Michael Ovitz.
Michael Ovitz.
Image: Getty Images / Pat Crowe Ii / Bloomberg

“Vindictive? Are you kidding me?” I have just asked Michael Ovitz about his treatment of enemies during the 20 years he spent as Hollywood’s super-agent. Creative Artists Agency, the all-conquering talent group he co-founded, had the biggest roster of A-list clients, representing everyone from Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise to Barbra Streisand and Madonna. It also had immense power: the old Tinseltown phrase “you’ll never eat lunch in this town again” could have been written for those who crossed it. “It was absolutely vindictive,” he concedes. How did he justify it? “My job was to make the trains run on time.”

We are in Hamasaku, a swanky sushi restaurant he owns on the west side of Los Angeles. A devotee of Japanese food, he used to frequent another LA spot called Matsuhisa, and grew so fond of it that he introduced Robert De Niro (a CAA client, naturally) to its owner: the star and the chef then launched the Nobu restaurant chain together, opening sites in Manhattan’s Tribeca and London’s Park Lane. Hamasaku isn’t easy to find, pushed back off the street in a slightly shabby shopping precinct (Angelenos call them “strip malls”), wedged next to a dry cleaner and coffee shop — and underneath a place that offers massages for $45.

We are meeting to discuss his memoir, which charts his journey from a culture-free suburban childhood in the nearby San Fernando Valley (“I didn’t go to a museum until I was 17 years old”) to the summit of pre-#MeToo-era Hollywood and then his dethroning in 1997 after a short, unhappy, yet extremely lucrative stint as president of Walt Disney.

In person, at least, he gives the impression of having lightened up since his Hollywood heyday, when he wrapped himself in mystery, leaving premieres and parties by the back door and buying the rights to pictures taken of him to prevent their reuse. Living with his partner, Jimmy Choo co-founder Tamara Mellon, and her daughter, he still has his trademark floppy hair and gap-toothed smile. But these days, in a nod to his new incarnation as an adviser to tech companies, he wears a jacket and sneakers — de rigueur attire for Silicon Valley warriors — rather than the sharply tailored suits he wore at CAA.

In his 20 years at the agency, it assembled hit after hit, including Jurassic Park, Tootsie, Goodfellas and Dances with Wolves. He talks about the agency as though describing a military campaign (he is a keen student of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War). “When I was at CAA, I had a singular mission, which was to win at all costs,” he says. “We were ultra-competitive and we were in a service business but my thesis was that we weren’t selling a product. We were selling and putting together people’s dreams ... if we showed a weak link then we would be vulnerable. Vulnerability was a sin.” Gordon Gekko himself couldn’t have put it better.

It is a hot day in LA and the lunchtime traffic is bumper-to-bumper on Santa Monica Boulevard. We are sitting on a long table set aside for Ovitz — he entertained Peter Thiel, the billionaire Facebook investor, here the other night — and he asks if there is any sushi I don’t like. When I say no, he orders two Omakase menus. “It’s the chef’s choice,” he says. “They just start making food until you’re so full you can’t eat any more.” I have to lay out the ground rules of a Lunch with the FT, telling him I will be paying even though we are in his restaurant. “We’ll negotiate,” he says, ever the agent.

As the waitress pours us green tea, he explains that the memoir evolved from an earlier idea about a book on deals. He played a leading role in the arrival of Japanese companies in Hollywood three decades ago, advising Sony on its 1989 purchase of Columbia Pictures and the sale a year later of Lew Wasserman’s MCA (later renamed Universal, and now part of Sky’s new owner Comcast) to Matsushita. Advising Japanese buyers was a strategic move, he explains. “If the studios are in trouble and going to go out of business, we lose leverage and our clients lose jobs. But if we can bring people in to buy the studios, not only do clients continue to get jobs but we’re the people talking to the owners.”

Two bowls of sashimi are delivered to our table. Taking a delicate piece of tuna, I ask if writing the book was cathartic. It was a chance, he concedes, to look back at failures as well as successes, acknowledging that he has had plenty of both. It describes how he broke into Hollywood via the mailroom at the William Morris Agency — a route taken by Barry Diller, David Geffen and other Hollywood bigwigs. Frustrated that the firm was too passive, he left in 1974 with a friend — Ron Meyer, now the vice-chairman of Comcast’s NBC Universal — and three other agents to start CAA.

