Billionaire Oilman, Real Estate Mogul Once Owned Fox Studio

Times Staff Writer

Marvin H. Davis, an oil wildcatter who parlayed a long string of savvy business deals into a glamorous Hollywood lifestyle that once included owning the 20th Century Fox studio, died Saturday at his Beverly Hills home. He was 79.

Davis, who had been in failing health for some time, died of natural causes, according to a statement released on behalf of his family.

The wealthiest individual in Los Angeles for much of the last two decades, Davis was recently estimated by Forbes magazine to be worth $5.8 billion.

Although his fortune was built in the dusty oil fields of Colorado, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Wyoming and Texas, where he was known as “Mr. Wildcatter,” Davis was inexorably linked to Hollywood. He even had his own table at Spago in Beverly Hills, where he was a regular.

Davis was close friends with such celebrities as actor Sidney Poitier and the late Frank Sinatra, as well as with such prominent figures as former President Ford and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Davis and his wife, Barbara, organized some of Hollywood’s glitziest A-list philanthropic events, raising tens of millions of dollars over the years for charities.


“He was a wonderful friend, a great father and a very good guy,” said former Warner Bros. and Los Angeles Dodger Chairman Robert Daly.

Daly said that at charity events the Davises organized, Davis would frequently write his own check to match the amount of money raised.

At a 1986 dinner, Davis said of the entertainment business: “I love this stuff, the people and the glamour. This isn’t just a business. It’s a helluva lot of fun.”

Davis cut an imposing figure. He stood 6-foot-4 and for much of his life weighed more than 300 pounds, although under doctors’ orders he lost 130 pounds in his final years.

As a businessman, Davis was said by friends to thrive on the action of deal-making, even when he failed to get the prize.

Indeed, the list of properties he nearly bought is an impressive one. It includes the Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos NFL franchises, the CBS network, United Airlines, Northwest Airlines and the Oakland A’s baseball team.

In 2002, Davis launched his last major, unsuccessful bid when he made a surprisingly audacious effort to buy the entertainment assets of Vivendi Universal, including the storied Universal Studios. His $13-billion bid for controlling interest was rejected as too low, with General Electric Co.'s NBC eventually winning out.

Davis’ near-misses caused rivals and some investors on Wall Street to call him a “tire kicker” who liked to look properties over without writing the check. It was a label he would bristle at, prompting him to roll off a long list of purchases he had made.

Over the years, he bought and sold such marquee properties as the Beverly Hills Hotel and Pebble Beach golf course.

In Aspen, Colo., Davis owned the Aspen Ski Co. and its three mountains -- Snowmass, Breckenridge and Buttermilk, with 200 miles of ski trails -- as well as the Little Nell luxury hotel.

At various times, the Davis portfolio included such high-profile properties in Southern California as Santa Monica’s Water Garden and the 34-story Fox Plaza in Century City. The Fox Plaza was built by Davis, housed President Reagan’s offices after he left the White House and became famous for its use in the action film “Die Hard.”

Davis was largely unknown outside of the oil business and his then hometown of Denver when he bought Fox in 1981 for $720 million in a partnership with commodities trader Marc Rich.

Davis rented a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, splitting his time between Los Angeles and Denver before paying singer Kenny Rogers what then was an astronomical $20 million for “The Knoll” estate in Beverly Hills.

Eventually, he and his family relocated to Beverly Hills.

Davis’ legacy as a studio mogul was mixed. During Davis’ tenure, the studio sagged under a huge debt load, which he sought to pay off quickly.

Under Davis, Fox released such hits as “Romancing the Stone” while continuing to reap profits from the original “Star Wars” films and the hit TV show “MASH.” But the studio also was saddled with such duds as “Rhinestone,” with Dolly Parton and Sylvester Stallone, and “Six Pack,” which starred singer Rogers, a personal friend of Davis’.

Davis also clashed repeatedly with studio management and made suggestions that made many of them wince, such as musing about a possible sequel to “The Sound of Music.” Then-Chairman Dennis Stanfill eventually resigned from the studio after many disagreements with Davis.

Davis could be a tough and formidable foe to those who crossed his path. During the heat of the takeover battle for Universal last year, longtime rival Barry Diller, whom Davis once hired to run Fox, referred to him as “that fat Marvin Davis” even though he had lost the 130 pounds. Davis laughed it off, and Diller apologized.

