Michael Ovitz Apologizes For "Unbridled Ambition": "I Was Myopic In My Drive"

Michael Ovitz
Mark Von Holden/Getty Images for Kimberly Ovitz

The former CAA chairman offered repeated mea culpas in his first public conversation with former partner Ron Meyer.

Anyone expecting fireworks in the public reunion of former CAA chairman Michael Ovitz and his one-time partner Ron Meyer would have been sorely disappointed Thursday night at the Live Talks Los Angeles event at the Directors Guild of America, where the two men spoke about their relationship and the company they built, as well as the issues that drove them apart.

But Ovitz, 69, who has not had a major involvement in the entertainment business since he was forced out as president of the Walt Disney Co. in 1997, less than two years after exiting CAA, extended multiple olive branches to Meyer, 72, now vice chairman of NBCUniversal. Once best friends, the two men have barely spoken in years.

“When I started building those kinds of [other business] relationships,” said Ovitz, “I didn’t realize I was sacrificing relationships that were actually more important to me, because I was completely engrossed in what I was doing. I wish I [had a close adviser to caution me], but I didn’t.”

Speaking before a packed audience with heavy numbers of agents in attendance, Ovitz and Meyer spent much of the conversation —moderated by James Andrew Miller, the author of the recent oral history Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency — outlining their early strategy in leaving the William Morris Agency to form CAA in the mid-1970s. For the first hour of their 1-hour-45-minute talk, they reminisced, often uneasily, about their close working relationship and the foundation of their success.

It was only deep into their conversation that the talk became more personal. “Now that I’m an old man with a cane — temporarily — you look back and you have to always say to yourself, ‘What could you have done differently?’ ” said Ovitz, who arrived walking with a cane following a recent surgery. “We were on such a roll, in every aspect of the business, that I was oblivious and insensitive to a lot of the people issues. And the reason was, there weren’t enough hours in the day. I was flying [around the world for] 600 hours a year to do these deals. The economics were huge for us. It helped us. And I was basically myopic in my drive.”

Meyer acknowledged his own share of responsibility for the strain that emerged between them from the late 1980s on, while never openly accepting Ovitz’s apology.

Noting that he felt “disenfranchised” in their friendship, he added: “I did not tell Mike that I was unhappy. I felt that if I confronted Mike, I just felt he wouldn’t have handled it well. It would put the place on tilt, and I really felt there was a much bigger picture, and so it was easier to shine it on that to deal with it. The good news was always much better than the bad news. You had to subjugate your ego and move on. It was easier to shine it on and not make an issue. Stuff builds up and I allowed it to build up. Mike, in his insensitivity sometimes, wouldn’t have noticed it. Shit happens. Relationships get soured. Things go wrong.”

Each man noted the other’s qualities, though Ovitz was notably more effusive, calling Meyer “selfless” and observing how everybody liked him.

When Miller asked Ovitz to explain his “unbridled ambition,” he responded: “It was more than unbridled. But winning is not everything. [Former Warner Bros. executive] Ted Ashley said to me, ‘You know, Michael, you could do your seven days [of work a week], but if you cut back 10 percent, no one would know the difference.’ He stopped, and I looked at him, and it went in one ear and out the other. And he said, ‘You could even cut back 15 percent and no one would know difference.’ What I realized later on in life was that he was right, but I didn’t realize it at the time.”

Asked to name the “psychic income” — the moments on the job that had brought him the greatest joy — Ovitz stressed the internal pleasures of developing strategy and working with his colleagues, and particularly Meyer.

He also recalled the Oscars in 1989, when he was thanked five separate times by five powerful people the night that Rain Man won — though later he realized to his surprise how many people also blamed him for favoritism when he ran into the evening’s losers at the Governors Ball. “For some reason, [they] imputed to us that maybe we had helped Rain Man,” he said, “which was completely idiotic.”

He also fondly remembered making a secret arrangement with Kate Capshaw to “kidnap” her husband Steven Spielberg and take him to a real-life movie theater the night that Jurassic Park opened, then marveling at his client’s reaction.

Meyer, by contrast, said he loved being an agent, but toward the end kept feeling that the partners were 20 years into a 10-year plan. After repeated offers by major studios to hire Ovitz — which would have led to a new career for each man and untold sums of money — Meyer says he was crushed when talks for Ovitz to go to Universal fell through. At that point, he said, he told Ovitz he knew he would be leaving CAA. “I decided I was going to do something else,” he said.

But when Meyer took the job at Universal that Ovitz had spurned, Ovitz was devastated.

“I felt like I was going through a divorce from my male wife,” he said. “It was a traumatic period for me. I was blind as a bat and insensitive about certain things around me. I was just all business all the time. I had no idea that he had years of not being happy. I think we also both were getting a little burned out. I had no idea that he had issues. I was trying to crank out the different business things. I was not paying attention to the home court. When Ron decided to go, I actually couldn’t picture working in the agency business without my partner, [though] it took me a long time to get to that point.”

Ovitz’s anger led him to make what he called a “big, big mistake” and snatch up a piece of Malibu property that Meyer had been eyeing. It was the final straw in their relationship. Both Meyer and Ovitz seemed extremely ill-at-ease when asked about the matter, which drew rumblings within the audience.

“It’s really simple and uncomplicated,” said Ovitz, after a hesitation. “I was pissed off. I made a mistake. Shouldn’t have done what I did. I shouldn’t have bought the property — and when I did I should have just given it to him when he called me. It was a giant, giant mistake on my part, and one of the reasons I did it was, I didn’t have him to advise me [not to].” That comment drew laughter. “It was me. It had nothing to do with him. I was pissed off. I was upset. I was getting a divorce from someone [Meyer] I didn’t want a divorce from.”

He added: “Getting old sucks. But one thing that’s good about it is: you kind of look back and realize places where you could have made some changes, [though] you can’t do anything about it.”

Veteran CAA insiders including Sandy Climan, Rick Nicita, Paula Wagner, Adam Fields and Mike Menchell were all in attendance, as was Meyer’s close friend, attorney Howard Weitzman, and former DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg. Few major agents from rival agencies could be spotted, though WME’s Paul Haas and Ari Greenburg were both present.

The evening ended without audience questions, when Miller asked the two men, if they each had $100 million to invest, would they put it in CAA or WME? Both dodged a direct answer, singing each agency’s talents. But Ovitz — who recently took a jab at his old home when he heaped praise on WME’s Ari Emanuel — said “I have a soft spot for CAA.”