As the new book 'Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency' puts the focus back on the agency's origins, THR's editor-at-large remembers how the agent's tantrum at the Palm restaurant and her follow-up kicked off one of Hollywood's prickliest pas de deux.
Two years before I ever met Michael Ovitz, I heard from him.
In 1988, Premiere — then a fairly new, gorgeous and glossy movie magazine (that eventually would collapse) — hired me to write a monthly column called "California Suite" about the film business. Premiere was partly owned by Rupert Murdoch, who a few years earlier had taken control of 20th Century Fox. The possibility that he would at some point want to alter or kill a story that embarrassed or inconvenienced his studio was so obvious that before I took the job, I asked the editor, Susan Lyne, not to hire me if she wasn't prepared to back me when things got sticky. She said she would. Right out of the gate, I found myself writing an item about Ovitz. In short order, Susan found herself on the line with Murdoch.
Ovitz was so powerful in that era — swathed in carefully manufactured mystery and highly inaccessible to the press. He had reinvented the agency business and built something sleek, disciplined and aggressive. Everyone in town called CAA agents "Moonies" because of the way they seemed to march in lockstep in Armani uniforms. Powerful executives and producers liked to accuse the media of creating a myth around Ovitz, but we only were reacting to their fear of him. And that fear wasn't unreasonable given CAA's formidable array of stars — Robert Redford, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Barbra Streisand, Julia Roberts — who in those simpler times could open just about any movie. Crossing CAA could mean less access to crucial talent and material.
The agency was seen as so all-powerful that it came as a surprise, soon after I arrived at Premiere, when two agents defected, teaming up with a group from ICM to start a short-lived would-be competitor called InterTalent. Just like that, the story gods dropped a great item for my first column into my lap: A source told me that in a rare public loss of composure, Ovitz had walked into The Palm and loudly insisted that no InterTalent agent could be seated in one of the front four "power" booths. (This was when the restaurant was on Santa Monica Boulevard.) Ovitz was always about perception, and this petty yet quintessentially Hollywood demand spoke volumes. All I had to do was confirm it.
I had never eaten at The Palm, but I cold-called Gigi Delmaestro — a reigning Hollywood maitre d' of his time, though I never had heard of him — and asked him to comment. I was sure he'd hang up or deny the story, but much to my surprise, Gigi simply allowed that Ovitz had been "upset." Good enough; my next call was to CAA.
Masters, then writing for Premiere, had her first scuffle with Ovitz in 1988.
Ovitz, 42 at the time, had a functionary handling such calls, and I quickly got a denial that the incident had happened. I said that seemed unlikely as Delmaestro had confirmed that it did.
Poor Gigi. He called me and said he'd been trying to take a couple of days off in Palm Springs, but Ovitz had gotten hold of his number and was hounding him to convince us not to publish the story. "Tell him you did your best, but we're running it," I said, to which Gigi replied in his Italian accent, "He doesn't want to look like an asshole."
"Then he shouldn't act like an asshole," I said.
Gigi laughed heartily. "I like you!" he said. "Come to the restaurant, and we'll have lunch."
We didn't sit in one of the power booths but in front, by the plate-glass window. (Every time I walked into The Palm after that, Gigi greeted me with a smile and said, "Here comes trouble!")
Ovitz called Murdoch to demand that he kill the story. Murdoch in turn phoned Susan Lyne to ask what he was talking about. She read him the item and waited nervously for the response. There was a pause, and then Murdoch said with obvious relish: "Read it to me again. I'm going to dinner, and I want to tell it right."
So that was how a real titan responded to Ovitz. And after that, we were told, Ovitz never ate at The Palm again.
We Have Never Lied to You
Around that time, Ovitz was obsessing over the construction of the fortresslike $25 million I.M. Pei building at the intersection of Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards that the agency would occupy until 2007. That building was a white elephant; too small to house the agency even when it moved in. I upset Ovitz once again when I reported that he had brought in a feng shui master for the groundbreaking ceremony. This was before feng shui was a household term (the master spread rice mixed with alcohol and red coloring around the site). But Ovitz was Asia-centric almost from the beginning; it soon turned out that he was preparing to expand his portfolio and make a mint by helping usher two Japanese giants, Sony and Matsushita, into the acquisition of Columbia Pictures and MCA/Universal, respectively. At the time, Ovitz complained to Lyne that I was mocking religion. It wasn't clear whether he was referencing feng shui's association with Taoism, but that was beside the (obvious) point: Religion was not my target.
From left: Bill Murray with his date; Ovitz’s wife, Judy; Matt Dillon and Ovitz at a 1999 event.
There were other miscellaneous issues that arose when his underlings misled us about stories that we were pursuing about projects or problems with movie-star behavior. At last, about two full years after The Palm encounter, Ovitz agreed to a face-to-face meeting. I still had never seen or spoken to him, even on the phone. He still was extremely press-shy in those days, and this meeting was a very big deal.
