ON A COOL EVENING LAST WINTER, director Tim Burton pulled up to a colonial-style house in West Los Angeles for one of the most important meetings of his career. Waiting for him behind the wrought-iron security gate and up the long drive was Michael S. Ovitz, the charismatic but secretive chairman of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency. * The agenda was Burton’s future. The iconoclastic director was on every talent agency’s most-wanted list, thanks to his record of mining gold from “Batman,” “Beetlejuice” and other twisted fantasies, but he had refused to consider competing offers out of loyalty to the William Morris Agency. It took Ovitz one carefully arranged meeting to change that. * The seduction began when Burton, who had studied art, walked through the door and came upon Ovitz’s vast collection of Picassos, Dubuffets, Schnabels, Lichtensteins, sculptures and African antiquities. It was their shared passion for art that led Ovitz to schedule the meeting at his house, where he rarely conducts business. * The tour eased into a world-class sales pitch. Burton saw his future unfolding through Ovitz’s eyes that night, and it looked pretty promising. Under CAA’s management, he would branch into everything from new video technologies to the art world--opportunities that Ovitz was uniquely qualified to offer as the only Hollywood agent engaged in those arenas himself, with a seat on the board of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and consulting deals with major technology companies. * “Ovitz lived up to his mythology,” says Denise Di Novi, Burton’s former business partner. “The most impressive thing is that, just by observing Tim’s work and career, he was very tuned in to his potential and what dreams he might have.” * The Burton signing was a classic Ovitz move--incisive and inflammatory. Depending on who was talking, it was grand persuasion or grand larceny. William Morris’ film division was already on the ropes when Ovitz made the play for Burton, and to some at the agency, the signing was a vindictive move calculated to kill. “He can’t be a good winner, in that he can’t let anyone else have anything,” says one Morris executive who declines to be named. “Their goal is to put us out of business.” * Reactions to Ovitz, like his ambitions, have always been exaggerated. At 45, he is awesomely respected and feared in Hollywood. He has assembled an all-star talent roster that includes Kevin Costner, Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg; in the past year, he has signed a series of consulting deals with Coca-Cola and other companies, joined Peter V. Ueberroth’s Rebuild L.A. committee and won the news-making appointment to the board of New York’s Museum of Modern Art--the culmination of a long-running bid to gain acceptance from the East Coast elite. But as he ventures into investment banking, merchandising and computer technology, Ovitz is discovering that the farther he steps from the Hollywood turf he so carefully controls, the more difficult it becomes to find the next “visionary” deal. * And he has returned from such expansive forays to find increasing resistance to his way of doing business at home, especially from a fluid anti-Ovitz cabal consisting, at various times, of some of the top names in the industry--Walt Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, entertainment mogul David Geffen, producer Ray Stark and others. * The battleground is the Hollywood economy. Profits fell as much as 20% last year in the face of fast-rising production costs, which many studio executives blame on the bare-knuckled bargaining tactics of Ovitz and other agents. The business shows signs of improvement this year--"Batman Returns” being one example--but Hollywood remains in a foul mood. Some critics see the success of CAA--as symbolized by its spectacular I.M. Pei-designed headquarters in Beverly Hills--as salt in the wound of a bleeding industry. “If you’re a winner and everyone you deal with is a loser, that’s bad business,” says one top film executive. * Though Ovitz welcomes neither the criticism nor the scrutiny that he attracts, he continues doing business his own way: making talent raids and big-money deals, building an empire that takes him far beyond his supposed role as “the most powerful guy in Hollywood.”
What he wants, says one acquaintance, is “to be a real national power broker. In the same way that he’s become Hollywood’s fixer, he wants to be America’s fixer.”
“POWER IS REALLY A MISLEADING WORD,” OVITZ SAYS, FUMBLING FOR THE right phrase. “It creates a resentment that shouldn’t be there. It totally gets in the way. I don’t think I’m any more or less powerful than a dozen people in this town.”
