Hollywood's Michael Ovitz reflects on a lifetime of power
For many years the biggest and often most-feared power player in Hollywood was Michael Ovitz, who famously changed the way the business of show business is done. He has many a story about his career to tell, and he’s telling them this morning to Rita Braver:
“I had a goal from Day One, which was to win. And I wanted us to win at all costs,” said Michael Ovitz, who as leader of Creative Artists Agency, known as CAA, was once the most powerful talent agent in Hollywood.
Here’s a sample roster of clients when he was running the agency: Actors Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Barbra Streisand and Meryl Streep, and directors Steven Spielberg, Barry Levinson, Oliver Stone, Ron Howard, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese.
When Ovitz signed Sean Connery, the actor was in a career slump and had sworn off the role of James Bond. But Ovitz convinced him to do the aptly-named “Never say Never Again.”
But Ovitz is prouder of coaxing Connery into playing police office Jimmy Malone in the 1987 film, “The Untouchables.”
Ovitz said Connery hadn’t wanted to play the “old guy.”
“He had to play it without a toupee, and he had to play it as an older, more éminence grise type of character,” he said. “And he was, needless to say, brilliant in the role.” Connery won the Oscar.
As he details in his new memoir, “Who Is Micheal Ovitz” (Portfolio), he was raised in the San Fernando Valley, the son of a liquor salesman. In 1968 he graduated from UCLA, married his college sweetheart, and applied for a job at William Morris, a prominent Hollywood talent agency.
Ovitz started in the mail room and soon got his first promotion. “I got to be the assistant to the president, and was put in a position that gave me an amazing overview of the company,” he said.
In 1975, Ovitz decamped with a few other agents to found their own firm, CAA. They were broke, but wanted to make a splash. He took out a loan and bought five Jaguars for the five principal partners.
“Yes, perception in Hollywood in those days was 99% of the law,” he laughed. “And people noticed that we were driving Jaguars, they said, ‘Look, those guys must be doing good!'”
Ovitz soon became the leader of CAA, also developing a reputation as a tough guy, driving hard bargains and poaching clients, like famed director Sydney Pollock (“Tootsie”), directly from other agents.
Braver said, “You had almost a military mentality in how you pushed these deals forward, and also how you were willing to destroy anything and everyone in your path.”
“Well, I think that may be a bit of an overstatement,” Ovitz said. “I don’t think we were willing to destroy anything and everybody. I do think that we were willing to take on a lot of casualties. And we did leave a lot of bodies in our path.”
It was Ovitz who spearheaded David Letterman’s move from NBC to CBS. Ovitz and his partners at CAA would revolutionize the movie industry by frequently demanding that studios use their clients – writers, directors, actors – as a package deal in a particular film.
Take “Rain Man,” released in 1988. It’s studded with CAA clients: Barry Levinson directed and Dustin Hoffman stars, as an autistic man who is discovered in an asylum by his younger brother, played by Tom Cruise.
“A lot of people in the industry thought that was a bad idea,” said Braver.
“It was one of the many articles that were written about us saying that we were idiots and stupid and that Tom Cruise couldn’t be Dustin Hoffman’s brother, and it would never work,” Ovitz said.
“Rain Man” would win four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for Dustin Hoffman, who thanked his agent, Michael Ovitz, in his acceptance speech.
CAA would have a hand in a roster of films that are now considered classics, from “Tootsie,” “The Verdict” and “The Color of Money” to “Dances With Wolves” and “Ghostbusters.”
But after 20 years as an agent, Ovitz’s cutthroat ways – hustling clients, intimidating executives, even riding roughshod over his own partners – had taken him, as he writes, “from being the most powerful man in Hollywood” … to “the most feared” … to “the most hated.”
In 1995 he decided to quit being an agent, and become number 2 at Disney to Michael Eisner, a close friend who also had a ruthless reputation.
“It didn’t work from Day One,” Ovitz said. “I tried and I failed. It was one of the biggest failures of my life.”
Ovitz then started a new business, to manage talent and develop digital content. That, too, would fail.
In 2002 he made headlines again, when he told a Vanity Fair reporter that’s he’d been done in by Hollywood’s “gay mafia.”
“Yeah, still a debate today whether I said that or not!” Ovitz said. “But I’ll own up to it. I guess I said it. I think that I felt an enormous pressure coming from a lot of people in the business. It was a giant mistake, and something that never should have been said. And as you get older, you live and learn.”
Today, Ovitz has a new gig, advising Silicon Valley companies, and a new life. With his three children grown, he and his wife have gone their separate ways, and he now lives with Tamara Mellon, who cofounded Jimmy Choo shoes.
Today, when Michael Ovitz looks back, it is with both pride and regret.
“I felt that we were very kind to the people that were on our team and on our side,” he told Braver. “I feel we weren’t kind to people that were on the other side of the line that we drew.”
“Or in your way?”
“Or in our way, yes. We pushed them out of the way … and we did it, um, we did it with a lot of skill.”
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Story produced by John Goodwin.