I had been in my new job at MGM for only three weeks back in 1982 when a colleague stopped me in the hallway with the news: “The ghost is in the building.” I had no idea he was using MGM code to refer to Kirk Kerkorian, who owned the studio but was, per his allusion, an invisible presence around the studio’s hallowed halls. I was soon to learn that it was Kerkorian’s inscrutability even more than his invisibility that nettled employees and, over the long term, undermined his initiatives.
The mysterious billionaire, who died June 15 at age 98, managed to confound rivals, as well as colleagues, with his erratic strategy and obsession for privacy. While he bought and sold the once-proud MGM studio three times, it was never clear whether he truly had any interest in movies or the movie business. But he was consistent in selecting a parade of misfits and miscreants to run his studio, and in finding unworthy buyers on whom to bestow his assets.
Kerkorian was not good for Hollywood and, despite his dealmaking agility, never maximized his returns from the huge growth that ultimately kicked in from homevideo and other revenue streams.
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Yet one of the secrets about Kirk, as he liked to be called, was his personal graciousness. My encounters with him while I was senior vice president of MGM were uniformly congenial, though few and far between. At times, he seemed marginally agoraphobic: He did not hang with stars nor attend studio events. He would prefer to buy a ticket to a Westwood movie theater and wander town alone, attired in his leather jacket, looking like the retired pilot he was.
On one occasion, Kirk called me to ask whether it would be OK to visit a soundstage where a sci-fi movie was shooting — he was intrigued by its complexity (and cost). “You own the studio,” I told him. “You can visit any set you want.” Kirk thanked me, adding that he didn’t want to cause a problem.
But it became a Hollywood joke that the only way to become Kerkorian’s studio chief was to be fired for egregiously bad behavior by another company — Frank Yablans from Paramount, Jim Aubrey from CBS and David Begelman from Columbia (he narrowly escaped jail).
Kerkorian was even more eccentric in deciding on buyers for the studio. Giancarlo Parretti was an infamous crook even before he acquired the studio and, within months after closing the deal, was buried in litigation. He ultimately fled the country to avoid arrest. It was Parretti who explained to Variety how he divided duties with his production chief, Alan Ladd Jr. “Laddie make-a-the deals, I (expletive) the girls,” he explained for quotation.
Yet when I wrote my (1990) book “Fade Out,” about Kerkorian’s missteps at MGM, he agreed to read the manuscript and calmly suggested modifications. My implications that, in his early years, mob money indirectly supported his ventures were misguided, he said. Some of his strategic mistakes, he explained, stemmed from bad legal advice, not his own misjudgments. “It’s your book, and I’m not putting you under any pressure,” he assured me.
Yet Kerkorian himself was accustomed to pressure. On several occasions, his empire in Las Vegas teetered on bankruptcy, and his movie ventures were constantly trouble-prone. When Sidney Korshak, the famous ‘fixer,’ demanded that Kerkorian release Al Pacino from an MGM talent deal so he could do “The Godfather,” there was a clear hint that a “no” would fuel labor problems for Kirk in Las Vegas. Kerkorian understood that language, and calmly assented. It was just about an actor and his movie, after all, and Kerkorian had no ego investment in actors. Korshak made his deal and Pacino made “The Godfather.” Alas, Kerkorian was never to get that lucky with a movie.