Perhaps a better word to use is control. In conversation, he admits to being “scared to death” of how he comes off publicly, even though Ovitz-driven deals such as Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.'s $6.6-billion purchase of MCA Inc. in 1991 have received intense coverage, even though his every blink is reported in gossip columns. And he goes to great lengths to ensure that he won’t be unpleasantly surprised by what he sees in press accounts. While he has many friends in the upper reaches of the media, he rarely allows himself to be quoted.
Magazine photo editors are frequently told that Ovitz photos are not available: He insists that photographers sign an agreement that they won’t sell any pictures of him without his approval. Many photographers sign because they cannot afford to displease a man who can cut off access to some of the biggest names in Hollywood. But one photographer, David Strick, agreed to the conditions because Ovitz’s explanation for the request was “straightforward and almost anguished; he was not in any sense bullying.”
Calls to Ovitz’s office to arrange interviews for this story got a standard response: “He doesn’t do that.” After two months, though, he agreed to cooperate, worried that this time, his usual silence was working against him. His critics seemed to be defining him, replacing his well-crafted image of the super-agent as business innovator with that of a bully or a control freak.
It was a given that Ovitz would not bare his soul for a magazine interview and that he would, at every opportunity, reinterpret his critics and soften the lighting on the harshest portraits of himself. Talking became his way of taking charge. He made himself available over a series of three- and four-hour dinners, a visit to his home and countless short phone conversations, but he did not speak for attribution until the final meeting.
By now, paparazzi photos have made Ovitz’s face familiar: the sandy hair framing a pair of narrow brown eyes that can be warm or menacing, the pugilistic nose that seems at odds with the boyish, gap-toothed smile, the lean body shaped by years of aikido and 5 a.m. sessions on an exercise bicycle.
Self-discipline defines him--from the perfectly knotted tie that still hugs his collar long after he’s arrived home for the evening to the single glass of wine he nurses over dinner. Exceedingly earnest, he gives the impression of someone who’s still out to prove himself. When he enters a meeting 90 seconds late, he is deeply apologetic.
Yet he has made no apologies for what many perceive as a fatal flaw: the megalomania of his agency. Producer Ray Stark (“Funny Girl,” “Steel Magnolias”), who has been a major player in Hollywood for decades, contends that CAA’s power grabbing and closely guarded management style are insidious influences on the industry. “It’s not agents,” he complains. “It’s secret agents.”
David Geffen, for his part, says Ovitz bears much of the blame for throwing the Hollywood economy out of whack. “Making movies has gone from being a business where everyone could make money to a business where it’s likely that the only profit is made in commissions,” he says.
The Katzenberg-Ovitz clash is the most clear-cut--pitting Hollywood’s stingiest studio against its most aggressive talent agency. Not so predictable is the level of animosity that’s occasionally developed. Katzenberg has repeatedly accused CAA of poisoning his relations with top talent. “CAA still has this ‘80s mentality,” says one senior Disney executive. “With them it’s just kill, kill, kill, and Ovitz has done nothing to rein his agents in.”
Ovitz answers that Disney “wants everyone to adopt their religion.” It’s a sensitive topic, given that Katzenberg’s boss, Walt Disney Co. Chairman Michael D. Eisner, is one of Ovitz’s best friends.
The Disney-CAA fight has raged for more than a year, at varying levels of intensity. One flash point occurred over “Billy Bathgate,” the gangster movie starring Dustin Hoffman, when Disney accused CAA of trying to force an 11th-hour renegotiation of Hoffman’s contract. According to several sources, an enraged Katzenberg called Ovitz and said, “This time you’ve stepped over the line.” Katzenberg declined to comment on the episode.
Another fight erupted more recently, when the two companies exchanged heated phone calls over the terms of Robin Williams’ contract for supplying the lead voice in “Aladdin,” Disney’s next animated feature.
