Time Warner's former chief built an empire that unraveled after the disastrous AOL merger. Now, after going public with his disease following Robin Williams' suicide, he explains why Hollywood moguls should both emote — and push for social change: "If you are afraid it will offend Wall Street, then you shouldn't be CEO."
What would the Jerry Levin of 2000 (the Time Warner CEO who engineered the ill-fated $182 billion AOL-Time Warner merger) make of the Jerry Levin of today (an advocate for a holistic approach to life who argues for the importance of nutrition, exercise, sleep, reducing stress and finding a purpose)? Ask Levin that question, and he laughs: "I would have said, 'Are you out of your f—ing mind?' " It's the only expletive he drops during a 90-minute conversation in which he speaks quietly but intensely as he reflects on the turns his life has taken since he walked away from the corporate ranks in 2001.
Levin, 77, still points to his accomplishments proudly — being on the ground floor at HBO's creation, bringing Turner Broadcasting into the Time Warner fold — but, he insists, what always had motivated him was not building an empire but rather using Time Warner's resources to tell stories through its journalistic, film and TV outlets. Now the stories he wants to tell are more personal.
“I’m a dedicated, religious vegan,” says Levin, photographed with his wife, Laurie Ann, on June 15 at their favorite vegan restaurant, Plant Food + Wine, in Venice, Calif.
In his own case, when he learned Robin Williams committed suicide in 2014 after being diagnosed with Parkinson's, Levin stepped forward, revealing he has been living with the disease since 2006. Having already begun to take a new approach to life, he applied those lessons to coping with the affliction. "It's kind of a metaphor for aging and losing capacity, and yet I am taking it as an opportunity," he says. "Not to be in denial but to do the things that are important. And what I have discovered is, it helps my Parkinson's."
He credits his third wife, Dr. Laurie Ann Levin, a former agent and producer who now is a clinical psychologist — they wed in 2004 — for being "the change agent" who helped him put into focus the questions he was asking himself. And while he still follows the entertainment business he left behind — for example, he views the fact that Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes has divested the company of many of the assets he helped to assemble as "inevitable moves" — it's issues like health care and gun control on which he now holds forth most passionately.
Speaking June 14, two days after the Orlando mass shooting, Levin can't help but acknowledge how gun violence touched his own family. His son Jonathan, 31, a New York schoolteacher and one of his five children, was shot and murdered during the course of a robbery in 1997. And so he seizes the moment to address the executives who currently shape the media.
I have to say it, because every time there is a murder or a mass killing, it brings back my own family's experience, and each time I hope that we are going to do something. I believe this time is different — not just for gun control or understanding racism or this terrible prejudice against anybody who is not "like me" — but to return to our values. I think this is a 9/11 experience. The president made quite a speech today. But I look at the people who run studios, they run networks, they run journalism — Jeff Bewkes, Bob Iger, Brian Roberts, Les Moonves, Rupert Murdoch. They are people who have a responsibility to run their companies. Through their stories, movies and television and journalism, they have the greatest impact: Donald Trump wouldn't be where he was without the media. Time magazine, I think in 1968, called for us to remove ourselves from Vietnam. Well, that may not have been popular with advertisers. But you have this bully pulpit — you are affecting the perceptions of people about American democracy and American values. So I hope this is an inflection point and that there is leadership from the people who run the storytelling business. I can't pontificate because I hate that, but if you are leading a company, you have an obligation to not be invisible, or only visible to Wall Street and the financial community. Tell me how you can justify an assault rifle as being a valid Second Amendment instrument? Let's hear from some of the people that lead our companies what they believe — and if you are afraid because it will offend Wall Street or an advertiser, then you shouldn't be CEO. It's time for a public dialogue on issues that are really as important as any I can recall in my lifetime.
Left: Case and Levin celebrated the announcement of the AOL-Time Warner merger on Jan. 10, 2000.
Levin admits he didn't always follow that rule when he was a CEO and that there is much that prevents corporate heads from letting down their guard and expressing their own humanity.
It's a terrible thing to not be able to express your emotions, but how many times do you see a CEO cry? That's just not natural. Nor is it desirable. I remember after my son died, I went back to work much too soon because I was superman. At the annual meeting, I remember we had done something with The Three Tenors, and I played a video clip of [them singing] "Nessun Dorma," and for some reason, it was evocative to me of my son. I started to cry, so I turned my back to make sure that no one could see that I was crying. Now, that's so counterintuitive. Let it out, let people see that you're real, that you are a human being, that you have beliefs. What are the requirements for becoming a CEO? They're all about mechanical capacity, strategy, organizational aptitude. But my argument is that you would be a better CEO if you were a full person, in touch with your emotions, and I just believe there is a way of staying in touch with yourself and your emotions. Decisions by a CEO are in theory analytical, when in fact they are all emotional and based on gut experience. It's not recognized, it's not acknowledged. But if you strengthen your gut and your emotions and your openness, I think you'll make better decisions.
Over time, Levin has made peace with some of his former adversaries. In 2001, he found himself at odds with AOL's Steve Case, who served as chairman of the merged AOL-Time Warner. But the two long have since made up, and Case became one of the investors in Start Up Health, an initiative Levin chairs that puts investors in touch with health-care entrepreneurs.
As a matter of fact, I talked to him quite recently. You know, he has a book out called The Third Wave, which I think is an extremely incisive book. And we talk about our history together. We're both getting a little older, and I think we can acknowledge to each other that we could have done it better. Our personal relationship got in the way of running the company. We were at cross purposes. It might have been predictable because I was used to running a company, he was used to running a company. You try to put the two of us together and allocate functions. I was supposed to be the CEO and he was the chairman without operating portfolio. In hindsight, that was a prescription for a problem unless the two parties came to some arrangement that satisfied both. I was used to running the show, so was he. And two of us couldn't do it at the same time. But at least we understand that now.
Nowadays, Levin is more interested in looking forward; he becomes most engaged when talking about finding ways for tech to serve health care. He cites the trauma team at Orlando Regional Medical Center, who recounted how many patients arrived without doctors having information about their injuries.
There are several companies now that are doing data transmission. When a first responder puts you in an ambulance, there's a transmission of data to the hospital that you're going to so they know before you even arrive what's happening. The use of data to monitor, diagnose, get your genetic makeup: All that has to change. Health care is a huge business. It's also very complicated because you have government regulation and government insurance. But we're going to change it. We're going to disrupt it in a positive way with digital communication, data transmission, genome mapping. I can't think of a better purpose to apply technology to.
As for his own battle with Parkinson's — he displays a slight tremor — he judges himself "fortunate." After suffering falls when he was first diagnosed, he has retaught himself to walk. And, privately, Levin also counsels others who seek him out about how to handle the disease.
I was trained not to show my emotions. You couldn't tell by looking at me what I was thinking because I was an ace negotiator. I mean, life was a poker game. What a terrible thing. So I don't let Parkinson's dominate my life. It's chronic, but aging is chronic. That's why I'm also quite interested in working with people who are aging. It's all a question of outlook. The most important thing is your belief system — to have some purpose, some understanding of who you are. That's why I'd love to open a treatment center that treats everybody in the world. Not just for addiction or depression or mental health issues or Alzheimer's. Everybody needs help.
This story first appeared in the July 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.