Merv Adelson: The Many Lives of a Mogul

[This story first ran in V Life's December '05 issue.]

Merv Adelson was one of the richest men in the industry. He married the country’s most famous female journalist, befriended presidents and once led on e of TV’s most prolific production houses. Then must of it was gone. Now he’s back, living the many lives of a mogul.

The Bel-Air wedding was to be a small, traditional ceremony with about 30 guests — an intimate affair for a couple in midlife. But by the time Merv Adelson and Barbara Walters said their vows on that day in May 1986, more than 100 people had gathered in the living room of producer Leonard Goldberg and his wife, Wendy.

It didn’t matter that the rabbi was late or that co-hostess Edie Wasserman fretted about the interminable wait or that Wendy Goldberg finally served nachos and highballs to the famished guests. This was the season’s main event: Walters was one of the most famous journalists in the world, and her silver-haired groom one of the most powerful men in TV, whose hit shows “Dallas” and “Falcon Crest” dominated primetime, and whose influence in the entertainment industry was growing. The next month, Adelson’s company Lorimar Entertainment would make public a deal to buy the fabled MGM lot, and Adelson would soon occupy the office of its legendary chairman, Louis B. Mayer.

Finally, after sundown, the couple exchanged vows under a chuppah of lilacs, while most of the town’s power brokers looked on. “It was,” says Wendy Goldberg, “a fabulous night.”

Nearly two decades later, Adelson’s marriage to Walters is long over, although they still talk regularly. Lorimar is gone, and the storied suite at MGM has been replaced by a modest office in a Santa Monica business park. Gone, too, is a chunk of Adelson’s fortune.

During the 1990s, Adelson placed his considerable wealth in dotcoms, parlaying dozens of investments into a huge portfolio. When the stock market bubble burst in 2000, he lost $112 million. Then, to the shock of his friends, he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to protect his assets.

Today, surrounded in his office by small dogs and darting children, Adelson, 76, is tanned and fit — and philosophical about it all. “You do what you’ve got to do, you know?” he says, sitting behind a polished table. “I don’t get discouraged easily.” Then, he adds with a faint smile, “I’ve had a lot of ups and downs, haven’t I?”

Two years after closing his bankruptcy case, Adelson is staging what could be called a comeback, less intent on reaping huge returns than on leaving a worthwhile legacy. He’s producing children’s entertainment based on a group of multiethnic performers called the JammX Kids, designed to get children moving in a time of endemic obesity. “I’d like to end my career by doing something for kids,” he says. “I love that idea.”

It might sound unusually small scale for Adelson — after all, the former chairman of Lorimar once owned an entire video division — but he could not care less. He passionately promotes his project like a showman. If he’s reluctant to talk much about the past, it’s because it steals thunder from “these kids, who are the future,” he says.

“He has always maintained his dignity, being a first-class sort of guy,” says Leslie Moonves, co-chief operating officer and co-president of Viacom, who worked with Adelson as a young Lorimar exec in the 1980s. “One thing I learned very early on: Never bet against Merv Adelson.”

As Adelson tells it, his entree into show business came when, as a teen, he delivered groceries for his father’s Beverly Hills store to the likes of Gary Cooper and Bette Davis. Every Christmas, the stars would invite him in for punch and cookies. “I knew, on a very intimate basis, a lot of Hollywood housekeepers,” he cracks.

His personal tale mirrors the Horatio Alger–like beginnings of the great studio moguls. His father, Nathan, was a Russian Jew who immigrated to America and started a grocery chain. In 1951, the 22-year-old borrowed $10,000 from his father to start the first 24-hour supermarket in the gambling boomtown of Las Vegas.

As the Tropicana and Stardust Hotels opened to glamorous crowds, Adelson struck up a partnership will a small-time real-estate developer, Irwin Molasky. The two built a residential development on the edge of the Desert Inn Golf Course, and reaped a tidy fortune. But when they went on to build a 55-bed hospital project, they ran out of money.

