Sid to believe in you. It was also great pressure because you did not want to let Sid down. I worked harder because I knew he was counting on me and I knew he believed in me. The power of that belief compounded by his loyalty was a lesson that I have always tried to pass on to the people who work for me.
Sid showed that same kind of loyalty and received it back from Lew Wasserman. There was no daylight between those guys. They were different in style and temperament, but they were also complementary. They were two different instruments in the same band. We learned by watching them.
Sid’s door was always open. If you went to him with an idea and he believed in it, he would support you and back you through thick and thin. I saw this when we were first considering building a theme park in Orlando, Florida. It was a big step. The Universal Studios tour in Hollywood was not even a stand-alone theme park yet. To buy land and build a theme park and compete with Disney was daunting. But Sid and our group believed in it. And then Disney announced it was building the Disney-MGM Studios theme park in Orlando. Sid backed his troops and went all-in on a very difficult business situation.
That expansion into theme parks proved to be immensely successful, although there were difficult times along the way. He backed everybody all the way through. If there hadn’t been a Sid Sheinberg, there would not be a Universal Studios Florida or Universal Studios Japan. That took real courage.
It also took courage for Sid to fight on behalf of the gay community in the late 1980s when AIDS was scaring the hell out of everyone. MCA was the first studio to provide benefits to same-sex couples. And he didn’t just do it at MCA. He picked up the phone and called the other studios. He confronted them and pushed people to do the right thing. The gay community was surprised to find that our biggest advocate was none other than Sidney J. Sheinberg. He treated me and my husband like family, and that was an honor.
I think Sid’s embrace of the gay community and civil rights overall came from the fact that he grew up in Texas and saw a lot of abuses there. He moved to New York and became a legal scholar with a passion for civil rights and human rights.
After Sid left MCA, it was hard for him. He threw a lot of energy and passion into his work with Human Rights Watch. He built the organization into what it is today. He got a lot of satisfaction out of his work. It was a great second chapter for him.
I last saw him when we went to lunch a few weeks ago. He was having a tough time with Parkinson’s, and it was hard to see him that way. But Sid was a proud guy. He still stood tall.
Once Sid was on your side, he was there forever. Long after our days at MCA, with every new company I started and every deal that I’ve done, Sid was there pushing me to work harder and do better and try more things. His faith in me made me believe I could do great things. There was no better partner you could have than that big tough Texan standing next to you.
— As told to Cynthia Littleton