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Example of How Friends, Business Didn't Mix

December 13, 1996|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They were known as "The Two Michaels" and they regarded themselves as best friends.

Michael Ovitz and Michael Eisner met in the early 1970s when Ovitz, a William Morris agent, pitched a game show to Eisner, then vice president of daytime programming at ABC. Though Eisner didn't take the show, he was among the first to line up behind CAA, throwing a luncheon for the five partners when the company formed in 1975.

Four years later, Ovitz put together an ABC sitcom called "A New Kind of Family"--co-written by Margie Gordon and Jane Eisner, Michael's wife. Since then, the Eisners and the Ovitzes have gone on biking and skiing vacations together. When Eisner had quadruple bypass surgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in 1994, Ovitz took on the role of gatekeeper, monitoring all visitors and calls.

However, the relationship was put to the test when Ovitz left the agency ranks for the Disney presidency in October 1995. And though a chasm between the two had been rumored for months, the finality of Thursday's split dominated the conversation among Hollywood's elite.

The rupture highlights the very nature of show-business relationships.

"Hollywood friendships are unique unto themselves," said producer Mark Johnson, a 12-year CAA client who turned out "Tin Men" and "Good Morning, Vietnam" for Disney. "Again and again, we see people who can't work together or deals getting in the way. In a bottom-line-oriented town where everyone is encouraged to look out for themselves, I'm not sure how deep these waters actually run."

Everything in Hollywood is built on relationships, and this one obviously didn't work out, said Pat Kingsley, whose PMK public relations agency represents clients such as Tom Cruise and Demi Moore. "Business and friendship are two different realms--especially when, in the former, one is subservient to the other. Ovitz was forced to find his rhythm in a glass house where everyone was watching his every move. The pressure had to have been unbearable."

Some compared the situation to a bad marriage in which neither party was entirely at fault. Ovitz, they said, could have been less heavy-handed during his first year on the job. And if Eisner's wife hoped Ovitz would ease some of the load, the chairman himself found it hard to let go.

"Eisner isn't one for delegating," said an executive at a rival studio. "He likes to make all the decisions himself."

One studio executive said Ovitz was never given authority over legal or business affairs, unlike his much-revered predecessor, Frank Wells, who died in a helicopter crash in 1994.

Eisner has always been stingy with power and praise when it comes to his senior executives, veteran Disney watchers said.

"Eisner treated Ovitz no differently than he treated [former studio chief] Jeffrey Katzenberg, [former Disney Studios President] Rich Frank and Frank Wells," said a former Disney higher-up. "But if Wells chalked it up to 'That's Michael,' Ovitz had a thinner hide. He spent over a year figuring out what he was going to do. Since Disney had great depth of operating management, this wasn't a company in trouble he could try to bail out."

But Kingsley said Ovitz "has nine lives"--and few in town are counting him out.

If he were a betting man, Johnson said, he'd put his money on his former agent. "Ovitz never failed at anything," he said. "Just as you don't judge a director by his last picture, you judge the man by his entire body of work."

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