Happy Birthday, Rupert Murdoch

1:38 PM PST 03/10/2011 by THR staff
Illustration: Brunoillo; Source image: Steve Granitz/Wireimage/Getty Images

As News Corp.’s chairman and chief executive turns 80 on March 11, THR solicited memories and good wishes from his employees, colleagues and even the occasional frenemy.

Nigel Lythgoe
Executive Producer, American Idol
“When I think of global media, there’s only one name in the frame: Rupert Murdoch. Rupert, happy f---ing birthday! (I was helped with my birthday message by Steven Tyler.)”

Tom Freston
Former president and CEO, Viacom
“I’ve seen Rupert at industry conferences and the like over the years, and have gotten to know him more socially since I left Viacom. Unlike [founders] at other media companies, he remains the driving force at News Corp. to this day — quite an accomplishment. Regardless of what you might think of his political agenda, if you look back now over all the legendary “founding or controlling” media conglomerate leaders, Rupert has easily been the most entrepreneurial, the most global in his vision and the most savvy about his actual business operations and what makes them tick. He actually goes everywhere himself and learns first-hand, a never-ending task in a far-flung empire. Not content to just sit there and obsess over stock price, he seems much more driven by a never waning curiosity and the thrill of innovation, reinvention and travel. He’s the real deal.”

Baz Luhrmann
Filmmaker (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge)
“I once accompanied Rupert’s son, my friend Lachlan Murdoch, as he sailed his swan class yacht in the famous Sydney to Hobart ocean race. I was little more than ballast, but at the end of the grueling experience, Rupert picked us all up in his super yacht Morning Glory, and we spent many days sailing back to the Australian mainland across the Tasman Sea. It was the first time I came to know the personal Rupert, and I marveled at the warmth and kindness of Rupert the family man, going ashore on adventures, or captaining one of the rubber dinghies to flag down an unsuspecting fishing boat to haggle over the price of fresh-caught lobsters and bring them back, cook them on the barbecue, enjoy lunch with everybody, but then discreetly slip away for two or three hours, during which he was presumably the global-empire-ruling Rupert Murdoch that the world knows. He would return a few hours later to play backgammon and charades, and always a late movie into the night. It’s the compelling thing about Rupert: the paradox between the global image of a man who rules an empire by which everyone is somehow affected, and the man and father I have known in my experiences. I’ve never met anyone like him. While his public persona seems to have a preordained perspective on what he is going to say, when you’re with Rupert, you have no idea what his answer or point of view is going to be on anything. It’s always compelling, always surprising and usually ahead of the game. It is this gift of his and excitement about the future — an ability to predict it, understand it and to be constantly moving forward into it — that makes time spent with Rupert exceptional.”

Simon Fuller
Creator/Executive producer, American Idol
“A special moment I remember with Rupert was at a party at his home in Los Angeles to celebrate our first Idol Gives Back. He was absolutely thrilled at the success of the evening and genuinely moved by what we had accomplished with a simple two-hour show on his network. I saw a real warmth and philanthropic side to Rupert that evening that greatly impressed me.”

Ted Turner
CEO, Turner Enterprises
“I met with Rupert a couple of years ago for lunch at Ted’s Montana Grill in New york to bury the hatchet and congratulate him on implementing green initiatives with his businesses. We both realized we have gotten a lot older since those early days of feuding and decided it was time to move on. I’m glad to put all of that to rest.”

Peter Chernin
Former president and coo, News Corp. and Fox Entertainment Group
“When we did Titanic, I doubt things would have ended the way they did if it hadn’t been for Rupert. I was running the studio, and the movie went $100 million over budget. In those days, Rupert’s office was directly across the hall from me. Whenever somebody called me and said we needed another few million dollars, I would run across the hall and share the bad news with Rupert, because I didn’t want him to hear it elsewhere and didn’t want him to think that I was hiding anything. He would consistently say to me, “You’ve got to put this behind you; you can’t let this affect your other decisions.” And he would ask, “Do you still believe in the movie?” And I’d say, “I absolutely believe in the movie.” And he’d say, “Then just keep doing what you’re doing.”

