Ex-top dogs chase new leash on life

HOLLYWOOD — Out for the count? Not necessarily.

An unprecedented number of disgraced, dismissed or otherwise down-on-their-luck media mavens are jockeying for a comeback — some just months after their downfall.

From Messier to Middelhoff, Brown to Stewart, their names were synonymous with media success — and excess. When times were good, they were great. When things turned bad, they were turned out.

But showbiz usually has a short memory: If you can do something splashy or money-making today, the sins of yesterday are forgiven.

After all, Rocky did it in the movies. Dennis Hopper reinvented himself by making fun of himself in commercials. Defying naysayers, director Robert Altman came back from a fallow period, firing on all cylinders with “Gosford Park.”

Even Michael Milken, the junk bond trader who did the crime, and subsequently the time, eventually re-emerged as an indefatigable organizer of gabfests.

Still, some company chieftains currently in the wilderness may have a harder time now than they might have in the laid-back ’90s.

In a time when corporate malfeasance or even the odor of financial impropriety is getting lots of folks in trouble, anyone who took the money and ran will have to hustle to rehabilitate themselves.

Moreover, they’ll have to overcome schadenfreude — the dominant reaction to the fall of the high and mighty in Tinseltown.

The glee that spread over Hollywood when Michael Ovitz’s company AMG imploded a few months ago may have been contemptible but it was inarguably contagious.

People, in other words, are not right now predisposed to root for the down-and-out or the all-washed-up.

So as they bide their time away from the lights and camera, these execs could do worse than read Martin Puris’ “Comeback: How Seven Straightshooting CEOs Turned Around Troubled Companies,” which chronicles corporate makeovers at companies as diverse as Chrysler, Adidas and Continental.

What those CEOs share, per Purvis, is “a doggedness, even a kind of compulsion, to dig beneath appearances and uncover the true state of affairs in the area of their enterprise.”

That’s a challenge in any industry, but especially hard in the image-obsessed, accounting-challenged entertainment biz.

It might also help to subject one’s character to the equivalent of a full-body scan: Post-Enron CEOs should be more collegial and less cosseted, open to criticism rather than coddled by sycophants.

“New leaders will have to be focused and fearless, but at the same time more humble than some of those currently at the top,” suggests one media analyst.

Among those looking to remake themselves as models of the new-age exec are:

Robert Pittman — The former head cheerleader at America Online took the rap in July for the conglom’s sorry stock performance. He’s even fingered by name in one of the class-action lawsuits filed by angry AOL shareholders. The brash Pittman will likely turn up at the helm of some unrelated business. Back to real estate perhaps?

Thomas Middelhoff — Though summarily dismissed by the Bible-toting Mohn family that controls Bertelsmann for being too progressive, the ambitious 49-year-old apparently tried to get himself hired at local telco Deutsche Telekom. That didn’t work, so he now says he’ll unveil his next move mid-September.

Martha Stewart — The domestic diva still has to finesse legal questions about whether she engaged in insider trading in dumping ImClone shares, and parry a class-action suit brought against her by shareholders in her own company OmniMedia. (That stock has fallen from a high of $21 to $9 and a search is on to replace her as CEO of the company.) Fortunately her fan base remains firm. With a little contrition, she could still have some salad days ahead of her.

Jean-Marie Messier — Ousted by the Viv U board for his overly ambitious acquisitions and his Anglo-obsession, the 44-year-old is still holed up in his palatial Manhattan digs, negotiating his payout and mulling a tell-all tome. Expect to see him on the book tour circuit and eventually “converge” with some Internet outfit.

Pierre Lescure — The founder of debt-ridden Canal Plus was unceremoniously booted out last spring, by Messier, but has continued to cultivate, and be cultivated by, all the right people in France. He has already announced that he will announce his future media plans this month.

Leo Kirch — Even as his media empire lies in tatters around him, the 75-year-old Teutonic TV titan has begun trying to pick up a few of the crumbs himself. The reaction in Germany so far: Let it go, Leo.

Tina Brown — Having run Miramax’s Talk Magazine into the ground, the celeb editor is back on the party circuit — and prepping her own talkshow.

Michael Ovitz — Having already pulled off one comeback, after the Mouse House fired him 18 months into his job as CEO, one might wonder if the ex-uberagent has another one in him. He recently sold off the remains of AMG for a measly $12 million, and has quietly hung out a shingle in more modest digs. His new focus: corporate consulting.

Ted Turner — He may have lost Jane Fonda, a bunch of bison, $5 billion in stock — and been snubbed by his own board — but he has recently staged a behind-the-scenes comeback at AOL TW. He spearheaded moves to hasten Gerald Levin’s departure and has purportedly got the ear of the new Richard Parsons’ regime.

While most of the above seem redeemable, Adelphia Cable’s John Rigas may have become the poster child for corporate excess, having been conspicuously carted away like a common perp. His kids might be around long enough to orchestrate a comeback, but the man who used a public company as his personal piggybank likely won’t get that chance.

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