Kirk Kerkorian, Three Times the Owner of MGM, Dies at 98

Kerkorian built the original MGM Grand mega-hotel in Las Vegas in the 1970s.

The Fresno native first took control of the historic studio in 1969, then went about dismantling it before selling to Ted Turner and Giancarlo Parretti. He also made a fortune in Las Vegas real estate, casinos and hotels.

Kirk Kerkorian, the self-made billionaire who epitomized the corporate raider by buying up MGM and United Artists and then trading their names and assets in a series of complex deals, has died, MGM Resorts International confirmed Tuesday. He was 98.

Kerkorian, who also made a fortune in Las Vegas real estate, casinos and hotels, died Monday night in Los Angeles following a brief illness.

Since 1969, when he won control of MGM in a hostile takeover and proxy battle with Seagram’s Edgar Bronfman Sr., Kerkorian bought MGM twice and sold it three times, making billions of dollars along the way. He was considered a villain by much of the Hollywood community for his disassembling of the studio for personal profit, and it was said he never particularly cared for movies.

In 1981, Kerkorian purchased United Artists and its James Bond library, merging it with MGM to create MGM/UA Entertainment Co. Five years later, he sold it to Ted Turner for $1.5 billion. But just months later, Kerkorian bought back most of what he had just sold at a big discount. (Turner held on to the valuable pre-1986 MGM film library.)

Kerkorian again sold the company in 1990, this time to Italian financier Giancarlo Parretti for $1.3 billion, but he had problems with debt (a check to actor Dustin Hoffman bounced), and the French bank Credit Lyonnaise took over in 1992 amid a series of lawsuits and put up an immediate "for sale" sign. Kerkorian took back MGM/UA in 1996 and finally sold his interest for $5 billion in 2005 to a coalition that included Sony Corp., Comcast and several private-equity firms.

A former pilot who began in business by buying and selling second-hand aircraft, Kerkorian put those profits into Las Vegas as a casino pioneer and developer of mega-resorts. He owned the Desert Inn and the Strip parcel on which Caesars Palace was built by Jay Sarno in 1966, and he built the International Hotel (later the Las Vegas Hilton and now known as LVH on Paradise Road) in 1969 and the original MGM Grand (now Bally’s) in 1971.

He opened the current MGM Grand in 1993, and in 2000, his company bought Mirage Resorts out from under Steve Wynn, making Kerkorian the undisputed king of Vegas.

Forbes recently listed Kerkorian as No. 130 on its list of the wealthiest Americans, estimating his net worth at $4 billion.

“Kirk Kerkorian will be forever linked to the history and success of MGM. We know that his legacy and fighting spirit will live on through all of our future endeavors,” MGM chairman and CEO Gary Barber said in a statement.

Kerkorian was born in Fresno, Calif., on June 6, 1917, the youngest of four children. After suffering a financial reversal, the family moved to Los Angeles when he was a boy. Kerkorian dropped out of school in the eighth grade, became the Pacific amateur welterweight champion and considered a pro boxing career. But when he saw that making it in the ring was unrealistic, he turned his sights to flying.

In 1940, Kerkorian approached the owner of a flight school in the Mojave Desert adjacent to an Air Force base. The school was a combination ranch and flight-training center, and Kerkorian talked the owner into giving him flying lessons in exchange for farm work — he shoveled manure and milked cows. Within six months, he had a commercial pilot’s license and a job as a flight instructor.

Yet teaching bored him. He heard about the big money that the Canadian Air Force’s RAF Air Transport Command was paying for risky missions in World War II, paying $1,000 a trip. The missions were to fly Canadian-built Mosquito bombers from Labrador to Scotland. Only one in four made it. In 2 1/2 years with the RAF, Kerkorian flew 33 missions and saved nearly all his earnings. In July 1945, with the war over, Kerkorian moved to Vegas, where he paid $5,000 for a single-engine Cessna in which to train pilots. He quickly moved into charter transportation and relatively quickly made a small fortune in buying up surplus military airplanes for his charter/transport business.

During this period, the late 1940s and '50s, Kerkorian became known as a high roller. He was called the “Perry Como of the craps table” for the unruffled style by which he would win or lose thousands. He used profits from his air transport business to build three hotels that were at the time the largest in the world.

At the same time he was making his splash in Vegas, Kerkorian was eyeing Hollywood. He began buying stock in the floundering MGM, and by the end of 1969, he had spent about $80 million for a controlling 40 percent stake. He began to strip the revered studio of its assets, selling portions of the lot, props, costumes and memorabilia and tearing down such classic, sentimental entities as the set of Meet Me in St. Louis

By 1971, Kerkorian announced that the movie company would “embark on a significant and far-reaching diversification into the leisure field by building … the world’s largest resort hotel in Las Vegas.” That was the original MGM Grand.

The new $107 million mega-resort was named for the 1932 MGM classic film Grand Hotel. At 26 stories, the MGM Grand had 2,084 rooms, a 1,200-seat showroom and splashy amenities. When it opened on July 5, 1973, it was the largest hotel in the world. But it would be the site of the city’s biggest disaster when a November 1980 fire, ignited by an electrical problem, raged through the casino and upper floors. Eighty-five people were killed and hundreds were injured. 

During the ’70s, Kerkorian began buying up Columbia stock, eventually collecting a roughly 20 percent stake. In 1980, he tried to take control of the studio but failed; nevertheless, his business maneuverings brought him nearly $60 million in the process. Eager to buy another studio, he purchased UA in 1981 for $380 million; that studio, with a string of box-office failures, was vulnerable. Kerkorian hired producer Alan Ladd Jr. to run MGM/UA, and before long, he rattled the executive team by putting the company up for sale. In 1986, he sold to Turner, receiving $28 a share at a time when the company’s stock was selling for $9.

But Turner quickly put portions of MGM/UA back on the market, and Kerkorian paid $480 million for UA and $300 million for the MGM logo. Turner,  who wound up owning MGM/UA for just 74 days, retained the library, which included Gone With the Wind, but had sold the last big portion on the backlot, 44 acres, to Lorimar. (The lot is now in the hands of Sony.)

Kerkorian brought in Jerry Weintraub to run UA in 1986, but the producer lasted just five months in the job.

Considered uninterested in movies, Kerkorian is “credited” with making only one creative suggestion during his various reigns: He is reported to have suggested that Eddie Murphy would have been perfect as the successor to Sean Connery as Bond. In early 2000, he executed a major purge at the studio, firing nearly all the creative team except for producer/director Norman Jewison, who was at the time shooting a movie and thus “needed.”

Most recently, Kerkorian was the president/CEO of Tracinda Corp., a private holding company based in Beverly Hills. In 2012, he expressed an interest in buying a Hollywood studio.

On a personal front, the publicity shy and somewhat reclusive Kerkorian went through a rancorous divorce in 2001 when his wife of one month, 46-year-old former tennis star Lisa Bonder Kerkorian, sued him for $320,000 in monthly child support. He later had a relationship with the widow of comic Rodney Dangerfield and in 2014 wed Una Davis, whom he first dated in 2003.

Twitter: @mikebarnes4