The land of Century City belonged to cowboy actor Tom Mix (1880-1940), who used it as a ranch. It later became a backlot of 20th Century Fox, which still has its headquarters just to the southwest. The area is named for the 20th Century Fox's Century Property.

In 1956, Spyros Skouras (1893-1971), who served as the President of 20th Century Fox from 1942–62, and his nephew-in-law Edmond Herrscher (died 1983), an attorney sometimes known as "the father of Century City", decided to repurpose the land for real estate development.The following year, in 1957, they commissioned a master-plan development from Welton Becket Associates, which was unveiled at a major press event on the "western" backlot later that year.

In 1961, after Fox suffered a string of expensive flops, culminating with the financial strain put on the studio by the very expensive production of Cleopatra, the film studio sold about 180 acres (0.73 km2) to developer William Zeckendorf and Aluminum Co. of America, also known as Alcoa, for US$300 million (US$2.4 billion in 2014's money). Herrscher had encouraged his uncle-in-law to borrow money instead, but once Skouras refused, he was out of the picture.

The new owners conceived Century City as "a city within a city". In 1963, the first building, Gateway West Building, was completed. The next year, in 1964, Minoru Yamasaki designed the Century Plaza Hotel. Five years later, in 1969, architects Anthony J. Lumsden and César Pelli designed the Century City Medical Plaza.

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