To make up the difference, they found an investor in Morris “Moe” Dalitz, who owned the Desert Inn; in an earlier life, Dalitz earned his bones in Cleveland, where he traded in bootleg liquor across the Canadian border during Prohibition. “Every owner of a casino was a mobster,” Adelson recalls. “But this was Vegas, where gambling was legal.”

After completing the hospital, Adelson and his partners went on to build other projects. The most famous was the 6,000-acre development and golf course in Carlsbad, Calif., the La Costa Resort and Spa. Surrounded by rolling hills and ocean views, it opened in 1965 and quickly became a playground for celebrities and politicians, including President Richard Nixon.

To build the resort, Adelson and his partners had borrowed from teamster pension funds, prompting wags to speculate that the resort was a hangout for mafia figures. The inferences would dog the partners for years. When Penthouse published a 1975 piece about those connections that made the partners — including Adelson — sound like mobsters, they filed a libel suit against the magazine. The suit ended 10 years later with no payments and no retraction, but the magazine did send Adelson and Molasky a strong apology, saying it never intended to imply that they were members of organized crime.

Adelson had good reason to protect his image. The focus of his career had expanded to the high-profile world of television. Seeing opportunity as an independent producer, he had formed Lorimar Prods. in 1968 with Lee Rich, an ad executive who had spent several years making TV shows for clients such as Procter & Gamble. (The name “Lorimar” resulted from combining the first few letters of their wives’ names, Lori and Mary.) Cantankerous and boastful, Rich had a Rolodex that complemented Adelson’s even-tempered business savvy.

Their first big project was the TV movie “The Homecoming,” which drew enough viewers to spawn a series, “The Waltons.” The homespun skein — Adelson’s personal favorite — initially struggled in fall 1972, before CBS programming chief Fred Silverman moved to cancel it. But Rich and Adelson placed nationwide ads in newspapers, pleading that the show “has to live.” They even printed Silverman’s phone number, urging viewers to call him to save the show.

The audacity paid off. “The Waltons” zoomed to the top 20, then the top 10, and went on to run for 10 seasons.

Lorimar scored again with family drama “Eight Is Enough.” But its greatest period of success came with the revival of the steamy nighttime soap-opera genre, led by “Dallas” and followed by “Knots Landing” and “Falcon Crest.”

None of the serials was critically acclaimed. Rich once said that the shows might be “crap, but they’re really good crap.” Viewers agreed. The “Who Shot J.R.?” episode of “Dallas” in 1980 broke Nielsen records with an audience of 120 million Americans. From then on, Lorimar was one of the leading suppliers of primetime entertainment.

Through it all, Adelson lived big, entertained well and cultivated his business. Bernie Brillstein once said, “If there were a Jay Gatsby in show business, it would be Merv.”

Moonves, one of a group of future moguls who spent their early careers at Lorimar, recalls that “there was a real dynamic quality to him. The way he carried himself, his manner. … He was one of those guys who all the people noticed. There was just an aura about him.”

Adelson seemed to relish the world of A-list stars and black-tie events. While presiding over La Costa, he saw to it that above-the-line personalities participated in the resort’s celebrity tournaments. He started what was to become the country’s preeminent foreign film market — then moved it to Los Angeles after it grew too big. He sang duets in his living room with Beverly Sills. One of his horse barns was so gorgeous, it was featured in Architectural Digest. By then, he had divorced his first wife, Lori, with whom he had three children, and had wed Gail Kenaston, the adopted daughter of silent-screen beauty Billie Dove.

“People called Merv everything from a megalomaniac to an old-time mogul, 50 years after his time,” Brillstein wrote in his book “Where Did I Go Right?” “But so what? If they don’t talk about you, you don’t matter.”

Adelson and Rich had even more ambitious plans for Lorimar. They wanted to become a full-blown entertainment power, which meant venturing into the dicey world of film production. Adelson developed a low-risk plan to raise high-stakes money: He sold distribution rights on a country-by-country basis before a film’s domestic release — even before some of the films were made.

Lorimar scored with such movies as “Being There” and “An Officer and a Gentleman,” but other pics like “Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?” — for which Adelson threw a lavish party at Cannes — flopped.

