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Ovitz Blasts Eisner, Disney

The company's former president, in a court deposition, paints a portrait of discord.

May 15, 2004|James Bates | Times Staff Writer

Former Walt Disney Co. President Michael Ovitz testified in a court deposition that the man who inherited his job, Bob Iger, once wanted to quit in frustration because he bristled under Disney Chief Executive Michael Eisner's "micromanaging."

Ovitz said he later calmed Iger down with a token of the company's appreciation: a stainless steel Breguet Aeronavale watch worth $7,000. Ovitz, who said he got Eisner's approval for the purchase, also noted that he got a break on the timepiece, paying "maybe $3,500."

The testimony last November in Beverly Hills is included in court records made public in a shareholder lawsuit filed in Delaware, in which Ovitz defended his ill-fated 14-month tenure from 1995 to 1996. Ovitz told of internal backbiting and frustrations that he said prevented him from accomplishing his goals at Disney before he was fired.

He compared the experience to "a thousand daggers" and said, "Every time I went to do something, someone pulled the rug out from under me."

Throughout the deposition, Ovitz repeatedly mentioned having to use the negotiating skills he developed as Hollywood's top agent. With Disney, he said, he had to soothe egos and mediate a variety of differences people had with Eisner and the company.

Among the others whom Ovitz says he had to keep happy were current film chief Dick Cook, the team at Disney's Imagineering operation, comedian Robin Williams and Tim Allen, then star of the hit Disney TV series "Home Improvement."

Allen, Ovitz said, "was about to walk off the set" before Ovitz held a dinner party for him at his home and gave Allen a print from artist Roy Lichtenstein.

Iger declined to comment. However, Disney spokeswoman Zenia Mucha said of Ovitz's testimony: "This is completely ridiculous. These events did not occur."

In a separate deposition, Eisner blamed Ovitz for Iger's difficulties and called Ovitz "a one-man show" who had lost Iger's respect.

Ovitz testified that Eisner did not feel Iger was the right executive to continue running ABC after Disney bought the network in 1995. Eisner, Ovitz said, "was very concerned about Mr. Iger's ability creatively."

Iger also was unhappy, according to Ovitz. He recounted having dinner with Iger and his wife, broadcaster Willow Bay, in New York: "For three hours Mr. Iger sat and told me how difficult it was for him to work with Mr. Eisner because Mr. Eisner was micromanaging him and he wasn't used to that.

"It became very clear that he was thinking about leaving the company," Ovitz said.

Company sources disputed Ovitz's version of events. They said that Iger had not fallen out of favor, as evidenced by his promotion as Disney president and his signing of a five-year contract.

Rumors of tensions between Eisner and Iger have circulated for years, especially in recent months as the ABC network continues to falter.

Disney has said there are no rifts between the two executives, who believe they make a strong team.

Eisner has been under fire from shareholders, who believe he has let Disney's earnings and stock price slip in recent years.

The lawsuit is seeking money for shareholders, alleging that Ovitz's hiring and severance cost the company tens of millions.

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