Together they slowly built an empire, starting in television and moving into films, with the aim of representing every significant writer, director and star in town: “no conflict, no interest” was his mantra. It was a radically different model to what had come before. “Agents traditionally fielded orders, so if I was your agent and someone had a job, they’d call me and ask for you,” he says. “Or they’d tell me they had an assignment and, if you happened to be available, I’d pitch you.” Agencies were like “clearing-houses”.

In a fit of pique, Ovitz bought a $5.5m Malibu house that his co-founder Ron Meyer had told him he wanted to buy. They didn’t talk again for 20 years

“But that was archaic. You’re a writer, you’re loaded with ideas ... why don’t we take those ideas and add elements to them and then sell the whole thing and let you control it? Why would we just wait to answer the phone?”

Agents took on a more central role in Hollywood after CAA’s rise to power, assembling the composite parts of a film or television project before taking the “package” of script, star and director to the studios. The book opens with an account of how he put Rain Man together, bringing the script to CAA client Dustin Hoffman and putting him in the lead role opposite Tom Cruise (another client) with Barry Levinson (yet another client) directing. After delays in production, the film won the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay and Actor, with Hoffman and Levinson thanking Ovitz from the stage as they picked up their awards. In a town built on ego and anxiety there is no greater proof of self-worth.

Only a year earlier, two of Meyer’s clients, Michael Douglas and Cher — “people he thought of as great friends”, as Ovitz writes in the book, failed to mention him in their acceptance speeches. Meyer, he writes, “was devastated”.

A plate of toro carpaccio sushi has arrived: it is a delicious cut of fatty tuna and, before devouring it, I ask about his relationship with Meyer. He reaches for another military metaphor. “When you’re in the foxhole with someone, that’s when relationships are made.” He says the two were as close as brothers, but they fell out spectacularly towards the end of his time at the agency in the mid-1990s: Meyer took a job at Universal that Ovitz had coveted and, in a fit of pique, Ovitz then bought a $5.5m Malibu house that was being sold by Berry Gordy, the Motown founder — one that Meyer had told him he wanted to buy. They didn’t talk again for 20 years.

He contacted Meyer a couple of years ago. “I hired a psychiatrist as a mediator,” he says — probably not something that anyone outside of La La Land would ever contemplate. The sessions seemed to do the trick. “I just had lunch with him the day before yesterday,” he says confidently. I cannot help but wonder whether this rapprochement will be affected by the book’s revelations.

Ovitz’s memoir reveals a master manipulator. Sometimes he was fast and loose with the truth to keep clients happy, such as the time he sent Barry Levinson’s wife flowers from the set of Rain Man, pretending they were from the director so she wouldn’t feel neglected. When the late Michael Crichton was suffering from depression, Ovitz “had the agents tell the community that he was working on an original idea. Was I lying? I guess so. Did I do the right thing? Absolutely.” Crichton went on to write Jurassic Park.

But the book also reveals him as a serious bearer of grudges. Over the years, he feuded with David Geffen, the billionaire media mogul: Ovitz reveals in the book that he once went to Geffen’s office threatening to “beat the living shit” out of him. On another occasion he vented to a Vanity Fair reporter that Geffen was part of a Hollywood “gay mafia”. He regrets both incidents, he tells me, and reveals the two recently made up over a civil lunch. Fortunately there was no psychiatrist required this time.

CAA launched a new generation of stars, and we have Ovitz to thank, if that is the right word, for launching the career of Steven Seagal, an action hero so wooden his performances could have been hewn directly from a tree trunk. Ovitz is a keen martial arts practitioner — his Gordon Gekko-style morning routine involved waking at the crack of dawn for a head-clearing training session before tackling calls with his clients. Seagal was one of his teachers, capable of disarming multiple assailants with a few karate chops. Naturally, Ovitz put him in the movies.