What the company needed was cash to grow, and they found help in Drexel Burnham’s junk-bond king Michael Milken, who helped Lorimar go public in 1981. As Milken recalls, “Many people thought the company was in financial trouble.” But Lorimar’s public offering marked the beginning of such innovative financing for media companies.

“We were bigger than the studios in television,” Adelson says. “What we did had never been done before.”

The work consumed Adelson. His second marriage ended in the early 1980s, making him eminently eligible. In 1985, Hollywood’s grande dame, Edie Wasserman, and her then-protege, Wendy Goldberg, arranged a blind date for Adelson in New York with Walters. “My one cocktail with Barbara turned into a long dinner,” he recalls. He found her to be a “remarkable woman, funny and warm.”

Walters was a high-profile journalist drawn to powerful men, and Adelson didn’t mind sharing her spotlight. After a year of courting, he proposed to her one spring day in 1986, and they impulsively decided to marry that very weekend.

Lorimar already had become a media powerhouse by the time it bought Telepictures in 1986, the syndicator of first-run shows like “The People’s Court.” It owned far-flung outfits, including an advertising agency, a string of TV stations and a video unit known for Jane Fonda’s workout tapes.

From the MGM lot, Adelson was determined to expand Lorimar’s film unit, even if the company’s experience already underscored the risk. According to Fortune, by 1986 Lorimar had released some 24 pictures at a loss of about $12 million. Adding to the uncertainty was the exit of Rich, who took the top job at United Artists.

Fortune wrote that the two had a falling out, but Adelson at the time dismissed the talk as “pure baloney.” Even now, he says that they “enjoyed a successful partnership for 18 years, and, most of the time, we agreed on everything.” (Asked recently about his version of events, Rich says, “Honey, I’m not going to tell you anything about that time.”)

Even so, Rich’s departure raised doubts about Lorimar’s future, given that he often was viewed as the creative spark and Adelson as the master dealmaker. Yet Adelson was at least partially responsible for one of television’s most ingenious plotlines, the resurrection from the dead of Bobby Ewing. The idea, which wiped away an entire season of “Dallas” as having been “just a dream,” was hatched in a meeting in Adelson’s office with the show’s executive producer and some cast members.

Adelson then hired Brillstein to lead the feature unit. Brillstein tried to turn scripts into hit movies — including the Oscar-winning “Dangerous Liaisons” — but “it was the toughest damn thing I ever tried to do,” he says now. None of the films was the breakaway hit that Lorimar needed.

By the end of 1987, the stock market had crashed and interest rates were on the rise. Dozens of independent stations couldn’t pay the bills for Lorimar programs, and the company was forced to report a $90-million loss and shed some assets. What really hurt, according to Brillstein, was a scandal in the home-video division.

In a blatant conflict of interest, manager Stuart Karl and two other execs were found to have undisclosed financial interests in a supplier. Karl also underestimated sales by some $31 million, sending the stock price plummeting.

“The fiasco really shocked us,” Adelson says. “When you’re an independent, you can’t take too many bumps in the road.”

Once Adelson’s friend, Warner Communications chairman Steve Ross, called to inquire about a merger, a sale seemed inevitable. For weeks in spring 1988, over takeout dinners and late-night coffee sessions, their teams hashed out a deal in which Warner would buy Lorimar for $1.2 billion. “Warner made a hell of a deal,” recalls Robert Daly, then chairman of Warner Bros. “We got not only Lorimar’s TV shows and assets, but some very good managers, some of whom are still at Warners.”

With a stroke of the pen, Adelson’s dream of running a Hollywood studio had run its course. “We felt that we could maximize the returns for our stockholders by selling,” he explains, wistfully. “They called it a merger, but it was really a buyout.”

The sting of folding his company was lessened when Adelson became vice chairman of the merged company, and Warner agreed to invest up to $56 million in his new firm, East-West Capital Associates. Drexel Burnham was to throw in $300 million in contingent financing.

Problems arose almost immediately. Warner merged with Time Inc. and became saddled with enormous debt, and then analysts criticized the company’s advisory deal with Adelson. When Milken, who was Adelson’s advisor, was indicted for securities fraud, Drexel Burnham backed out of East-West.