Oddly enough, the most volatile clash involved the cuddly characters from the Muppets. In 1989, Disney announced that it had reached an agreement in principle to buy certain Muppets characters. But negotiations dragged on for months and remained unresolved when Muppets creator Jim Henson died unexpectedly the following year. In the spring of 1991, the issue ended up in court, with Henson’s heirs claiming that Disney had essentially stolen certain characters. The lawsuit wasn’t surprising; entertainment companies sue each other all the time. What was surprising was the inflammatory tone of the suit, in which Disney was accused of “the outright theft of Jim Henson’s legacy.”
It was common knowledge that CAA was serving as a Henson consultant, and even though it didn’t write the brief, Eisner was furious. In a telephone conversation with Ovitz, Eisner called the language “disgusting” and demanded an apology. In a recent interview, Eisner said he still considers the release “despicable.” But he credited CAA with “trying to heal some pretty intense wounds” through a series of meetings between Ovitz’s agents and Katzenberg’s senior executives.
“It’s all about business,” Eisner explains. “If there are five studios willing to pay more than our company, why would CAA want to support their actors coming here? Does that make our people crazed and create a lot of emotional conflict? I guess so.”
Friends say Ovitz is merely a convenient target. In a town as contentious as Hollywood, it’s preposterous to lay the blame for the industry’s problems on one man’s doorstep, they say. “He’s such a power player that there have to be a ton of people who despise him,” says Capitol-EMI Music Inc. chief Joe Smith, a longtime Ovitz friend and neighbor. “It’s because he’s the best at a business they’re all in.” Former Fox Inc. Chairman Barry Diller recalled a meeting of the Motion Picture Assn. of America in which one studio executive told his brethren: “The real problem with the industry can be summed up in one word: Ovitz.” Diller, who attended the meeting, calls that sort of criticism “cowardly.”
“The truth is that if any of these people ran their companies with half of Ovitz’s discipline, they wouldn’t have any resentment,” says Diller, who makes a point of excluding Katzenberg from that criticism. “Instead of damning him, they should learn from him. To blame an agent for the troubles of this business is simply wrong.”
Yet Ovitz has fostered a persona that almost seems to invite such attacks. Ironically, the ultimate insider is something of an outsider in his business. In a tough town, he’s known as an unusually tough guy, a reputation that springs in part from his legendary run-in with screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (“Basic Instinct”), who made headlines a few years ago when he said that Ovitz had threatened him over his decision to leave CAA. He quoted Ovitz as saying, “My foot soldiers who go up and down Wilshire Boulevard each day will blow your brains out.” Ovitz still heatedly denies making any threats to Eszterhas.
A less colorful but equally agitated reaction came after Time Warner Inc. Chairman Steven J. Ross announced that he was ill with cancer late last year--and Ovitz’s name, predictably, surfaced as a possible replacement. Some of the response was scathing: “As a talent agent, I would think that renders him ineligible to manage a great industrial corporation,” sniffed board member Henry Luce III, the son of Time’s founder.
And while no one accused Ovitz of starting the rumor, some senior Time Warner executives were furious. They held that Ovitz should have publicly denied any interest in the job out of respect to Ross. It may be a measure of his industry dominance--or just residual bad karma--that Ovitz can rile the waters even when he does nothing.
OVITZ OFTEN STARTS HIS DAY WITH A WORKING BREAKFAST AT THE HOTEL BEL Air, which is followed by a round of phone calls at the office, which is followed by lunch at a Hollywood hangout such as Locanda Veneta, from which he returns to the office for several more meetings before heading out to a working dinner that often runs late into the evening. In the office, he uses a headset, not a speaker phone; this way, no one else in the room can hear the other party. When he’s at a meeting or even at dinner, he often whips out a small notebook and scribbles notes to himself.
Although Ovitz manages his temper publicly, agents say he routinely goes ballistic at the company’s regular Monday and Wednesday staff meetings, screaming briefly about some mistake or missed opportunity, then storming out of the conference room, leaving second-in-command Ron Meyer to smooth things over.