We are on to our third course, a selection of nigiri made with yellowtail, sea bass and other pieces of succulent fish. I ask Ovitz about Scientology, which looms over much of Hollywood, given that Tom Cruise, one of its biggest adherents, was a CAA client. CAA hosted Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s wedding reception. “We also helped with their divorce. Not easy,” he says. Other books have pointed to the church’s overbearing role on the Cruise-Kidman relationship. What was his experience of Scientology? “Hollywood’s a lonely, difficult place. I think it’s very easy for anything structured that comes in that has some kind of a stimulus, response, reward mechanism to work. If you ever read Dianetics, it’s not a bad book.” He sounds like a convert. “Me? No, I don’t think so.”

As we polish off the nigiri, dipping the pieces into soy sauce and wasabi, I press him on his round of recent bridge-building. He may have made amends with Meyer and Geffen, but he is no longer in touch with the former colleagues at CAA who succeeded him at the top of the agency when he left in 1995 for his ill-fated 14-month spell at Disney. He had been brought into the fold by then chief executive Michael Eisner, but it quickly became apparent that he had made a terrible mistake: in the book he accuses Eisner of undermining him; Eisner, by contrast, wrote memos to other employees calling Ovitz a “psychopath” and accusing him of lying. Ovitz was eventually fired and writes of the distress it caused him. Presumably the $130m he was paid for his 14 months at the Mouse House helped soften the blow. And Eisner? In what was becoming a familiar trope in our conversation, the two have not spoken since. Eisner is not alone: in his prime, Ovitz had enemies across Hollywood, and his book is likely to create more.

I press him on the breakdown of his relationship with former CAA colleagues as the waitress arrives with a fourth course, a baked crab roll. A group he refers to as the “Young Turks”, made up of Bryan Lourd, Kevin Huvane, Richard Lovett and David O’Connor, took over CAA when Ovitz moved to Disney. Relations soured when he left Disney and started a new management and production company, Artists Management Group — and signed the late Robin Williams, a CAA client. Barry Levinson, his friend and oldest client, also signed up. The reaction from CAA was swift: clients were told that if they hired AMG, they would lose CAA as their agents. Williams quickly returned to CAA, as did Levinson. You can guess whether Levinson and Ovitz are still on speaking terms ...

If there’s one thing that I learned, you have to forgive and you have to forget. Those are not two things that I ever did in my life.

Why hasn’t he patched things up with his former colleagues? “You’d be best off interviewing them and asking where the animus comes from. It’s been extremely disappointing. I always thought they could rise above it but they never were able to.” People I spoke to at CAA dispute Ovitz’s portrayal of himself in the book. “We know who he is,” one said.

Ovitz says CAA’s management should have taken the firm more aggressively into other areas, following the example of Endeavor, a rival agency started in 1995 by Ari Emanuel, which has gone on a deal splurge, buying William Morris, IMG and the Ultimate Fighting Championship among other businesses. “Their thesis is very similar to the thesis we had [at CAA], which is to expand into new areas that can service clients.”

And yet CAA has prospered in the 23 years since he left. It had 250 employees in 1995; these days it has more than 2,000. It has also built the biggest talent representation business in sport, expanded internationally and developed a marketing services arm, while continuing to represent A-listers such as George Clooney and Brad Pitt.

In 2014 the private equity firm TPG took a majority stake in CAA. “I was sitting in San Francisco in a meeting and one of the guys from TPG told me he owned CAA. It was like sticking a needle in my eye. That CAA allowed someone to come in and buy most of their business is beyond comprehension.”

He asks if I want a fifth course. Despite being about to burst at the seams, I say yes, partly because the shrimp tempura, crab, spicy tuna, avocado and asparagus roll sounds delicious. When it arrives, I ask him how Hollywood has changed in the years since he left CAA. “I’m sad because I feel we experienced the last great part of the entertainment business. How do you compete with these giant franchise movies? How do you put a movie out like Stand by Me or Gandhi? Who’s a movie star now? There are no stars any more.” There is no agent with the power that Ovitz once had, either.

The bill arrives and I succeed in grabbing it. After I pay, the man who ran Hollywood and lost friends along the way offers this insight: “If there’s one thing that I learned, you have to forgive and you have to forget. Those are not two things that I ever did in my life.”

- Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018

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