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Lies and the Dirty Liars Who Tell Them 

Mike Ovitz takes the stand

Thursday, Oct 28 2004
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THERE ARE SO MANY THINGS in life that disappoint, and people who don’t live up to their billing. But not Michael Ovitz, in what is sarcastically being billed as “The Trial of the Century.”

For days now, internal memos and expert testimony inside Delaware Chancery Court had described the guy we love to hate as a “psychopath” and “congenital liar” (not to mention recounting behavior that merited other terms of endearment like “spendthrift,” “incompetent” and “fraud”).

Before the trial, sources close to Ovitz told L.A. Weekly that the Creative Artists Agency co-founder was relishing the opportunity to go to court. “He sees this as his opportunity to tell his story and be vindicated,” explained an Ovitz insider. But on the witness stand Tuesday in this shareholders’ lawsuit over his extravagant hiring and even more lavish firing as Disney president, Ovitz told a whiny tale of woe verging perilously close to acute paranoia and utter mendacity. They were all out to get him, every last one of them.

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Working his way up from a stuttering start to 15-minute, breath-defying soliloquies, complete with perspiring upper lip but just short of a rant-induced lather, Ovitz blamed everyone at the company but himself for his abject failure. Why, he would have been the most successful corporate executive ever (that is, if his scattershot schemes to pump up his profile as Michael Eisner’s No. 2 had been put into play); he would have acquired so many companies and talents that Disney would now be the best and brightest Big Media giant (that is, if it were still in business despite all that crushing debt Ovitz wanted to pile on even after Disney had just acquired ABC for $19 bil) if only THEY hadn’t plotted against him. All that was missing from his Captain Queeg mimicry was spittle about the strawberries. (“They laughed at me and made jokes, but I proved beyond the shadow of a doubt, and with geometric logic, that a duplicate key to the wardroom icebox did exist . . .” —The Caine Mutiny)

Okay, I’ll just say it: He’s nuts. Just nuts. And endlessly amusing as a result. That is, if you don’t mind overlooking the many whoppers he told on Day One of his testimony.

Whopper: He claimed he cold-called Bill Gates in 1990. Truth: His trusted corporate consultant, Sandy Climan, had attended Harvard with none other than Gates and Microsoft’s eventual No. 2, Steven Ballmer. Though Gates dropped out of school early to go to work, Climan and Ballmer stayed chums, and, in fact, when Climan first moved out to Hollywood to break into show biz, he slept on Ballmer’s living-room floor. And it was Climan who casually suggested, “Maybe it’s time we got our respective bosses together.” As a favor to his friend, Ballmer arranged for Ovitz and Gates to meet for dinner.

Whopper: Ovitz fashioned Creative Artists Agency from the start “with a little blend of Eastern philosophy” and had studied Asian culture in high school. Truth: Ron Meyer, Bill Haber and the other CAA founders would roll their eyes whenever they read Ovitz’s claim of understanding the Oriental mind. If anything, CAA owed its genesis to being Jewish, not Japanese. When they started their agency back in 1975, it was the longtime William Morris philosophy of teamwork espoused by Abe Lastfogel that they emulated, not Lao Tzu. So when Sony first approached Ovitz, the agent knew virtually nothing about Japanese culture or business. And that oft-repeated anecdote Ovitz tells about how he’d used Harvard professor Edwin O. Reischauer’s 1988 book, The Japanese Today, as his bible? It was Sandy Climan who had studied the tome and described it to Ovitz.

Whopper: Ovitz claimed he didn’t have a title at CAA until the company was 12 years old. Truth: Ovitz grabbed the title of president and responsibility of running the agency away from Roland Perkins a year after the agency was formed.

And so on. I’d use up a forest of newsprint just to correct Ovitz’s testimony.

But, as an avowed Ovitz watcher (c’mon, it’s like a walking train wreck in slo-mo), I have to confess that, at this point, I’m not sure if he knows the difference between facts and falsehoods. Can someone who created his own parallel universe recognize reality anymore? (Insert here my usual George W. Bush insult.) But with Dubya it’s liturgical, while with Ovitz it’s now farcical.

