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Dramatic Deal Follows a Difficult Stretch for Eisner : Profile: He says he's best when bouncing back. Now he may become the most powerful man in show business.

August 01, 1995|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Disney Chairman Michael Eisner is more than the man of the moment. By joining Disney with the top television network, Eisner would become probably the most powerful man in show business, demonstrating a competitive streak that has enabled him, more than once, to bounce back.

The Walt Disney Co.'s surprise acquisition of Capital Cities/ABC Inc. follows a difficult stretch for Eisner, who was a top-ranking executive at the network in the 1970s. In April, 1994, Frank Wells, Disney's highly respected president, died in a plane crash. Three months later, Eisner underwent heart bypass surgery. And in September, he was engaged in massive spin control when longtime studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg left the company after a bitter dispute.

"My strength is coming up with two outs in the last of the ninth," Eisner has said. "I'm very competitive. I love coming back."

There was a time when Eisner, 53, was praised for his boyish enthusiasm, self-deprecating wit and boundless energy--when the heir to Walt Disney's legacy was the symbol of all that was right with the studio. But lately, he has been a target for everything critics found wrong.

He was criticized for his ill-fated attempt to build a historical theme park in Virginia, for the $4.4-billion investment in the beleaguered Euro Disney, and for the April departure of Richard Frank, chairman of the studio's television division and at the time the company's highest-profile executive. Eisner has been painted as an excessively hands-on boss siding with bean counters rather than his creative staff. There's a massive ego at work--a man who dislikes being challenged, insiders said.

"Michael is a tough businessman," said Frank, who has yet to land a new position. "His external personality is the opposite of that presented in the negotiating room. That's part of his charm."

Eisner, colleagues agreed, is a bundle of paradoxes. A renowned workaholic able to function on only five hours sleep, he's been known to bolt out of meetings in midafternoon to watch his son at a hockey match. Educated in the classics, he's someone who follows his gut, considered to be one of the more commercial in the business. Getting pulled over by police years ago while driving a beat-up station wagon provided the inspiration for "Beverly Hills Cop." Attending Lamaze classes for the birth of a child led to ABC's "Having Babies," the highest-rated TV movie of 1976.

Still, Eisner--who received $750,000 in salary and $7.2 million in cash bonuses in fiscal 1994--argued that he is dependent on his team. "I'm not an entrepreneur who hangs out a shingle and creates something from nothing," he once said. "And ideas are like gunshots in the desert . . . they need to be heard. I want to have people running 1,000 m.p.h. when I open the gate."

Led by Eisner, Disney bucked Hollywood's inflationary trend--staking its reputation and profits on low-budget, often cookie-cutter fare, starring actors such as Nick Nolte and Bette Midler whose careers were on the wane. "Michael doesn't like to leave money on the table," said one insider who has negotiated with him.

Industry observers--though startled by Eisner's ABC move--say it is not out of character. "For Michael to run this massive corporation without a second in command is in line with his usual method of operation," one said. "Even after his surgery, there was no line of succession. It's always 'the buck stops here.' He's a master mechanic of his destiny."

The son of a Harvard lawyer who served as President Eisenhower's secretary of housing and urban development, Eisner was raised on Manhattan's Park Avenue. Weekends were spent at his grandparents' home in Bedford Hills in northern Westchester. After attending Lawrenceville Prep School, near Princeton, N.J., he enrolled in premed and literature courses at Ohio's Denison University. After graduation, he married Jane Breckenridge, a computer operator with whom he has three sons.

Television Success

Eisner's first taste of show business came with a summer job as an NBC page after his junior year. Armed with his degree, he returned to the networks, taking on a low-level position with CBS. In 1966, he was appointed assistant to the vice president at ABC and he stayed at that network for a decade. During that time, he helped lift three divisions--daytime TV, children's programming and prime-time production--from third place to first.

Barry Diller--ABC's vice president in charge of prime-time TV--left the network to become chairman of Paramount Pictures in 1974. Two years later, he called on Eisner--a man with no feature experience--to head the studio's film division. Eisner once again landed on his feet. Under his aegis, the studio released "Saturday Night Fever," "Grease," "Heaven Can Wait" and "Foul Play," which marked the emergence of what has been called Paramount's Golden Age.

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