Interviews don't come easy to Michael Ovitz.
Even in his private sanctum, flanked by a pair of colleagues, safe beneath the dual gaze of Buddha and Marilyn Monroe--totemic bits of art on a movie maker's wall--the sandy-haired president of Creative Artists Agency is wary and tense and never stops wishing the limelight would go away.
"This is not a comfortable experience for any of us," he says, his hoarse voice so low a reporter's recorder barely registers.
"We really function behind the scenes. . . . If we could convince you not to do this article, that would make us the happiest guys in town."
Apparently, however, the limelight is here to stay for CAA. With the business of Hollywood getting more attention than ever, CAA is encountering more and more curiosity about how the agency, in effect, makes movies before they get made.
Founded 14 years ago by a group of dropouts from the 90-year-old William Morris Agency, CAA has become one of the most powerful, and least understood, show business institutions since the old MCA Artists talent agency was broken up under a federal consent decree nearly 30 years ago.
The measure of CAA's strength is its list of about 600 clients, including an extraordinary concentration of "bankable elements," the big-name talent that gets films and TV shows made. The agency's directors roster--which ranges from Martin Scorsese and David Lynch on the artier side to Ron Howard, Robert Zemeckis, Sydney Pollack and Barry Levinson among the hit makers--is widely regarded as the best in Hollywood.
And its stable of stars, if starting to gray just a bit, is unmatched. Among the top names: Dustin Hoffman (last year's Oscar winner for best actor), Tom Cruise, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Sally Field, Sylvester Stallone, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Kim Basinger, Barbra Streisand, Chevy Chase, Robert De Niro and Glenn Close.
Contrary to myth, CAA doesn't control a preponderance of talent in moviedom. Despite the agency's triumph with Oscar winner "Rain Man," a pet project, three out of five recent Academy Award nominees for best actress--Sigourney Weaver, Meryl Streep and winner Jodie Foster--are represented by rival International Creative Management, which also has Eddie Murphy and Arnold Schwarzenegger. William Morris, though its movie operation is widely claimed to be sagging, still represents stars as big as Tom Hanks and Clint Eastwood; and Triad, Bauer Benedeck, Leading Artists, InterTalent and other agencies all handle important film clients.
But CAA is stronger than its competitors, and probably stronger than any studio, because of the peculiar ferocity with which the 42-year-old Ovitz and his two co-owners--actors' agent Ron Meyer, 44, and TV agent Bill Haber, 47--patrol the wide swath of Hollywood they have claimed as their territory.
As students of Japanese management techniques, they teach fellow agents to suppress individual ego, Hollywood's bane, in the service of the agency and its clients. As consummate insiders, they despise publicity and often conceal their methods from even close associates in the tiny community of deal makers.
Yet Ovitz, Meyer and Haber--after months of negotiation--agreed to discuss at least some facets of their business, largely, they say, to avoid misimpressions that might be conveyed by other sources interviewed for this story about CAA's rise to prominence.
As Ovitz sees it, CAA grew simply because it was better than others at helping the talent realize its ends. In his words: "Every client has something he wants to do. They all have a passion about it. So our job is to take the client's passion and to . . . extend it into reality."
Yet the power to make dreams a reality didn't come without some rough-and-tumble.
In the beginning, there was no talent to serve. When Ovitz, Meyer and Haber--together with Michael Rosenfeld and Rowland Perkins--left Morris to found CAA on Jan. 20, 1975, none of the big agency's stars followed immediately.
By Meyer's recollection, four clients had promised to come with them and then broke their commitments. The first of about 90 clients who did come aboard during the next year or so were solid, but hardly superstars, and they clearly reflected the fact that all five of CAA's young founders came from Morris' television department. They included Jack Barry, who produced game shows, and Bill Carrothers, who produced the "Odd Couple" and other shows, along with Rob Reiner, Sally Struthers, Ernest Borgnine, Talia Shire and Barry Levinson (the future director of "Rain Man," then a young television writer).
The agency was born almost by accident. According to Meyer, he and Ovitz, dissatisfied with their career prospects at Morris, had decided to leave independently of the others and were surprised to learn that a second secession was under way. "For about two seconds, there were two groups," he says.