Like most successful agents, he is part salesman, part shaman. He derives his strength from those he represents but is seen as being stronger than any one of them individually. His agency has been likened to everything from a Maoist camp to a fashionable frat house for its monolithic, secretive way of doing business.
The cult comparisons are a bit silly, but it’s not unfair to say that CAA agents put off a singular vibe. There’s the smooth confidence that comes from years of success. The younger agents often dress alike (Italian) and drive the same car as their boss (BMW). CAA’s 100 executives work without contracts but earn anywhere from $50,000 to more than $1 million a year, which is generous even by Hollywood’s exaggerated standards. In return, they essentially work around the clock. While there have lately been rumblings about possible defections, CAA agents rarely leave the nest.
Neither do clients. People who have observed Ovitz over the years say there’s little room for compromise in his relationships; he tends to be a devoted friend or a fierce enemy. One producer only recently gained access to CAA clients, after suffering a falling-out with Ovitz years ago. A well-known ritual in Hollywood is the on-your-knees visit to Ovitz’s office, in which the offender pledges eternal fidelity to CAA in return for a piece of the action.
By now the story behind CAA’s rise is well-known. Ovitz and four other disenchanted Morris agents--Ron Meyer, Bill Haber, Mike Rosenfeld Sr. and Rowland Perkins--founded the agency in 1975, using their wives as receptionists and a collection of card tables for desks. “From the beginning, he had this incredible energy level,” says one associate. “And he was fearless. He would contact anyone.” Ray Kurtzman, another early colleague who now works at CAA and is considered something of a mentor to Ovitz, recalled that Ovitz relentlessly recruited him, to the point of sending his wife flowers.
An alliance with New York literary agent Morton Janklow led to CAA’s lucrative involvement in the television miniseries format, and from there the agency gradually accumulated more clients and cachet. In the early years, when CAA mostly worked in television, Ovitz persuaded film director Ivan Reitman (“Ghostbusters,” “Beethoven”) to come to the agency by confidently laying out Reitman’s entire career path. He also cultivated important behind-the-scenes players. After persuading legendary entertainment attorney Bertram Fields to meet him for lunch, Ovitz jokingly sent him a $5 retainer to ensure that he wouldn’t take any cases against CAA. They remain close friends and associates.
Clients have had a taste of the same chutzpah and tenacity. Ovitz spent more than a year in discussions with Costner before the actor left William Morris and joined CAA. “He never asked me to come over,” Costner says. “It was more like foreplay, though we both knew what we were talking about.”
It wasn’t long before the move paid off. Costner, who at the time was working to line up financing for his directorial debut, “Dances With Wolves,” had agreed to reduce his salary to $1 million. Ovitz said he should accept no less than $3 million. Costner was opposed, but Ovitz held firm, saying he would understand why later. When the film ran out of money, Costner was able to draw on the $3 million. “Without that option, we would have been in a really bad position,” Costner says.
The list of people besides Costner who rely on Ovitz’s counsel is deep. The agency’s client list includes Warren Beatty, Steven Spielberg, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Barry Levinson, Tom Cruise, Robin Williams, Michael Douglas, Sean Connery, Barbra Streisand, Sylvester Stallone, Madonna, Michael Jackson and Martin Scorsese. That gives the company incredible leverage in making deals. “I doubt there’s a movie released in which CAA doesn’t represent someone,” says one studio boss.
A central tenet of CAA is the value of “the Favor.” The agency keeps a list of hundreds of unemployed Hollywood executives and finds jobs for many of them. When veteran television executive Tony Thomopoulos was out of work, Ovitz was instrumental in getting him named television head at Amblin Productions. “He’s always been there to say, ‘How can I help? What can I do?,’ ” Thomopoulos says.
The cynical view, of course, is that Ovitz benefits from having executives indebted to him. Every the fixer, he also helped negotiate Brandon Tartikoff’s contract when he left NBC to head Paramount Pictures and settled a bitter dispute between Paramount and outgoing studio boss Frank Mancuso. “He’s a very astute guy,” says one top entertainment lawyer. “He understands power in Hollywood 10 times better than the second most powerful guy.”
At CAA, Ovitz is served by a group of about five people known as “the Ovitz staff.” The rest of the agency includes film, television, music, new technology, mergers and acquisitions divisions. CAA’s bottom line is a top secret, but the major Hollywood agencies bring in about $80 million to $100 million each annually just from talent agenting.
Insiders describe Ray Kurtzman, a former William Morris agent who was one of the first people brought over to CAA by Ovitz, as the one who whispers caution into Ovitz’s ear when push come to shove. Meyer, known as “Ronny,” is the soothing presence. A third key player is Sandy Climan, a talent agent who also manages most of CAA’s corporate endeavors.
At the lower levels, “everyone is told to talk constantly, and there’s an endless diet of internal meetings,” says one agent. At most agencies, executives work like independent hustlers: they’re arrogant, and it takes days to get through to them. But at CAA, the agent says, “the two commandments held over people’s heads are that you have to be a team player, and you have to return phone calls promptly.”
The rigid rules--the doors without nameplates, the absence of formal titles, the building itself for that matter--lead to constant comparisons to Eastern management styles, which Ovitz has certainly embraced. But he says his influences are an amalgamation: “My entire philosophy is a combination of Eastern thought and Western team sports,” he says. “I liken myself to the guy running down the court with four other players and throwing the ball to the open guy.”
Studio executives say much of Ovitz’s personal client work is thrown to junior agents. Some of Hollywood’s top film bosses haven’t talked business with the town’s top film agent in months. Typically, Ovitz’s name will only be invoked for dramatic effect when negotiations reach an impasse. There are countless tales around Hollywood of desperate CAA agents saying, “Can’t we do this for Mike?” or “Please don’t make me call Mike.”
When a call from Mike follows, it’s in hushed tones. He’s legendary for making people strain to hear his words, thereby giving him the upper hand. The conversations often begin with Ovitz saying, “I’m confused,” according to several executives who have been on the other end; the executive is left to explain why Ovitz is confused.
If Ovitz’s high-profile clients have any objections to the level of his day-to-day involvement, it hasn’t publicly surfaced. Reitman says he and Ovitz speak by phone every day. For those he represents personally, “he’s always maintained the role of the main agent, but he’s also brought along a second agent who is the day-to-day point man,” Reitman says. Demystifying agents’ work, he adds, “Most problems only require attention, not brilliance.”
OVITZ IS HAVING DINNER IN THE PRIVATE ROOM OF THE MANDARIN IN BEVERLY Hills. Steamed dumplings, noodles and shrimp have been ordered in advance and begin arriving as soon as he sits down. The only interruptions are the occasional clearing of plates and the sudden appearance of a lost soul in search of the men’s room. Ovitz is soft-spoken but insistent as he leans forward and grabs my arm to make a point. When the subject of the Hollywood economy arises, Ovitz agrees that times are bad but says the market is already correcting itself.
Still, he notes, he’s adjusted his approach. He added a “dose of reality,” as he puts it, to his usual booster speech at CAA’s annual retreat in Ojai this spring, warning his agents to be more sensitive to the need for compromise. One CAA agent calls Hollywood’s problems “spiritually dampening,” but adds, “We are sensitive to it. We spend more time talking about it than anyone would imagine.” Bottom line, says Ovitz: CAA has conditioned certain clients to accept lower pay. Deals have also become more creative. Redford, for example, will forgo his salary for a piece of the action on “Indecent Proposal,” as did Warren Beatty and Barry Levinson on “Bugsy.”
But a talent agency should never give too much away. If a client suspects that his agent has gone soft or hears that another agency is making better deals, he’s gone. In that way, Hollywood’s top talent has a lot in common with professional athletes who, knowing their best years are limited, strive to extract as much as they can as quickly as they can.
One of Ovitz’s longtime clients, producer-director Irwin Winkler (“Guilty by Suspicion”) goes to the heart of the matter when he says, “I don’t see any reason why I, as an artist, should take less money so that Michael Eisner can take home $78 million a year instead of $75 million. So when Jeffrey Katzenberg says that Mike Ovitz is ruining the industry by raising prices, what he’s really saying is, ‘You guys should be making it cheaper for us.’ ”
Control over Hollywood talent is concentrated in only three major players: CAA, International Creative Management and William Morris. ICM is solid competition for CAA in film, with clients such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Julia Roberts and Mel Gibson. And though William Morris’ film division has been devastated by the loss of clients such as Burton and Roberts, it remains a powerhouse in television.
One of the ways the major agencies use their power is through “packaging,” a common practice in which the agency assembles the creative elements for a project--writer, director, stars. William Morris perfected it in television, but CAA is known as the king of motion-picture packaging.
When it works, as it did in “Rain Man,” everyone’s happy. But when it fails, as in the case of “Family Business,” also starring Dustin Hoffman, it inevitably leads to charges that the talent agencies are running roughshod over the studios, forcing them to make mediocre films using their clients. “The thing people most resent about CAA is that they think they’re bigger than any studio,” says one studio chief. “The way they make deals is to say, ‘If you want good projects, you also have to take the dogs.’ It’s gangsterish.”
Ovitz admits that CAA’s style may put it irrevocably at odds with some studios. “Our company is all about getting results,” he says, “and that irritates some people.”
At Columbia Pictures, which enjoys good relations with CAA, Chairman Mark Canton says his close working relationship with Ovitz still allows for give-and-take. “There’s no reason the people at other companies should be bullied,” he says. “And if they have been bullied, they’re as responsible as the guy trying to do the best for his clients. It’s not like people have to say yes to Mike Ovitz.”
One problem, though, is that Hollywood studio chieftains rarely last long enough in their high-pressure jobs to gain that level of confidence. Disney’s Katzenberg, with eight years’ experience, is one of the few with tenure. Most of his colleagues have been on board three years or less, compared to Ovitz--who’s run his own shop for 17 years.
Paramount’s Tartikoff, whose hiring last year came with a mandate to cut costs, says the choices are tough. He recently committed to two costly, CAA-influenced projects--"The Firm,” which will star Tom Cruise, and “Indecent Proposal,” with Redford and Demi Moore. But the larger part of Paramount’s slate is filled with cheaper films.
“There are certain times of the year when you want to have some high-octane films to compete in the marketplace,” Tartikoff says. “If you’re going to do that you’re going to need major talent to pull it off, and inevitably you will find yourself at CAA’s doorstep. And for that situation you will pay the piper. But I don’t resent that, because there are other times when it is clearly not in our best interest to pay for those people, and we will go other ways.”
As the industry grapples with its own narrow cost-cutting concerns, Ovitz has moved into a bigger arena, carving out relationships with major New York financial figures such as investment banker Herbert Allen Jr. of Allen & Co. Those ties contributed to his involvement in Sony Corp.'s $3.4-billion purchase of Columbia Pictures Entertainment in 1989 and later to Ovitz’s more prominent brokering role in Matsushita’s acquisition of MCA Inc.
One of the lingering images from the MCA deal, negotiated in New York during Thanksgiving week of 1990, is of Ovitz abandoning the stalled talks and flying home in the middle of the night for turkey dinner with his family. People still debate whether Ovitz’s leaving was a clever negotiating ploy or if he simply wanted to be with his wife and kids. “He did a superb job as an investment banker,” says Allen, who worked on both deals with Ovitz. For the Matsushita deal, which returns anywhere from $8 million to $40 million to CAA, depending on who’s doing the counting, Ovitz was the driving force from the start, convincing the Osaka-based manufacturer that MCA was a worthy target, acting as the mediator between the two sides and helping bring the mega-deal to fruition, drawing all the while on his American ingenuity and his Japanese management influences.
The MCA deal still stands as Ovitz’s greatest business achievement, but the marriage has lost some of its honeymoon luster. Matsushita and MCA have spent the past year clashing over everything from strategic acquisitions to routine budget items, which has led to rumors of possible defections from MCA’s executive suite. If relations don’t improve, Ovitz’s image as the master matchmaker will be tarnished.
Felix Rohatyn, the Lazard Freres & Co. banker and former MCA board member who worked on the Matsushita-MCA merger, says he doesn’t see other Sony or Matsushita deals on the horizon. “At the same time, it’s obvious there’s an ongoing technical revolution in the entertainment business,” Rohatyn adds, and Ovitz clearly sees at least part of his future there--brokering marriages between entertainment and technology interests in the same way he brought Matsushita and MCA together.
Jonathan Seybold, a technology expert, says Ovitz, through his consulting deals with technology companies, has “managed to put himself in a central position in the industry.” An early step in that direction, however, faltered. CAA entered into a consulting relationship with Archer Communications Inc. in 1988 in the belief that the company’s QSound technology would become an audio-industry standard. The idea bombed, and a red-faced CAA quietly cut its ties to the company this year.
Some look for Ovitz to move into more broad-based marketing. He claims to have consulting deals with 25 companies, though he refuses to name them. One is with Coca-Cola, which shook Madison Avenue to its foundation last year when it hired CAA as a consultant.
The substance of the agreement has been closely guarded, even by CAA’s standards--Ovitz told his staff of the deal the day it was publicized. Outside the agency, the natural assumption was that CAA would provide celebrities for Coke commercials. But people close to the deal say the company actually has devised a detailed, year-round marketing plan. That possibility is widely viewed with skepticism. “The only thing Mike Ovitz can advise Coca-Cola on is how to raise the price,” says Geffen. “These are marketing geniuses. They sell colored water.”
As Ovitz’s Archer miscalculation showed, he doesn’t always score outside the narrow confines of Hollywood. A foray into banking also backfired. The agency bought a 10% interest in Century City-based Mercantile National Bank in 1990, in a $6-million deal, then watched with chagrin as the bank’s stock lost more than half its value.
Neither misstep threatened CAA financially; the company is considered financially solid. But news reports of the failures exposed one of the tender spots of Ovitz and his agency--hypersensitivity to criticism. After this newspaper carried an article about the troubled bank investment, one of Ovitz’s top lieutenants asked me about one of the reporters involved: “Is he dead yet? No? That’s too bad.”
Even those closest to him remark on Ovitz’s sensitivity. It’s all about pride, says Reitman. “He has this great sense of responsibility, and he takes the most minor affront personally.” Adds director Winkler: “He doesn’t have a hard skin. He’s easily hurt, almost like a boy.”
ON A WARM JUNE EVENING, I receive a modestly revealing view of the mogul at home with his family. A simple gate with a security buzzer surrounds a carefully landscaped yard where two large dogs lounge and three young children--two boys and a girl--play with balls and bats. Ovitz’s wife, Judy, ushers me into a comfortable living room where wall-to-wall artwork surrounds a baby grand piano and modern and antique furnishings.
Minutes later, Ovitz emerges from the study. We make small talk over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. Ovitz casually observes that the Chinese chair I’m sitting on is 400 years old.
The two older children join us on a tour of the house, everyone offering detailed histories of the artworks. Ovitz encourages their halting efforts to recall the stories of obscure African artifacts.
Ovitz’s view of the family is almost Rockwellian, based largely on his own San Fernando Valley upbringing. At a 70th birthday party for his father, a retired liquor salesman, he spoke so passionately about the importance of the postwar, middle-class values imparted by his parents that some of the old-timers broke down and cried. “As a kid I always had an enormous support system,” Ovitz explains later. “I was brought up to think I could be successful.”