Gone is Evil Bastard Mike, replaced by this wire-rim-wearing, unflatteringly bald Boo Radley of a man that no one sees out in public anymore. A shadow of his once most-powerful-in-Hollywood self, not to mention unemployable since 1996 when Disney’s huge severance payout made him the poster boy for corporate excess, Milquetoast Mike endures almost daily humiliation, from the unreturned calls and unsent invitations to that pesky “occupation” blank on credit-card applications.

Oh, happy day. He’s back, he’s in the limelight, and he’s got himself a captive audience, even if it’s in a tiny courtroom in a backwater town in Delaware filled mostly with lawyers who wish he’d never been born, much less ever worked at Disney. To someone at least semi-sane, finding oneself in such a predicament would be like a last nail in the coffin of public failure. But not our Mike. He still seeks redemption.

Which explains why despite every good attorney’s counsel to keep answers short and to the point during testimony, Ovitz kept dictating a virtual book. At times, even his own lawyer showed good-natured frustration with Ovitz’s bizarrely rambling answers. Asked about the hiring of TV executive Jamie Tarses, Ovitz said, “I don’t know where to start.” (Little wonder since her move from NBC to ABC didn’t just spark a sexual-harassment scandal but also ratcheted up inter-network nastiness.) “Start at the beginning,” Ovitz’s lawyer suggested. Bad advice. Again and again, Ovitz was reminded to get back to the topic of Tarses. Later, Ovitz himself pointed out that “My own lawyer is making fun of me.”

Ovitz was trying to craft, with absolute care and confidence, an image of himself as the world’s living expert on, well, everything. Theme parks, video games, book publishing, the music industry: yeah, sort of. But there was also his exhaustively detailed explanation of ways to avoid jet lag, or the difference between doing business in Japan vs. China, or his digression about his large collection of Ming Chinese furniture. Or his recitation of the different video games his kids like to play.

He glossed over every black mark on his tenure, from his egregious mistake bringing in Marty Scorsese (whose Kundun deep-sixed Disney plans for China for a while) to his bizarre courting of Michael Jackson (that’s right, after the first child-molestation scandal when the singer’s career was toast). Even his notion to gather all Disney’s global operations under one roof — to stimulate a creative give-and-take like CAA’s Wednesday motion picture meeting — was crap. (That plan was abruptly scuttled when it was determined that it would require a building stretching several miles long just to house all the employees.)

And if Eve had three faces, then Ovitz on the stand had 23. One minute he was charming, the next angry. Cute, then crafty. Pained and painful. The only constant was his insistence that the failures were Eisner’s fault and not his. Eisner (who has yet to take the stand), that unrepentant micromanager who wouldn’t give up any significant areas of responsibility to Ovitz to manage on his own, who never sent the message that Ovitz was the new boss to Disney division chiefs, who fiercely guarded their autonomy, who cut off Ovitz at the knees from the very beginning and kept chopping day by day, week by week, month by month, until Ovitz was so frozen out of Disney’s core business of movies, television, network and theme parks that he was left with only the company’s international arena by default.

Of course, what Ovitz didn’t address was Eisner’s need for a helpmate, someone who was going to roll up his sleeves and get involved in the nuts and bolts of running the company. Not someone like Ovitz who, ever the dealmaker, was simply looking for The Big Score. Beneath the boasting, Ovitz unwittingly made himself out to be a child with attention deficit disorder, constantly pointing to the latest toy he wanted to play with, desperately needing Ritalin: I want EMI, the record company. I want Putnam, the publishing company. I want Yahoo, the Internet company. I want the Seattle Seahawks. If only the attorneys knew that when Disney exec Steve Bollenbach asked Ovitz why he wanted to buy an L.A. sports team, he replied that a big company like Disney has “a responsibility to the city.” Fired back Bollenbach: “No, you don’t. You have a responsibility to the shareholders.”

Oh yes, Disney shareholders, the people who paid Ovitz’s salary and severance, the folks who brought this lawsuit. Tellingly, not once did Ovitz refer to them in court.

E-mail at deadlinehollywood@gmail.com.

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