It was just two years ago that Michael Ovitz sat down with a writer from Vanity Fair and proceeded to commit professional suicide. Many wondered, upon reading the resulting article, “What in the world will become of Mike Ovitz?”
The answer: He has simply vaporized. The most dominating presence on the entertainment landscape has effectively disappeared.
Well, not completely. His name still pops up in the press, but only in the context of past events. Fragments of information about his brief tenure as Disney president emerge from old litigation.
Yes, Ovitz received a $109.3 million payout from Michael Eisner, but he held onto another $120 million in stock options until they were valueless. Then there was testimony that Robert Iger had complained to Ovitz about Eisner’s relentless micro-managing; meanwhile Eisner was hammering Ovitz for trying to be “a one-man show.”
But while the memory lingers on, Ovitz himself has made himself into the nowhere man. He rarely materializes at once-favored philanthropic functions and is never seen at places like the Grill or Spago. His name appeared on the credits of “Timeline” as an executive producer, but that film quickly tanked — “the curse of Ovitz,” some suggested.
Ovitz also has made himself invisible to his future neighbors, who are fiercely protesting construction of his new 28,000 square-foot house to be built in a rustic section of Beverly Hills, replete with a separate 4,997 square-foot office, yoga building, art gallery and 13-car garage. Neighbors don’t want the house, nor do they want to see 77 trees cut down to make way for it, but they can’t find the man who’s building it.
Ovitz didn’t turn up at a May 26 meeting of the Beverly Hills Planning Commission, which has postponed a decision on the matter until July 28.
Ovitz’s vanishing act is all the more astonishing when you consider the fact that he is only 57 years old, and that his hyperactive nature dictates that he always be the center of the action. This is a man who created and destroyed careers, who merged giant companies.
Upon presiding over one complex merger, Ovitz was told by a corporate functionary that his fee would be $5 million. Without blinking, Ovitz demanded $45 million. He got it.
How could a man like this simply be sitting in his living room, twiddling his thumbs? I called him to ask. Eventually he did return my call but a calmer, mellower, semi-retired Ovitz didn’t want to speak for the record.
All sorts of psychological and metaphysical portents can be read into L’Affaire Ovitz. Treatises will be written about the perils of Faustian bargains, about the evanescence of power, and so forth.
Personally, I regard Ovitz’s story with a certain sadness and dismay. Ovitz is certainly not a lovable figure, but he is (or was) a man who fearlessly reinvented whatever business he entered and who was a master persuader.
His favorite ploy in recruiting stars to CAA was to say, “Tell me your biggest dream, your most unreachable goal — and I will make it happen.” He even tried that line on me once way back when I ran Lorimar Films. I decided not to conjure up an answer. But I’ll admit this much: I did want his story. Indeed, he and I had two intense conversations about why he should deliver his famous interview to Variety, not to Vanity Fair. It had become clear at the time that his latest brainchild, the management company called AMG, was going belly-up. I also knew that Ovitz was imploding emotionally. During our talks, he made bizarre, paranoid remarks about his enemies, real or imagined. He was desperate to lash out.
I argued that Variety would lend him the audience that he most wanted to reach, including, no doubt, some of the people he perceived as having brought down his company. Our paper would certainly not endorse Ovitz’s charges, but we could offer him a chance to vent. The decline and fall of Michael Ovitz, after all, was a damn good news story.
Understandably, he responded that Vanity Fair offered him a vastly wider audience. Over lunch at Ago one day, I decided to try one last tactic. “Look, Mike,” I said, “you’re out of control. You’re saying some wild things.”
“They’re all off the record,” he protested. “You and I have known each other a long time. I can speak freely…”
“If you say these things to Vanity Fair, they’ll kill you. If you want to do an interview in Variety, I will see to it that your direct quotes will be read back to you so you can verify their accuracy. You can’t, of course, read the article ahead of time.”
Ovitz thought about this. “I’ll get back to you within a week,” he promised.
A few days later I got word that he’d decided to talk to Vanity Fair. Predictably, the story contained all of the Ovitz “crazy talk” — the paranoid diatribes about the “Gay Mafia,” plus accusations against Eisner and against his lethal enemies (and former proteges) at CAA. “They wanted to kill me. If they could have taken my wife and kids, they would have…,” he ranted.
The net effect of all this was inevitable: Ovitz had punched all the self-destruct buttons it was possible to punch. He had instantly isolated himself from his Hollywood power base. He’d totally blown it.
In seeking out his story, was I trying to protect Ovitz from himself? I suppose so, on one level. But more importantly, it dismays me to watch someone that talented publicly self-destruct.
Even if he’s Michael Ovitz.