He married his UCLA sweetheart and is one of Hollywood’s most domesticated executives. Though he’s an admitted workaholic, Ovitz spends most weekends with his family, often at vacation homes in Malibu’s Broad Beach and Snowmass, outside Aspen, Colo. In conversation, he continually returns to the subject of family, as if it were a touchstone for every other facet of his life. “Children are an extraordinary leveler,” he says on the phone one morning. “They have no bias as to who you are or what you do, they just love you.”
In conversation, Ovitz can be as probing as a prosecutor when he wants to gain a better understanding of something, speed-writing in his little notebook when he isn’t asking questions. Yet after talking for hours, he betrays only a vague sense of where he stands politically and socially. Friends insist he’s deeply concerned about the direction the country is taking, but Ovitz needs to get along with people across the political spectrum, and a particular point of view might offend a client or prospect. So much for the cultural elite.
His house, like his office, is a reflection of everything he’s achieved--the self-made man as Renaissance man. He devours dozens of periodicals a week. His hideaway has a vaulted glass ceiling; a huge Julian Schnabel hangs on one wall across from an Ad Reinhardt that’s covered with cardboard--removed when guests arrive--to protect it from fading.
Farther along in the rambling house is a large, wood-paneled den with a big-screen television and stacks of videotapes and compact discs. The well-lived-in room also has side-by-side stereos in a corner. One is for Ovitz, and the other is for the children. Ovitz’s involvement in music is little publicized, but CAA helped negotiate three of the biggest recording contracts in recent history--the ones involving Michael Jackson, Madonna and Streisand. One of his close friends is another music client--John Mellencamp.
Ask Ovitz what he listens to, and he gives you the standard run-down of classics. Is that all? No, he admits. He also enjoys playing the Beatles and the Beach Boys and of course brings home recordings by clients. Then comes the big surprise. One of Ovitz’s favorite songs is the Led Zeppelin rock standard, “Stairway to Heaven.” “The kids like it, too,” he adds.
It’s a silly, humanizing detail of the sort that he seldom lets slip. Friends say that in his insistence on secrecy, he hides the sides of his nature--and his work--that would counterbalance his image as a bloodless deal maker. For instance, Ovitz has frequently played a behind-the-scenes role in contract negotiations between the talent guilds and management. While he’s never resolved a strike, Ken Orsatti, national executive director of the Screen Actors Guild, says Ovitz helped “move the process forward.”
Ovitz also assisted former L.A. Lakers star Earvin (Magic) Johnson, who became a friend as well as a client, giving Ovitz an engraved championship ring after being named most valuable player during one series.
Shortly after receiving word himself, Johnson called his agent to deliver the stunning news that he was HIV positive. “Where Michael really helped me was in getting me ready for the press,” Johnson says. In the hours before the announcement, “he really worked on my mind. He said ‘OK. It happened to you. But you’re gonna help a lot of people.’ ”
Ovitz sits on the boards of Cedars-Sinai and St. John’s hospitals as well as the UCLA hospitals, where, says Dr. Kenneth Shine, former dean and provost of the UCLA School of Medicine, he has helped to quadruple fund-raising.
Ovitz’s public awkwardness almost certainly excludes him from one field where real power coalesces--politics. He’s become a fairly significant behind-the-scenes contributor but has established a serious relationship with only one politician, Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.). “Bradley epitomizes my kind of a guy,” Ovitz says. “He’s a team player. He’s interested in serious issues such as race relations. He should be the President of the United States.”
And Michael Ovitz? Those closest to him seriously doubt the continuing rumors that have him taking over a major entertainment company such as MCA or Time Warner, largely because they can’t see Ovitz reporting to a board of directors. “I don’t think he’s tired of the agency business,” adds close friend Al Checci, president of Northwest Airlines. “But he’s probably taken it as far as he can, and he wants to apply it in other directions.”
Provided he can remain in the background, the only place he’s ever felt at home. Hollywood’s leading image maker has yet to come to terms with his own image and the fact that the most powerful man in Hollywood has nowhere to hide. “I never realized that businessmen could be perceived as celebrities,” he says naively. “I don’t want to be a public figure.”