I believed that our only hope was to make a great movie, which turned out to be the right decision. But I don’t think there is a single other entertainment company where this would have happened. Their board of directors wouldn’t have let something like this continue. And I can’t imagine that any other boss would have been that supportive and said, “If you believe in it, I’ll back you.” He clearly knew I wasn’t hiding anything from him, not even the most negative information. That’s critical with Rupert. In a crisis, there is no one better than Rupert, because he is tougher than anybody, he is stronger than anybody, and he is really willing to take those big bets. The movie opened with around $25 million, which was fine. It wasn’t a disaster. But then it basically did $25 million every single week for the next few months.”

Jim Gianopulos
Co-chairman and CEO, Fox Filmed Entertainment
“Rupert’s intrepid leadership, boundless energy and entrepreneurial spirit have been an inspiration throughout the past 20 years. He has consistently encouraged innovation and boldness in both business and filmmaking, and his unwavering support on projects such as Avatar made that and other very ambitious undertakings possible.”

Peter Mukerjea
Former CEO, Star India
“Murdoch is a hard task master, but he rewarded you well. I was petrified when we first met. I prepared this presentation for him on India, which was about 25 pages. He flipped through the whole thing in about five seconds, looked me in the eye and said, “How many villages are there in India?” I had no clue because my presentation was more about the economy, the state of the Indian currency, the media environment and so on. So I just took a complete shot in the dark and said, “In excess of 500,000.” He said, “What will it take to get television into each of them?” I was stumped and said, “Most of those villages don’t have electricity.” He said, “Maybe we can get them a generator set.” That was Murdoch — thinking miles ahead of anybody.”

Tom Rothman
Co-chairman/CEO, Fox Filmed Entertainment
“During the iciest seas of making Titanic, when Paramount had jumped ship, and everyone, myself included, despaired of our ability to survive, Rupert held fast to the belief that if the movie was great, we would prevail in the end — and his support and nerve never wavered. That has been my consistent experience making films and television product for him for over 16 years — he believes in, and is willing to bet on,  the upside of creative risk.”

Gary Ginsberg
Former executive VP, News Corp.
“The first clue to the type of boss Rupert Murdoch would become came the moment I met him. Sitting in the spare reception area of News Corp. in September 1998, waiting to be interviewed by a man I knew only by his fearsome reputation, I was stirred to my feet by a whir of anxious energy.

I can still see the brown door swing violently open and the thin outstretched arm of Rupert Murdoch emerge with a simple “Hi, Rupert Murdoch, sorry to keep you waiting.” No assistant, no pretension ... just an unassuming guy who himself came out to greet me, who himself offered to get me coffee and who apologized for keeping me waiting, even though he hadn’t.

“Graciousness” is not the first word many of my progressive friends would have ascribed to Rupert, but what most of Rupert’s detractors miss is this: One reason he has been so successful in business is actually because he is such a decent, unpretentious man, not in spite of it. He can, of course, be aggressive and unsentimental in his business dealings, and his determination to win is unmatched. But one of his secret weapons is that people enjoy working for him, like being around him and will work tirelessly to support him. That he’s been able to keep a cadre of immensely competent executives around him — some for as long as 50 years — is testament to his loyalty. And his Australian roots have ingrained in him an egalitarianism and curiosity that allows even an agitating Democrat like me to be made welcome in his inner sanctum and be heard. Of course, there were limits to how far I could push what he often dismissed as my “communist” agenda. I always knew when I had gone too far when, with the flick of his left hand, he would abruptly end the conversation with the pithy “piss off.” But the next day we’d be back at it, no hard feelings.”

Jon Dolgen
Former Viacom Entertainment Group Chairman, former president of Fox, inc.
“I think that if you work for Rupert, what you find is that he was a man possessed of a huge enthusiasm and appetite for his businesses that was in some respects refreshing and in some respects tough because he kept on setting your bars higher for you. But in a world in which there is an awful lot of dispassion and corporate management, the idea of an owner who loves his business, has an appetite and enthusiasm for it and is willing to break rules in an effort to become successful can make for a very exhilarating ride.”

