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From Mailroom to Mega-Agent: Michael Ovitz Becomes Disney President

August 15, 1995 GMT

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Even by Hollywood’s bloated standards, the deal-making power of talent agent Michael Ovitz is mythical.

He has inked entertainment deals and record-setting mergers with price tags surpassing the gross national product of entire countries.

Ovitz, 48, chairman and co-founder of Creative Artists Agency, latest deal brings him to a billion-dollar empire built on fairy tales and a talking mouse.

Hollywood’s most respected or reviled power broker on Monday was named president of Walt Disney Co. _ a role he will assume Oct. 1.


In his new job, the mail room clerk-turned-talent mogul will oversee films, theme parks, consumer products (those cash cow items including ``Pocohantas″ dolls and ``Little Mermaid″ bed sheets), plus Capital Cities-ABC, when the merger of the No. 1 network and Disney is complete.

Ovitz will report to one of his best friends, Disney chairman and chief executive officer Michael Eisner.

``As far as I’m concerned we’ll be interchangeable,″ Eisner said Monday. ``Frankly, instead of having two arms and two eyes, we now have four arms and four eyes.″

What happens to Ovitz’s old job is not clear. CAA, the top but eroding talent house to more than 1,200 artists, did not return phone messages left Monday.

``He is certainly more that a talent agent,″ said Northwest Airlines co-chairman Al Checci, a friend. ``And in a large part he has been doing what it takes to build a large entertainment company. He was just doing it for other people.″

Five years ago, in what is considered his biggest deal, Ovitz helped put together the $6.59 billion merger of Japan’s Matsushita and MCA-Universal studios. His reported take was $40 million.

He also was part of Sony Corp.’s $3.4 billion acquisition of Columbia Pictures Entertainment in 1989.

After the Matsushita deal, when Seagram Co. stepped forward to buy MCA-Universal, Ovitz himself was a top candidate for studio chief. But the deal fell apart. Ron Meyer, Ovitz’s alter-ego at CAA and an agency co-founder, got the job.

Ovitz was left to head an agency that, though still No. 1, faces increasing encroachment from the spirited competitors such as International Creative Management and the upstart United Talent Agency.

Soft-spoken, boyish-looking and married to the same woman for more than 20 years, Mike Ovitz and his wife, Judy, have three children and live near O.J. Simpson’s infamous Rockingham estate in Brentwood. His CAA salary has been estimated at $35 million a year.

He founded CAA in 1975 with four fellow William Morris Agency defectors _ Meyer, Bill Haber, Mike Rosenfield. and Rowland Perkins.

Using their wives for secretaries and card tables for desks, the quintet fearlessly wooed actors, writers and directors.

Ovitz reportedly was the most fearless, sending flowers or chicken soup, while making sure his relationship extended to the client’s financial and legal advisors, on whose advice the client depends.

Born in Chicago but raised in the San Fernando Valley, Ovitz went to high school with junk-bond king Michael Milken and had a crush on a cheerleader named Sally Field.

He went to UCLA, majored in premed, but dropped plans to be a doctor after getting a job as tour guide for Universal Studios. He went to 20th Century Fox after that, and the William Morris talent agency after that, landing in the mail room and working his way up.

At CAA, his client list eventually included Kevin Costner, Robin Williams, Tom Cruise and Barbra Streisand. He is credited, and lambasted, for pushing the practice of ``packaging″ (if you want a certain star, you must use a certain director, or a certain writer) into multi-million contracts that priced smaller filmmakers out of the business.

One of Ovitz’ most bitter disputes was with Jeffrey Katzenberg, who quit Disney this year when it became apparent he wasn’t getting the president’s job.

Katzenberg has accused Ovitz of hurting his dealings with popular celebrities. Though the two have reportedly mended fences, it is worth noting that Ovitz, true to his tenacious reputation, ended up with the job Katzenberg wanted.

The president’s office has been empty since April 1994, when Frank Wells was killed in a helicopter crash. Katzenberg later joined Steven Spielberg and David Geffen to form a studio they optimistically call DreamWorks.

But it is Ovitz’s high-priced clients and his ability to attract money that makes him so attractive to Disney, a studio well-known for stinginess, industry observers said.

``I think it’s a major positive for Walt Disney,″ said entertainment analyst Jill Krutick of Smith Barney Harris Upham. ``We think it will be a magnet for attracting some high-priced talent ... They have been moving in that direction, and we think this will help them jump-start that process.″