Captain Kirk takes new shot at taming the Lion

LET ME STATE AT THE OUTSET that I am an expert on Kirk Kerkorian. My expertise is based on the fact that I have had three conversations with him over the course of 20 years and twice attended small dinner parties at which he was present. While this does not exactly qualify as a prolonged, intimate relationship, it surpasses that of any other journalist not to mention many of his senior executives. I also worked at MGM/UA for about three years when Kirk owned it (he could never remember my name) and even wrote a book, “Fade Out,” dealing with Kirk’s stewardship of the studio.

I disclose all this only to explain why, whenever Kirk makes news in Hollywood or Detroit, people tend to ask me questions. These queries are directed to me not because I have access to remarkable insights — I don’t — but rather because there’s no one else to talk to.

Having said this, let me address several of the questions directed to me this week, following Kirk’s most recent escapade in funding yet another takeover of Leo the Lion.

HAVING OWNED IT TWICE BEFORE, why would Kirk acquire MGM again? Well to begin with, he didn’t so much acquire it as repossess it. It’s like a child rediscovering a familiar toy, one that’s become a lucrative obsession, earning him billions of dollars.

What amazes me is that the estimable investment banking firm of Lazard Freres actually is collecting a fee in excess of $ 10 million for facilitating a deal that could have been accomplished with a single phone call.

IS KIRK KERKORIAN REALLY A BAD GUY? No, on a personal level he’s actually a decent guy, loyal to his very small circle of friends and remarkably generous in his contributions to charity. Indeed, Kirk’s philanthropic giving is conditioned on a demand that’s rather unique among Hollywood’s benefactors — he never wants his name identified with any gift. No bows or banquets for Kirk. Conversing with Kirk, however, is an exercise in careful topic selection. He likes talking about old planes and aviation. He has great stories about Las Vegas. If you want to discuss Tolstoy or national health care, however, you’ve got the wrong man.

WHY, THEN, DO PEOPLE DESCRIBE KIRK as a recluse who hides from the press? Because that’s part of the Kerkorian mythology. Although he’s a very private man , I often have spotted Kirk waiting on line for movies in Westwood or Century City, dining at restaurants and even, on very rare occasions, attending movie premieres. At 79, he still plays tennis with friends several times a week. These are not the signs of a Howard Hughes-like recluse — indeed, Kirk once told me he never particularly liked Hughes.

His shyness with the press stems, I believe, from a couple of unfortunate interviews in the late 1960s. Hardly an articulate man, who in his youth was somewhat embarrassed by his lack of formal education, Kirk was savaged by the press. Allegations were made, but never substantiated, that he hung out with gangsters and that his early financial machinations in Vegas were even financed in part by “the boys.” Kirk’s attitude: Who needs this?

WHY WAS HIS TENURE AT MGM SO FRAUGHT with turmoil? One factor was his habit of hiding behind his lawyers — usually lawyers who gave him terrible advice. Whenever an important policy was set forth at the studio, Kirk would talk to his lawyers and his lawyers would talk to the studio apparatchiks, thus sealing the boss off from any meaningful give-and-take. Tied to this was the fact that the lawyers, with Kirk’s blessing, exercised rather bizarre criteria in selecting senior studio executives.

The MGM rogues gallery of ex-presidents includes Jim Aubrey, after his termination from CBS amid rumors of sexual shenanigans; David Begelman, after his dismissal from Columbia for check-kiting; and Frank Yablans, after his stormy banishment from Paramount; not to mention dalliances with Jerry Weintraub and Guber-Peters. It was well-known among Kirk’s inner circle that Kirk turned against several of their choices so ferociously that he actually went to the district attorney to commence legal action against at least two of them.

SINCE KIRK HAS OWNED MGM AND UA, and also has made runs at Columbia, Fox and Disney, why does he love the movie industry so much? The answer is, he doesn’t — indeed, he doesn’t even like movie people.

He’s had a very few close Hollywood friends over the years whose company he’s coveted — Yvette Mimieux, Cary Grant and agent Mort Viner, for example — but Kirk, unlike Edgar Bronfman Jr. or Sumner Redstone, does not see many movies and has no interest whatsoever in the filmmaking process. What he does enjoy and understand is the financial underpinning of the business, and has shown a genius for manipulating studio assets for his personal enrichment. And he’s come by this knowledge the hard way: At a time when other entertainment conglomerates were relying on bank financing or schemes like Disney’s Silver Screen Partnerships, Kerkorian was still funding MGM by writing his own checks.

Given these considerations, one might well ask: What lessons should Kirk Kerkorian learn from the past as he undertakes yet another new chapter at MGM/UA?

Were I sitting over lunch with Kirk, I might suggest the following:

Be patient. Remember, making movies is just like Vegas, with one small exception. In Hollywood, the house always loses.

Don’t play with your own money. No one else does.

Leave Frank Mancuso and his crew alone. They bring to MGM a trait the studio hasn’t seen in decades: Character.

Good luck, Kirk. You may come away from this with another billion.

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