Arnon Milchan
Producer (L.A. Confidential, Fight Club)
“We first had dinner at the Bel-Air Hotel to start the dealmaking, when New Regency moved from Warners to Fox. It was just the three of us — Peter Chernin, Rupert and I. What surprised me was how curious he was — and almost shy, totally unassuming, with zero tolerance for bullshit. The whole Hollywood thing made him uncomfortable. I felt like I was talking to a great journalist, because he was interested in everything. He wanted to know about politics, and everything that was unrelated to the deal. The last thing we talked about was the deal itself. Afterward, I asked Peter, “How do you think it went?” He said, “Rupert didn’t understand half of what you said, but he really liked you!” I said, “I didn’t understand one word he said, but I really liked him!” When we went to closing the deal, he asked me a few personal questions: “Are you healthy? Are you doing well? Do you love art?” It wasn’t about business. It was very personal. And then he said, “OK, let’s go for the ride.” And I went, “Gee, how do you analyze it so fast?” And he said, “I don’t analyze the past, I analyze the future.””

Paul Brooks
President, NASCAR Media Group
“Cheers to Sir Keith Murdoch and Elisabeth Joy Greene, for showing us the world can truly be changed … one child at a time. Happy Birthday, Rupert, and thanks for taking NASCAR on Fox around the world!”

Bill Roedy
Recently retired from Viacom, where he was Chairman and CEO, MTV Networks Intl.
“I came over to the U.K. in 1988 and Sky launched in January on the Astra satellite. It really struck me how much opposition there was in London to Sky and I was there hearing all sorts of reasons why it would fail, especially from the BBC, who were very lofty in their view that the Sky platform would not work. I can remember being on panels with the BBC and people saying that you couldn’t possibly get television better than the current three channels. It was the first time I saw Murdoch’s perseverance at challenging the conventional and well established. We at MTV felt as though we weren’t alone.”

Bill Mechanic
Former chairman and CEO, Fox Filmed Entertainment
“He was sort of supportive of Titanic. The truth is, you’re remarkably over budget on a picture — you’d expect somebody to completely clamp down and just cut costs as opposed to making sure the picture is delivered properly. To his credit, he didn’t go overboard on trying to cut costs at the expense of the movie. He was not pleasant, but I don’t know that’s an experience you’d be pleasant for. There was a mean-spiritedness. You couldn’t deal with anything without it coming up with some edge to it. I remember examples but I don’t want to recount them. ...

I screened the long version of the movie for him and the projector broke down. Chernin asked, “Why would you show it to him when it’s not finished?” My joke was, it was the only time he would see all his money on the screen. It was over three hours long. The film was so long and so heavy that they had trouble with the splices and the projector broke down. Sony was close by so instead he screened Air Force One. After he saw Titanic, he called and said I understand why you like it but it’s no Air Force One.

His quote on Fight Club was, “You have to be sick to make a movie like that.” He wasn’t laughing. But it’s long ago and far away. I’ve moved on.”

More From Milchan ...
“Once, we went to a bar in SoHo when we had become good friends, and he asked me how I perceived him. I said, “I once made a movie called Falling Down about this guy and he goes out there with a machine gun and says, ‘I just want to go home, and if no one gets in my way, no one gets hurt.’ ” I said to Rupert, “That’s you!” Then I asked, how did he perceive himself? He said, “I am first and foremost a journalist. And all the rest is a defense mechanism.”

Barbara Davis
The philanthropist’s late husband, Marvin, owned Fox from 1981-84
“At the time, Marvin was partnered with Marc Rich, who wanted to sell his half of the studio, so he sold his half to Rupert. The studio had come with a lot of real estate, like Pebble Beach and Aspen, and Marvin kept that. Then Rupert wanted to buy Marvin’s half of the studio and it went back-and-forth, back-and-forth. Rupert really wanted it. He seemed like a lovely man. Finally, Marvin sold it to him, but not the real estate. I don’t know why. I wish he hadn’t. It’s great to own a studio.”