By then, I had a little secret: I was almost out the door. I had accepted a job at The Washington Post and was planning to move across the country and cover a different beat. No doubt Ovitz would have canceled if he'd known, but I hardly was going to announce it and miss the chance to sit down with the uber-agent at last.
By then, in early 1990, CAA had moved into the new headquarters, with its soaring atrium and curving interior walls. I found myself in the building for the first time, seated on a sofa in Ovitz's actual office, facing the man himself. The gist of the conversation, at first, was that we needed to open lines of communication. I said all we needed was a straightforward answer when we had a question, or at least a straightforward "no comment." At that point, Ovitz declared, "We have never lied to you."
I winced. "I don't want to dredge up old grievances — let's not revisit the past," I said. "But the fact is that sitting here on your couch, without having rehearsed this in my mind before I got here, I can think of several instances where CAA absolutely has … misled us." He insisted that I give him an example. So I did, reluctantly. His response: "We didn't think that was news."
"Here's the thing," I said. "You guys make lots of money and get great tables at restaurants. All we get is to decide whether something is news."
He asked for another example. I mentioned something about an upcoming Bill Murray project and how CAA had denied its existence. "That hadn't happened yet," he said.
Ovitz kept going, but after I offered a third example, he caved: "I swear to you on the lives of my children that we will never lie to you again."
I couldn't quite believe I had heard those words. His children were young, and I had a moment of fear on their behalf. But the idea that Ovitz could be theatrical wasn't all new. Just a few months earlier, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas had written a letter — leaked to me and most other reporters in town through the mail, by fax, shoved under the office door, or all three — in which he accused Ovitz of threatening in extraordinary language to ruin him for switching from CAA to ICM. (To give you a sense of the journalism of that time, it took a couple of weeks before any daily publication had the nerve to report this incident, though everyone had the letter. In the end, the now-defunct Herald-Examiner had the guts to go first, and the rest followed.)
Ovitz and client Steven Spielberg at a DGA event in 1991 in West Hollywood.
Eszterhas wrote that Ovitz had told him, "My foot soldiers who go up and down Wilshire Boulevard each day will blow your brains out." At the time, that seemed like it could be a colorful invention from a volatile guy who had, after all, written a movie called Jagged Edge. Eszterhas even had said in his letter that Ovitz's dialogue had seemed as if it was "out of a bad gangster movie." So I initially questioned whether Ovitz actually had said those words. But hearing him swear on his children's lives — I started to think Eszterhas had not exaggerated after all.
'Jews and Arabs Can Get Along'
Despite repeated attempts to forge a working relationship, it never really happened. I needed years to pass before I could figure out all the reasons an understanding was impossible. First, Ovitz had no sense of humor about himself at all. Unlike his supposed good friend Michael Eisner, he never could just roll with a story that didn't portray him exactly as he wished to be seen. Second, he just couldn't stop with the Oz, the Great and Powerful routine. While Eisner, who for years was chairman and chief executive of Disney, returned calls quite promptly and usually took a little time to banter, Ovitz would have his assistant phone and say something like, "If Mr. Ovitz were to ring you next Thursday between 2:20 and 2:25 p.m., would you be available?" This despite the fact that Eisner was dealing with theme parks and movies and television operations while Ovitz was just running a talent agency.
He also tried tactics that I would have to call off-putting. Once, when I was writing a story about him for Vanity Fair, Ovitz implored me to consider that some of my sources — notably David Geffen — were hoping to damage him. He was right: Geffen was discussing Ovitz on the record in unflattering terms. I responded that it was clear Geffen was no friend of his, but the key question was whether Geffen was telling the truth. "You've been to my house and you've been to David's house," said Ovitz. "Where would you rather leave your child — with me or with him?" My child was a toddler at the time, and while I didn't say this, the answer was a no-brainer. Geffen was richer, single and childless, and his house was a masterpiece of understated elegance. By contrast, Ovitz had two kids, and his Brentwood home displayed more art than good taste. And so if Geffen took a liking to a cute little child, then that seemed far preferable.
Above all, I realized the relationship would never work because when Ovitz told me something that seemed unlikely to be true — and that never stopped — I would get insulted that he expected me to believe him. Meanwhile, he was insulted that I didn't at least pretend that I did.
The truth is that Ovitz had been too successful, too ambitious, too heartless. By the time he failed as president of Disney in 1996 and botched an attempt to reinvent himself yet again (at the now-defunct Artists Management Group), the town long had been rooting for him to fall. He had built an agency that transformed Hollywood in a specific time and place, but that era had ended. If he has any consolation, besides his millions, it surely is that no agent ever will match the level of power that he attained.
I still have a handwritten note he sent me after one of our short-lived efforts at reaching a truce. "Kim," it reads, "Lunch today proves that Jews and Arabs can get along."
I've always wondered which one of us was supposed to be the Arab and which was the Jew. But the truce? It was over by dinnertime.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.