Davis bought out Rich in 1984, then sold the studio in 1985 in two steps to its current owner, News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch. Despite Fox’s problems during his tenure, Davis reportedly made a $350-million profit on the deal when the dust settled while retaining control of Pebble Beach.

Davis never fully rid himself of the show business bug, as evidenced by his efforts to buy Universal.

He had two key business philosophies. One was to avoid risking his own money, taking on investment partners where possible, such as insurance companies or wealthy individuals such as “Star Wars” director George Lucas. Another Davis rule was “never to fall in love with any asset,” no matter how much he enjoyed owning it, because someone might want to buy it.

Davis parted company with Pebble Beach even though it may have been his favorite possession, and sold Fox Plaza twice.

Throughout his life, Davis repeatedly showed an uncanny ability to spot a bargain that he could later sell at a lucrative profit.

Nowhere was that more in evidence than when he sold Pebble Beach and its world-famous golf courses to a group of Japanese investors in 1990 for $841 million. Davis had acquired the property when he bought Fox, and kept it when he sold the studio to Murdoch.

The sale was one of several high-profile real estate purchases by Japanese firms that triggered a spate of xenophobic hand-wringing by pundits who warned that Japanese firms were gaining too large a foothold in the U.S.

But it was Davis who had the last laugh. As it turned out, he had disposed of Pebble Beach at the top of the market and on the eve of what would become a severe real estate downturn. Two years later, the Japanese group sold it for a price that was $350 million less than what they had paid Davis.

“He was very shrewd and very smart,” Daly said. “He could sense where things were going.”

Even when he was out of the entertainment business, Davis maintained strong ties and a keen interest in the industry.

One reason was the success of his son, John, who built one of Hollywood’s most prolific entertainment firms, Davis Entertainment Co. and Davis Entertainment Television, with such credits as “Daddy Day Care,” “Dr. Doolittle,” “Grumpy Old Men” and “Alien vs. Predator.”

His other son, Gregg, followed Davis into the family oil business, where he is president of what is now called Davis Petroleum Corp.

His three daughters, Nancy Davis Rickel, Patricia Ann Davis Raynes and Dana Davis, a schoolteacher, are involved in a number of prominent philanthropic causes.

Since moving to Los Angeles in the 1980s, Davis and his wife of 53 years have ranked among Southern California’s most important philanthropists, inspired in part by the desire to combat diseases affecting their children.

Fighting childhood diabetes became one of their chief causes after daughter Dana was diagnosed with the disease while the family still lived in Denver. In 1977, they founded the nonprofit Children’s Diabetes Foundation, which has raised more than $70 million to support programs.

For years, Marvin and Barbara Davis sponsored the glittery “Carousel Ball” in Denver, at one time the single biggest fundraiser in the nation, and organized a biennial “The Carousel of Hope” event after they moved to Beverly Hills.

Another important cause for the couple has been the Nancy Davis Foundation for Multiple Sclerosis, named for their daughter who suffers from the disease and is active in efforts to find a cure. Still another cause has been Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he and his wife’s names are on the Barbara and Marvin Davis Research Building.

Marvin Harold Davis was born Aug. 31, 1925, in Newark, N.J., growing up in New York and earning his bachelor’s of science degree at New York University.

His business roots in the Western oilfield belied what was a wealthy East Coast upbringing. He was the son of Jack Davis, an English immigrant and former boxer who built a successful dressmaking business before venturing into oil with his son.

Marvin Davis took to the oil business, becoming a voracious explorer. He moved to Denver in the 1950s and made a fortune drilling for oil in the Rocky Mountains area. At one point in the 1970s, Davis Oil boasted that only Shell, Amoco and Exxon drilled more wells in the U.S.

It was oil that became the foundation of his wealth, and where much of it still was when he died.

Forbes listed him as tied for third in wealth in the Los Angeles area with gaming mogul Kirk Kerkorian, behind Viacom Inc. Chairman Sumner Redstone and insurance and real estate tycoon Eli Broad.

Davis was press-shy and rarely gave interviews. But in person, he was a charming raconteur, quick with quips. When asked about his strategy in the oil business, Davis would quote his friend, the legendary H.L. Hunt, as saying, “He who drills the most wells wins.”

In addition to his wife and five children, Davis is survived by 14 grandchildren.

Memorial services will be private.

Donations may be made to the Children’s Diabetes Foundation/Barbara Davis Center, 777 Grant St., Suite 302, Denver, CO 80203.