Simon Cowell
Executive producer of Fox’s upcoming The X Factor
“He’s been one of the most loyal, supportive people I have ever worked with. I can say first-hand that this is somebody that you want to be in business with, because he just doesn’t mess around. If you’re loyal to him, he’s loyal to you. So he’s like your perfect boss. I remember once going to his house for dinner. I was sitting at one side of the table with his wife, and the table must have been 16 feet long and there were probably 14 people at the table. I remember mentioning one thing — I think it was about telephones calls on Idol — and from 16 feet away, he said, “I totally agree.” The entire table went silent. He’s just got this unbelievable ability to filter out noise. When you say something that registers, he’s on it. He’s got an unbelievable radar for what is important, and I think it’s one of the reasons he’s succeeded. He knows what’s important, and he knows what to ignore.”

More from Mukerjea…
“The life-changing moment for [local broadcaster] KBC was at a presentation where we were told Murdoch was going ahead with the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. At that point, the Indian version was going to be called KBL — Kaun Banega Lakhpati — (Lakh meaning 100,000 in Hindi instead of Crore, which means 10 million). He looked at me and didn’t understand what Lakhpati meant so I told him that it denoted someone who won Rupees 100,000, or about $2,000. He said “That’s bullshit. We are talking about Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and you are fiddling about with $2,000?” But we were governed by a tight budget — it was all very well for Murdoch to say that the amount was small since he was used to big Hollywood numbers!

He asked, “What’s the next big number in India?” So I said a Crore, which is about $250,000. So he said, “Lets go with that — it’s better than your measly $2,000.” It is funny now, but at that time I was thinking, ‘Where am I going to get the budget for this?’ It’s all very well for Rupert to say this and get on his plane and fly to L.A.

We went along with it and the rest is history. That was a life-changing moment which could only be done by this man called Rupert Murdoch. No executive in the company could have made that decision. He is not just an exec but also a proprietor who can make a decision like this without getting lost in cost analysis. This man worked off the seat of his pants, a complete gambler. For Rupert, if something wasn’t difficult or tough, then it wasn’t worth doing. If it was easy, then forget it.”

More from Chernin ...
“I have another story.In the very early days of the Fox network, we were on the air three nights and we had launched The Simpsons. It was a big, big hit. It was by far the most successful thing we had ever done. Everybody was talking about it. We were still a tiny little network, and The Simpsons was our No. 1 show, but in its first year probably the No. 4 show overall in the weekly ratings.

We were sitting in the scheduling room. I was president of the network at that time, and Barry Diller was still with the company. So, it was me, Barry, Rupert and Jamie Kellner and some others. And we were going over the scheduling.

On the network schedules, you had these squares on a big magnetic board and you’d move them around. Rupert loved to push the squares around. I’d joke with him about this. You know the greatest toy a billionaire could have is a magnetic board with the schedule.

Rupert has this funny, sly little grin. He took the Simpsons square and moved it against The Cosby Show. That was the time when Cosby was by such a huge margin the No. 1 show on television. It was the single most powerful thing in the television industry — and we were all sort of shocked. We were a weak little network, and NBC had the number one show with one of the sitcom icons of all time.

And Rupert just sort of said: “Trust me, it will get us more attention. The show is going to do just fine, and will get us so much attention you can’t imagine.”

We all debated it and we all finally said, “Let’s try it.” It became one of the seminal moments of the Fox Broadcasting Co., but also one of the great moments of broadcasting, because that moment more than anything is what really made Fox into the fourth network. It basically announced to the world this little upstart is willing to take on the No. 1 network and the No. 1 show. Within a few years, The Cosby Show had been canceled. And 21 years later, The Simpsons are still on the air.”

Gregory Clark
Honorary Ambassador to Japan, Queensland State Government and a trainee journalist at Murdoch’s fledgling The Australian in 1969
“The Australian was then the only progressive newspaper in the country, he’d appointed a liberal editor and reporters such as myself, who had opposed the Vietnam War. The paper was struggling to get itself out across Australia by plane and train, and it was crucial to meet the 8 p.m. deadline. The union knew this and started calling wildcat strikes at 6 p.m. Management then had to pull everyone in, the executives, typists, journalists and even Murdoch himself, to set out the type on the printing presses. I was standing near him in the print room as he muttered to himself, ‘So this is how the left wing treats the one newspaper owner who tries to put out a progressive newspaper.’ I think that was the beginning of his shift to the right. he began cutting back on liberal contributors and replaced the editor.”

 

 

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