Eisner: Ovitz and I Were Not Best Friends

Times Staff Writer

GEORGETOWN, Del. — Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Michael Eisner said today that he and fired company President Michael Ovitz were not best friends, calling Ovitz’s earlier assertion that they were “hyperbole.”

Eisner also testified in a Delaware court case today that he drove a hard bargain when hiring the then super agent in 1995, denying him a co-CEO title and agreeing to give him 5 million options instead of the 8 million Ovitz wanted.

Eisner’s two-hour appearance this afternoon marked the start of testimony expected to last much of the week in a lawsuit in which shareholder lawyers are seeking to show that Eisner’s close friendship with Ovitz skewed negotiations when Eisner brought him aboard as president.

Shareholder lawyers contend that Disney directors gave Eisner too much leeway in hiring Ovitz, and in firing him 15 months later. The lawyers argue that Ovitz was allowed to walk away with a stock and cash severance package they value at more than $140 million.

Eisner defended the hiring of Ovtiz, saying that he had followed his career as a top agent while Ovitz ran Creative Artists Agency. Eisner said he needed help running the company after the death of President Frank Wells in a 1994 helicopter crash, and after Disney agreed to buy Capital Cities/ABC in 1995.

Eisner testified that he regularly consulted with board members, as well as with two top investors: former Disney shareholder Sid Bass and Roy E. Disney, nephew of the company namesake.