Michael Ovitz reflects on his improbable journey to become one of Hollywood's most high-powered agents, how he lost and found himself, and how he reinvented his life in the wake of it all.
Book titles range from the annoyingly abstruse to the awkwardly on-the-nose. And then every so often you come across one like Who is Michael Ovitz?—a title that does the rare feat of striking with simplicity at the pulsing undercurrent that permeates its subject.
Who is Michael Ovitz? is first an apt question for the public at large, fans of such films as Rain Man, Jurassic Park, Gandhi, Goodfellas and Ghostbusters, who likely have no clue as to the crucial man behind the movies.
Who is Michael Ovitz? is also something that has tipped the tongues of burgeoning actors and artists seeking to wrap their heads around a talent agent who often seems more a mosaic of Hollywood lore and legend.
Who is Michael Ovitz? is finally, well, a riddle Ovitz himself has studied for years.
Ovitz was raised in the San Fernando Valley of California, the son of a Seagram’s salesman who longed to open his own liquor store. Again and again, Ovitz’s father told told him about the merits of being in charge of his own domain and, thus, his own destiny. Meanwhile, Ovitz’s grandmother would imbue him with tales of his own possibility: that he could have a better future than his father. Whether or not these voices in his head played into it, as a kid Ovitz got a paper route. He hustled lemonade. He worked.
Early exposure to the universe of entertainment followed. As Ovitz details in his new memoir, his dad would occasionally pack the family up and ferry them off to Las Vegas, where they’d rent a $35 room at the Sands and see shows for the weekend.
Back home, at 9, he wandered a few blocks from where he lived and snuck into Howard Hughes’ RKO Pictures lot. From the actors in costume to the high-tech gear that abounded on the sets, his mind was blown. Later, as a teenager he got a job leading tours on Universal Studios’ backlot, where he obsessively absorbed every fact and detail he could, and fashioned himself into the company’s top tour guide capable of regurgitating his knowledge back at eager, thrilled guests. He took his act to 20th Century Fox and piloted the tour program at the company, bouncing back and forth between the studio and UCLA, where he was majoring in psychology, all the while outearning his father, pursuant to his grandmother’s prophecies.
After school, likely to no one’s actual surprise, Ovitz tried to figure out his way into the industry and applied for a job in the mailroom of William Morris, where he told the head of talent that he’d learn everything he needed to become an agent in three months—and if he couldn’t, well, he’d pay them back every dime he had earned. Soon he was out of the mailroom and working for a top William Morris executive, and then he found himself as a junior agent, picking up clients that would go on to have legendary Hollywood careers: Barry Levinson, Rob Reiner, Penny Marshall.
At the time, he considered himself “affable and considerate.” He and fellow agent Ron Meyer eventually broke off to start their own shop, Creative Artists Agency, where they built the business from the ground up—and where Ovitz and Meyer began refining burgeoning personas they had developed: good cop and bad cop.
Ovitz was the bad cop.
He and his team hustled mercilessly to forge their empire. And Ovitz, in his role, fostered a hard reputation.
“I was a Terminator,” he recounts. “When we built Creative Artists Agency, I’d get banged around, hurled through a wall, plaster dust exploding everywhere … and then I’d climb out from the rubble, red eyes glaring, and hurl my opponents through the wall even harder than they’d hurled me.”
Their work was indeed the stuff of legend: The firm never closed. They’d fight for their clients til the ends of the Earth, offering them not just film roles, but valuable services and appointments, luxurious gifts (Ovitz once handed the keys to his Ferrari over to Sylvester Stallone after the actor said he liked it). Sure, they could make your career—but they could also make your life itself better. And if all hell broke loose, well, they’d fix it.
Their client roster bloomed into a veritable Who’s Who: De Niro. Pacino. Madonna. Seinfeld. Scorsese. Spielberg. Kubrick. Streep. Cruise. Clapton. Letterman. Newman.
Meanwhile, Ovitz and his firm pioneered the concept of packaging an entire film using their talent, and then offering it to studios—flipping the industry paradigm on its head, and dramatically lessening the totalitarian authority the major houses exercised over films. The innovation subsequently led to some of the 20th century’s most notable flicks, including many of those mentioned at the beginning of this article.
But even that wasn’t enough. Ovitz and co. continued to charge forward, scoring a major coup and shaking up the advertising world by winning Coca-Cola’s business and launching the brand’s iconic polar bear campaign. After, CAA broke into other industries, all the while remaining obsessively loyal to their top film clients.
And it took a toll.
Ovitz had a “ruminative, vulnerable” side. But he bricked that up like a wall to the outside world. He gave all of his clients, all of his people, everything he had, as the unshakable agent who always delivered. And he did it, as was the company’s way, 24/7. As anyone who has spent time being a chameleon knows, when you’re something else for any meaningful length of time, you eventually forget who you are.
“Because I couldn’t afford to be human all day long—because I had to seem interested and attentive and farseeing and wise with everyone—it made me less human over time,” he writes. “I became insensitive, impatient, someone to be avoided if at all possible.”
Ovitz had seemingly crafted himself into an objectively unpleasant person, prone to the petty and the spiteful, and with the resources to truly ruin someone’s day if he so desired. And he terrified people.
Exhausted and seeking a way out of the cage he had built for himself, he devised a plan to work in the for-profit sector for a few more years before turning his attention elsewhere, and accepted Michael Eisner’s offer to take the helm of Disney alongside him—which he has said Eisner was trying to orchestrate for some time. It proved to be a disaster, as this episode of Design Matters details, and Ovitz soon found himself forced out of the company. And then, his opponents emerged to take him on and take him out.
“In 20 years I went from a complete unknown, to a comer, to being hailed as the most powerful man in Hollywood. After a few years of that, I became the most feared man in town. And once I left CAA, when it was safe for everyone to vent, I became the most hated,” he writes.
After starting a new agency and battling it out with the industry—at a cost of millions—Ovitz did a hard shift in his life and turned his focus to Silicon Valley, where he has forged a wildly successful second act, first with LoudCloud, and later with tech entrepreneurs Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz.
And perhaps most key, he seems to have sought to return to himself. To leave the persona in the past. To grow.
Today, having never met the Ovitz that struck both horror and elation into innumerable Hollywood hearts of the ’80s and ’90s, it’s hard to picture that agent of yesteryear. He projects elegance with a gentlemanly sheen. If anything, he comes across as sweet. All words that might have seemed blasphemous to the hard-edged agent in his prime.
One wonders if today he looks back upon his past with remove and the same wonderment he felt gazing upon the Howard Hughes backlot. Another universe.
Ovitz serves as a reminder that you can indeed craft the person that you are—and a dire warning about what you craft. (As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”)
Perhaps Ovitz’s most important lesson, though: In life, there are multiple acts.
So who is Michael Ovitz?
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief