Pellicano trial reveals exec's Faustian nature

A true Faustian character, Michael Ovitz seems intent on stealing off into the night, but can’t quite make a clean getaway. He remains frozen in a maze of litigation involving fearsome figures like Ron Burkle.

And then, of course, there’s the business with the Pellican.

As we were reminded over these last few weeks, the trial of Anthony Pellicano continues to unfold like a messy movie that can’t decide whether it’s farce or melodrama. As such, Ovitz represents perfect casting for his small but bizarre role.

This is, after all, a trial that has brought forth an array of fringe players — the “investor” who claimed Pellicano casually offered to murder a producer who owed him money, and the secretary-turned-actress/model named Tarita Virtue who described Pellicano’s surreal work habits and revived tales of forgotten folk heroes like Heidi Fleiss. Choosing to defend himself, Pellicano also persuaded us once and for all that he simply isn’t very bright.

What the trial hasn’t succeeded in doing is to prove that anyone, even Bert Fields, his best customer, knew how Pellicano used his rather limited intelligence to gather, well, intelligence.

Ovitz, for one, professed he had no clue that the Pellican tapped phones. Indeed, he said he had hired the investigator to perform a rather innocent mission: Find out who was leaking hurtful information about his company to the press.

Ovitz suspected that his enemies included Ron Meyer and David Geffen, not to mention disgruntled employees like Cathy Schulman. What he apparently didn’t understand was that virtually the entire community seemed eager to bring him down.

The very people who tipped writers at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times also were calling me — and no doubt others — indeed, doing so with such insistence that I found it off-putting.

And that’s what gave me pause: Ovitz had not committed high crimes, hadn’t assassinated anyone nor started a war. He’d been power-crazed. He’d hurt many people’s careers (just as he had once contributed to many). And, toward the end, he’d made some truly disastrous business decisions, which stemmed more from egomania than evil.

I knew the fall of Ovitz was a good story, but the magnitude of the vendetta against him was disturbing. Other powerful men also had been loathed in their time — MCA’s Lew Wasserman, Columbia’s Harry Cohn, MGM’s Louis B. Mayer. But Wasserman, for one, mellowed in his later years as he lost his power — he became Lew the philanthropist rather than Lew the all-powerful.

Ovitz, by contrast, messed up his brief career at Disney and then went aground with a venture called Artists Management Group. He kept thinking he would be bailed out by investors like AT&T, but it was his rescuers who bailed, and the town feasted off his problems. When Canal Plus conducted a secret audit of Ovitz’s company and found that $1 million to $2 million might have been misallocated (to overhead rather than development), the New York Times wrote about it as though Ovitz had been hiding weapons of mass destruction.

His enemies went to great lengths to see to it that the press was updated on every Ovitzian misstep, to the degree that the Hit Squad itself became a story.

To be sure, over the years, I’d become as antagonized by Ovitz’s manipulative behavior as had his other antagonists. Ovitz had “cultivated” me just as nakedly as he had other editors he regarded as influential. To Ovitz, I was “the smartest journalist in town” — that was the standard Ovitz line. (Years earlier I was also “the smartest studio executive in town.”)

Ovitz assured me several times that he had lined up investment bankers to buy control of Variety on my behalf. (I’d previously lined up my own bankers, but Variety‘s owners had twice turned down my offers.) When a top executive was named to my parent company, Ovitz promised that damaging documents on my new boss would be turned over to me if I ever encountered “problems.”

If those of us in the press were hip to the Ovitz modus operandi, there was nonetheless little cause for celebration when his venture finally capsized. Nor was there much pleasure in seeing this chastened man (still wealthy from his Disney settlement) contribute his irrelevant testimony at Pellicano’s irrelevant trial.

Many had yearned to see Ovitz brought to his knees. Few would have believed that the ridiculous investigator he’d once hired to tell him things he already knew would perhaps become his final public interrogator.

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