“History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it,” runs the amended version of a thought once voiced by Winston Churchill. Michael Ovitz, Ron Meyer and friends must have had Churchill in mind when they decided to collaborate with James Andrew Miller on his massive oral history of the Creative Artists Agency, Powerhouse CAA: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency. It was published Tuesday by William Morrow’s Custom House imprint.
To be fair, the “untold” parts are enough to have sent some of us scurrying to Barnes & Noble to plunk down $28.47, after 20% discount, with sales tax. The book weighs in at a doorstop-sized 707 pages, plus an author’s bio.
Adam Fields’ story about calling in a bomb scare when he was Marty Baum’s assistant, to delay a plane for a producer on his way to Paris for a Peter Sellers shoot, is worth the price of admission. (Actually, you can read some of that on the back cover.)
But anyone who lived a chunk of the CAA story — from the inside, outside, or both — must be wondering: “Where’s the rest of me?”
Reaching for importance, and sticking, as oral histories must, to what people are willing to say out loud, Miller has given CAA, especially in the Ovitz years, a full Churchill. The book isn’t untrue. It just isn’t quite as messy, or as much fun, as what’s left out. (Including, as the New York Post pointed out, the voice of a top CAA partner, Bryan Lourd.)
Take the InterTalent story, somewhere around Page 228. David Greenblatt and Judy Hofflund tell how they teamed up with ICM’s Bill Block to leave CAA and start a renegade agency of their own.
“Mike went into hyper jihad mode, because for him, one of the great success stories of CAA was attracting great agents who never left,” recalls Tom Strickler, then a young Creative Artists assistant, who was fired for failing to tell his bosses that he suspected a secession was under way.
But you won’t read about what happened next.
By my recollection, there was a breathy meeting between a Los Angeles Times reporter — that would be me — and the InterTalent founders in a mid-Wilshire IHOP. Bad coffee. Sticky pancakes. Frozen orange juice. (We were waiting for the Starbucks revolution.) Strickler had disappeared, and the new partners thought he might be dead — a suicide that would leave Mike Ovitz with blood on his hands.
As it turned out, Strickler was off on some sort of lark, possibly working on a political campaign. He came back to join InterTalent, but not before I spent a week looking for his body.
Powerhouse doesn’t have an index; so name-checkers pretty much have to read it. Miller does include an 11-page “dramatis personae,” listing the hundreds of Hollywood power players, dead and alive, who figure in the story.
But, weirdly, the list doesn’t include the producer Ray Stark, who for years waged an undercover war against Ovitz. If he’s hiding in the prose, it’s deep enough to elude mere skimmers. But he wasn’t incidental.
Back when, Stark, now deceased, joined David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg in a full-blown, anti-Ovitz feud. Katzenberg doesn’t mince his few words in Powerhouse: “There is no question that Michael Ovitz is someone who consistently dealt in ways that were destructive, deceitful, and in bad faith,” he says on Page 314. Geffen is slightly kinder. “Mike presented himself as a brilliant businessman, but in fact he was not,” he says, on Page 480.
Stark, for his part, used to explain the vendetta this way: “Mike doesn’t repay his favors.” Violating that deepest of Hollywood obligations, the favor bank, was reason enough for Stark to gnaw at Ovitz, any way he could. Once, he helped engineer what was supposed to be a Forbes cover story about the feud; but the New York Times picked off some of the details, and Forbes dropped it.
One favor that didn’t get repaid, according to Hollywood table talk, was some help Stark had given Ovitz in raiding a client, Kevin Costner, from William Morris. It happened around the time Stark was shooting Revenge with Costner in Mexico; and it must have been interesting.
Stark and Ovitz had been friends. Once, Ovitz and Meyer even sent Ray a replacement penis, for one that had disappeared from a statue in his sculpture garden. “Ray, we finally found your missing dick,” read their note, more or less. Ray used to keep it (the note, not the penis) on a shelf in his screening room. But Costner, on Page 316, says it was all just business: “I didn’t want to have standard deals, and I felt like CAA and Mike would be able to get me away from them.”
There’s not much detail, either, about Ovitz’s tendency, occasionally, to overthink. I saw it happen shortly after I was introduced to him, in the mid-1980s, by Irving Azoff at a premiere party at Chasen’s. Azoff told Ovitz he should talk to me about a pending profile in the Wall Street Journal. He declined. But a few nights later, I wound up sitting behind him at another premiere, this time in Hollywood. He spotted me, and looked unhappy.
A week or two after that, in New York, Ovitz walked into the breakfast room of a mid-Manhattan hotel, and ran smack into me, with David Brown, talking about him. I later heard he thought I had someone checking his calendar, which I didn’t. But he decided to cut his losses by doing a proxy interview through a certain corporate chief executive who should have had bigger things to worry about. Hey, it worked for me.
It worked for me, too, when Ovitz, brokering the sale of MCA to Matsushita, convinced himself that Lew Wasserman was leaking details of the talks. Of course, he wasn’t. But the resulting confusion didn’t hurt our sourcing at the Los Angeles Times.
Sidney Sheinberg and Frank Price are in Miller’s cast of characters, some 500 of whom were interviewed. But neither says much about the way they fought over Price’s dealings with Ovitz, when Price ran Universal, and Sheinberg was president of its parent, MCA. “Frank is a fish who thinks he caught a fisherman,” Sidney complained, around the time of their famous shoving match in MCA’s Black Tower. But on Miller’s Page 97, Price couldn’t sound duller. “Mike and I became friends and were very supportive of each other,” he says.
This is Hollywood; so where are the drugs? “I had no idea Jay was doing cocaine,” insists Meyer, on Page 534, of a drug-addicted agent Jay Moloney, who killed himself. (But it wasn’t just Jay, and the here almost-forgotten John Belushi.)
Where’s Robert Evans? There’s a passing mention or two, by Steve Roth. But those don’t entirely explain the way he and Roth froze, then hugged, then went off to rehash old secrets when the two of them accidentally came face-to-face on the Paramount lot in the early 1990s.
But all of that is another history — and maybe one not quite so Churchillian.