On top of that, Adelson’s marriage with Walters was coming to an end. “The bicoastal relationship was tough,” he says. He wanted to spend more time in Aspen, Colo., where he had a home, while Walters was working longer hours in Manhattan on ABC’s “20/20.”

Around this time Adelson learned that he had prostate cancer — just as his old friend Ross was dying from the disease. “Luckily, they caught mine in time,” he says.

Once he recovered, Adelson resumed his investments, partnering with Milken (another cancer survivor) after his release from prison to invest in Interactive Cable Systems. Adelson’s firm invested in other tech companies, including Internet businesses like Digital River and InterNAP. Like all investors during this manic time, he was exuberant about technology’s prospects. “We all thought the Internet was the Holy Grail,” Adelson says.

Having wed his fourth wife, attorney Thea Nesis, Adelson had created a new life and fortune in an entirely different sector. His investment portfolio was worth $250 million, and he was being feted for his philanthropy. When the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance honored him as humanitarian of the year in 1998, President Bill Clinton taped a special greeting and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called him “brother.”

Then the dotcom bubble burst, as did Adelson’s multimillion dollar portfolio. East-West paid out about $180 million to investors, but Adelson didn’t cash out himself. “We were just too early on those ventures,” he says today. (Some companies he invested in, like 7th Level, still operate).

None of his deals cost him as much as his faith in AOL Time Warner. Even as corporate insiders, such as Steve Case and Richard Parsons were selling their shares, Adelson held tight. The value of his stake fell from $100 million to $20 million, according to figures from a Time Warner filing. Believing the stock would bounce back, he started to borrow against those shares to shore up other investments.

Things got worse. By 2003, as two bankers called in their loans, his marriage faltered. Nesis, with whom he had two daughters, Ava and Lexi, had just filed for divorce. That June, at his 80-acre Aspen ranch, he was depressed much of the time. Unable to sleep one night, he took a pill, “which I rarely do,” he says. Driving his Chevy Suburban the next morning with Ava, then 2, he suddenly blacked out. The truck jumped a curb, hit two trees and a street sign before coming to a stop. “Thank God no one was injured,” Adelson says.

But paramendics found him unconscious and rushed him to the emergency room, where tests found no alcohol, no drugs and no easy explanation. “The doctors never did figure out what happened to me.” Police charged Adelson with reckless driving and child endangerment, and while the charges were quickly dropped, the news spread far beyond Hollywood. Netanyahu called Adelson one night, worried.

Making matters worse, by September two of Adelson’s lenders were demanding fire sales of some of his assets, and Adelson moved to protect them. His friends were astonished when he filed Chapter 11, but it gave him time to sell property and repay the loans. The courts closed the bankruptcy case a few months later.

“It was a tough time,” Adelson says, “but you have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.”

He adds, “The experience may be over, but a lot of good came out of it. For one thing, it showed me who my true friends are,” Milken and Brillstein among them.

With his sprawling Aspen ranch on the market and his ex-wife in their Malibu home, Adelson now lives in a large, airy Santa Monica apartment. In an unusual custody arrangement, 10-year-old Lexi lives with him, while 5-year-old Ava lives with her mother but visits almost daily.

“We have a great relationship,” he says.

It was his daughters who inspired him to pursue his children’s entertainment venture. He saw the girls getting “hypnotized” by the hours of gunplay they watched in cartoons on television. “To me music makes the world go round, and I wanted my kids to move, dance and sing.”

He and son Andy created the JammX DVD program, designed to entertain tweens while teaching them hip-hop dance steps and imparting life lessons. Grammy winner Randy Jackson is producing a JammX album, while Adelson’s company, Lightforce Entertainment, has a distribution deal with Warner Home Video. The WB Network and WB Kids will air three specials in March, and there are talks of launching a series.

“I’m having more fun now than I’ve ever had in my entire career,” Adelson says.

Looking around his sunny office, his blue eyes twinkle in an otherwise impassive face. Surrounded by bouncing kids, ringing phones and humming fax machines, he’s no longer the high-flying mogul. And that suits him just fine.