UPDATE: Beverly Hills entertainment attorney Irwin Russell, whose clients included ex-Disney head Michael Eisner, Jim Henson, Theodore Geisel AKA Dr. Seuss, Joan Crawford, and Carol Burnett, died Friday of complications from leukemia. He was 87. Russell found himself in the eye of the firestorm of corporate governance criticism over the Walt Disney Company’s notorious hiring and firing of Michael Ovitz for huge sums of money. Russell’s dual role was scrutinized in a 2004 Delaware Chancery Court shareholders lawsuit and trial for being both Eisner’s personal attorney and the Disney board member who was chairman of the company’s compensation committee. Russell helped Eisner negotiate Ovitz’s 1995 Disney contract to become president and then 14 months later oversaw Ovitz’s huge $140 million payment after the Disney president’s December 1996 firing. Shareholders unsuccessfully sued over accusations Disney money was wasted because of flawed corporate governance by the directors running the company. Russell had to testify during the Delaware trial.
The NY-born Russell earned his J.D. from Harvard and represented the National Wage Stabilization Board from 1951 to 1953 before moving in and out of private practice in LA. There he repped a number of landmark biz deals including Bob Banner Associates’ Candid Camera TV show, the syndication deals of Hee Haw and Baywatch, and Henson’s deal to bring the Muppets to Sesame Street. Russell famously helped install then-ABC and Paramount veteran exec Eisner as CEO at The Walt Disney Company during the 1984 takeover as well as Frank Wells as President. He served on the Disney board himself until 2001 and continued to represent Eisner after the exec departed Disney, including at Eisner’s new Tornante shingle set up at Universal.
Said Eisner of their 40-year association: “He was able to write – and get all parties to agree to – a one-page deal, something unheard of in American business. Ethics, doing it right and being fair were embedded in his DNA. This is a deep loss for all of us.”
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