by Kitty Kelley
The bright red book cover blares its question in big white letters: “WHO IS MICHAEL OVITZ?” You might answer: “WHO KNOWS OR CARES?”
Unless, of course, you’re interested in Hollywood agents and the backstories behind such movies as Jurassic Park, Ghostbusters, Tootsie, Dances with Wolves, Gandhi, Out of Africa, and Rain Man. Then you’ll want to read this memoir of the wunderkind who co-founded Creative Artists Agency, Inc., the colossus that turned Hollywood on its ear and reconfigured the bottom line of the entertainment industry.
Who knew that Paul Newman’s legendary career once needed to be saved? Or how David Letterman made it to late-night television? What movie did Steven Spielberg give up in order to direct Schindler’s List and why? How did Meryl Streep, Mike Nichols, Barry Levinson, Al Pacino, and Robert DeNiro come to be represented under the same tent? How was Tom Cruise’s early profile as a Scientologist minimized? And why was Robert Redford considered “such a pain in the ass”?
Michael Ovitz answers these questions and more with flair and no false modesty.
Born a yeoman, he yearned to be a knight. He depicts himself as a poor Jewish kid growing up in the San Fernando Valley of California, where he envied “eastern-educated guys who grew up on Park Avenue” with “rich parents and fancy cars.” Early on, he knew he wanted more than his salesman father’s “boxed-in life” could provide. His blunt and bitter grandmother, who lived with the family, spoiled him, saved him from spankings, and told him constantly: “You can be better than your father.”
Years later, when Ovitz, worth millions, was being hailed as “the most powerful man in Hollywood,” his “sweet” father was being forced to retire after 44 years of selling liquor for Seagram. Ovitz went to Seagram’s CEO: “I’d like…a favor and I’ll owe you,” he said. (Ovitz and his CAA confreres had mastered favors.)
He asked that his father be kept employed and offered to pay his salary, plus taxes. The CEO said, “Your dad’s a wonderful guy and everybody likes him…you don’t have to pay us anything.” His father worked for Seagram until he was 80 and never knew why the company had made an exception for him.
Unfortunately, Ovitz did not possess his father’s warm personality. To the contrary, he describes himself as “the iron fist” who never wanted a velvet glove. “I was the all-business tough guy,” a “driving control freak…calculating and determined and tightly wound.”
As a youngster, he was a head shorter than his classmates and a target for bullies, so he studied martial arts. “I hated feeling powerless and vulnerable,” he writes. “Bullied as a child, I spent my life bullying back.” He also became a social mountaineer (“I was an effective brown-nosing kid in a hurry”), which got him elected president of his 10th-grade class and later his college fraternity.
His immigrant parents, who never went to college, wanted him to become a doctor, but Ovitz became obsessed with the movies and the heroics of John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Errol Flynn. “I’m a frustrated artist. I couldn’t paint or sculpt. I wasn’t musical and I sure couldn’t act…So I did the next best thing with my life. I spent it around artists.”
After graduating from UCLA in three years, Ovitz got a job in the mailroom of the William Morris Agency, which had produced other tycoons like Barry Diller and David Geffen. Soon, he realized that the fast track there was too slow. So, with four other WMA agents, Ovitz started CAA in 1975, which revolutionized Hollywood by upending the powerful studio system and seizing control for the artists — actors, directors, and writers.
He became the public face of the world’s leading talent agency and reigned supreme for 20 years, making the cover of Business Week and the New York Times Magazine. He assembled a world-class art collection, socialized with David Rockefeller, and was courted by President Clinton to raise money for the Democrats.
Ovitz resigned from CAA to become president of the Walt Disney Co., where his best friend, Michael Eisner, was CEO. Ovitz lasted 15 months, during which time his friend circulated emails calling him a “psychopath” and “a habitual liar” and then fired him, which may explain why Eisner comes off here as Judas Iscariot.
After a lawsuit by Disney shareholders over his severance pay, Ovitz walked away with $38 million in cash, plus $100 million in company stock. One imagines him licking his chops while writing this section and quoting the judge, who called Eisner a “Machiavellian” CEO who “enthroned himself as the omnipotent and infallible monarch of his personal Magic Kingdom.” Eisner was forced out a decade later.
For those who enjoyed The Kid Stays in the Picture by Robert Evans and Indecent Exposure: A True Story of Hollywood and Wall Street by David McClintick, this book is delicious, and, yes, a bit malicious, as it settles scores.
The writing engages and amuses throughout, even the sideswipes. Ovitz recounts how devastated his CAA partner Ron Meyer was when Michael Douglas and Cher won Oscars and did not thank him in their public remarks. “Cher did thank her hairdresser, though.”
Now, does this book tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Well, it’s a memoir, one man’s burnished recollections of his glory years, the famous friends he made and lost, the vengeful enemies he acquired, and the high price he paid.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books