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Company Town : Buzz Shifts to CAA Partner Bill Haber

Hollywood is still reeling from the surprise appointment of Ron Meyer, the president of Creative Artists Agency, as head of MCA, after his partner Michael Ovitz turned down the job.

Now the buzz has quietly shifted to the fate of ultra-low-profile partner Bill Haber.

The latest rumor is that Haber, who is the TV honcho at CAA, might follow Meyer to MCA, which is in desperate need of TV repair. When Ovitz was negotiating with MCA, it was widely reported, yet unconfirmed, that Haber and Meyer were part of the package since neither wanted to be left running a devalued agency. Like Meyer, he was said to be very unhappy when the deal blew apart.

And like Meyer, sources suggest that Haber is skeptical that Ovitz will remain put for long, given the seriousness of his dance with MCA. To the extent that view is widely held by others at CAA, the industry’s most powerful talent agency can brace for even more change.

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Another popular scenario presumes that Haber would rather retire to his chateau (i.e., “the farm”) in France, where he spends a good deal of time and most of the summer, than give up his charmed life for a morning-to-midnight grind.

“He definitely wants out,” says one of his cronies.

But that could be a fish tale too. “Maybe [his leaving CAA] is wishful thinking on the part of his competitors,” said a business associate. “I don’t think he’s going anywhere. Bill has been able to make his life work for him.”

As a partner of CAA (Ovitz owns 55%; Haber and Meyer own the remainder), friends and associates say, Haber could presumably cash out of CAA as a millionaire many times over. And he can count as professional accomplishments the packaging of some of television’s top shows and the revival of one of the industry’s most prolific producers, Aaron Spelling.

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“A lot of independent TV producers are out of business, so you have to conclude that we are doing something right in getting the networks to take notice. That is the job of a packaging agent,” said E. Duke Vincent, vice chairman of Spelling Television, who says he has known Haber for 25 years.

Indeed, through shows like “Dynasty,” “Charlie’s Angel’s,” “Melrose Place” and “Beverly Hills 90210,” said one television producer, “Aaron has put more money into CAA than any of us.”

Through a CAA spokesperson, Haber refused to comment.

But that’s not unusual for a man who loathes the limelight and avoids the media like the plague. While other CAA partners have reluctantly warmed up to journalists in recent years, Haber still holds the hard line that talking to them is inappropriate, an invasion of privacy and not useful. Like industry patriarch Lew Wasserman, he maintains that it’s the clients who deserve the publicity, not their agents.

At CAA, he’s known as “the media vampire.” When CAA hired in-house publicist Anna Perez a couple of years ago, the first thing Haber told her was that her job was to keep his name out of the press. The last and one of the few interviews he ever granted was to the Los Angeles Times in 1989 when the three partners discussed CAA’s rise to prominence.

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One of Hollywood’s most invisible players, the 53-year-old agent is not even listed in Who’s Who. His photo appears occasionally in George Christy’s society column in the Hollywood Reporter. But he refused to give The Times a bio for this column.

Haber built his reputation “packaging” TV shows--assembling all the creative elements from producers to stars for a fee based on a show’s total revenue.

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Besides Spelling, he handles another important name in TV production, Witt-Thomas, though he lost Dick Wolf, apparently unable to give the “Law & Order” producer enough attention. He also assisted in the recent signing of Matt Williams and his Wind Dancer Productions (“Home Improvement”) and represents the TV side of Jim Henson Productions.

Many in town say Haber has retreated to a role as elder statesman in recent years, offering advice and coaching younger agents--and allowing Lee Gabler to assume the mantle of TV agent extraordinaire, keeping CAA in the game against William Morris, which has rich syndication income from old sitcoms and big hits in “Murphy Brown,” “Mad About You” and “Roseanne.”

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Even so, departing Disney television executive Rich Frank says Haber made the best TV sale of the season in getting Witt Thomas’ “The John Larroquette Show” back on NBC a third year. “The show was never a great ratings hit,” said Frank. “It took selling, maneuvering, passion and force of personality to get it back on the air.”

Haber also works closely with Ovitz on the Coca-Cola account, which marked CAA’s much ballyhooed entry into the world of advertising.

He, Ovitz and Meyer were among the five young TV agents, also including Michael Rosenfeld and Rowland Perkins, who defected the William Morris Agency in 1975 to form CAA. Although CAA doesn’t enjoy the dominance in TV that it does today in the motion picture business, its roots were as a TV agency. By slashing their packaging fees from the customary 10% of revenue to 6%, the partners grew CAA into a major factor in the prime-time business by the 1980s, with such shows as “Golden Girls,” “Alf” and “Empty Nest.”

Haber also succeeded in packaging successful miniseries spawned from the works of such authors as Sidney Sheldon, Jackie Collins, Judith Krantz and the late James Clavell.

Today, industry sources rank CAA a close No. 2 in TV behind William Morris.

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Within the industry, Haber is someone who is known to “stand apart from the tribe and go his own way in a business that is very tribal,” according to one source. While considered a charming guy with a wicked sense of humor who’s shrewd, urbane and not afraid to express his opinion even when it’s not popular, Haber is also thought of as an oddball and loner by many who know him.

“He’s an alien from another planet,” “He’s very eccentric,” “He has his own drumbeat,” “He walks down the hall and he’s different,” “He’s weird and goofy,” were comments offered by a number of people who know Haber.

It’s been reported that he used to start his Friday mornings with an 8:30 violin lesson in his office, which, typical of a Francophile, is decorated in French provincial, complete with a fireplace and a bidet in his bathroom. In contrast, most of his CAA colleagues have stark, contemporary office interiors.

Haber is no Hollywood animal. Much like Ovitz and Meyer, he’s described by friends as an extremely private person. He and his wife, Carole, have two grown children and live in Malibu. In addition to the beach house and chateau in the Loire Valley, they have an apartment in Paris.

Unlike many of his peers, he does not drive a BMW, a Mercedes or a Range Rover, but rather a Pontiac. He’s a marathon runner who keeps fit and his attire is described as understated: “He dresses like a European banker,” says one CAA insider, “and he is fairly formal. . . . He sort of slides into a room and doesn’t make a big ripple.”

Says producer Dick Wolf: “He is one of the most charming people around. My wife loves him. He sent gifts on the kids’ birthday. He’s thoughtful. He’s always inviting people to France.”

Despite his charms and his contacts, Haber may not be MCA’s first choice to head its TV operations. Other names that have surfaced include Mel Harris, the Sony Television Entertainment head who is thought to be seriously negotiating with Disney to head its telephone joint venture, and Gregory Meidel, president of Twentieth Television.

But judging from the surprise choice of Meyer, a dark horse could win the top TV slot at MCA.


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