Agent Provocateur

In recent weeks, Hollywood hearts and minds have been polarized by a single individual so controversial that virtual fisticuffs have broken out at the mere mention of his name.

No, it’s not Bill Clinton.

It’s Mike Ovitz. Again.

Washed up and shipped out to New York after his humiliation as president of Disney Co., and with his newest venture, Livent, in serious legal and financial trouble, Ovitz is plotting his return to Hollywood as a conquering hero, albeit a revenge-seeking one. Specifically, he is trying to seduce Leonardo DiCaprio’s powerful and well-liked young manager, Rick Yorn, into setting up a management business with Ovitz as boss.

No one knows better than Ovitz that being a Hollywood manager is a license to print money. Unlike agents, who are prevented by the guilds from going into production, a manager can be an adviser and a producer and a partner and anything else his heart desires. The result is a cataract of cash. There’s just one problem with Ovitz’s plan: Rick Yorn already has a boss. Two, actually – longtime managers and movie producers Keith Addis and Nick Wechsler. Addis and Wechsler recently joined forces with the New York advertising powerhouse Interpublic Group, and they’re not about to let Yorn – who has ten months left on his employment contract with Addis and Wechsler’s Industry Entertainment – go without a lot of Sturm und Drang. Will he or won’t he? Much of Hollywood is finding itself dragged into the fray as people weigh in with Yorn on Ovitz.

Ovitz pals like Warren Beatty, Sydney Pollack, Danny DeVito, and even Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman John Calley have reputedly been lobbying Yorn on Ovitz’s behalf. Calley’s purported involvement is the most surprising, but remember, before he came into the Sony camp, Calley spent some time as a not-so-happily retired entertainment executive yachting between Connecticut and Florida. Who put him back in the Business by setting him up in 1993 as chairman of a reborn United Artists? Ovitz, of course.

The other side of the brawling is being led by none other than David Geffen, Ovitz’s bête noire. It was Geffen and pals who helped unmask Ovitz’s disasters at Disney and then all but buried him in Vanity Fair. Geffen’s lack of enthusiasm for Ovitz’s talents is shared by his DreamWorks partners, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg, the latter a onetime Ovitz client. Sources tell me that Geffen directly, and other power brokers indirectly – including NBC West Coast head Don Ohlmeyer – have told Yorn to beware any deal-making with Ovitz.

Throughout his career, Ovitz’s power was the direct function of his A-list client roster. As a Hollywood pariah, Ovitz suddenly found himself unable to get into the room with many of the very people who once worshiped at the CAA altar. Ovitz didn’t like that; ergo his investment in the Toronto-based Broadway production company Livent, which, if nothing else, put him back on the front page of the New York Times. But then Livent ran into financial difficulties that saw, among other problems, the trading of its stock suspended. So, once again, Ovitz has been looking for a way to get back among the power elite.

Ovitz claims to be putting together “a new kind” of entertainment company, melding artists and athletes and the worlds of movies, television, theater, the Internet, and sports. In truth, there’s nothing new about it at all: It’s CAA, and ICM, and William Morris – only without the pesky agency-related restrictions. And the agencies are none too happy with reports that Ovitz has been saying he sees no need for any clients to have agents as long as he’s their manager.

If there’s a familiar ring to the story of Ovitz trying to induce an entertainment executive to break a contract, that’s because it was only two years ago that Ovitz pried top TV programmer Jamie Tarses away from NBC and brought her to ABC reportedly via a scheme that included accusing Ohlmeyer of sexual harassment. Not only did Tarses emerge from the fiasco as damaged goods when she arrived at the Disney-owned network, but Ohlmeyer publicly dubbed Ovitz “the Antichrist.” Within months, Ovitz had been bounced from Disney and Tarses was battling for her professional life.

In his attempt to cut Yorn loose, Ovitz is getting help from one old and one new best friend: Hollywood legal eagle Barry Hirsch, of Armstrong Hirsch Jackoway Tyerman & Wertheimer, and New York investment counselor Dana Giacchetto, the flamboyant president of the Cassandra Group. Ovitz and Yorn are both represented by Hirsch and both invest their money with Giacchetto, who counts DiCaprio not only as one of his clients but also as one of his best friends. Ovitz and the touchy-feely Hirsch – who in his off hours is a licensed family therapist – have worked together for two decades. Giacchetto, a money manager whose white cockatoo Angel is a regular appurtenance, lists Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Madonna among his clients.

Yorn is considered one of Hollywood’s nicer guys, which makes even more inexplicable to some why he would want to go into business with Hollywood’s dethroned Prince of Darkness. But Ovitz was always a signer extraordinaire, and he has gone after Yorn, who recently turned 30, in classic mogul fashion. Just for starters, there was the de rigueur summer Mediterranean cruise on Ovitz’s yacht – ninety-second on Power and Motor Yacht’s latest global list – for a wide-eyed Yorn, along with his sister-in-law and management-company co-president, Julie Yorn.

Besides DiCaprio, the Yorns’ clients have included a fistful of hot young stars, from Cameron Diaz and Claire Danes to Matt Dillon, Ed Burns, Benicio Del Toro, Lauren Holly, Minnie Driver, Johnny Whitworth, Viggo Mortensen, and veterans Samuel L. Jackson and Gabriel Byrne. Rick’s eye for talent is almost unerring: Diaz, for instance, had just scored her first movie role, in The Mask, when Yorn saw a tape of an interview with her on the “E” cable channel. “I couldn’t believe how the girl just had it,” Yorn told me, “the look in the eyes, the warmth. I thought I could make her grow from a working model to becoming this great talent.”

“I want my people to have a career, not just a quick hit,” Yorn says. Indeed, his style is day to Ovitz’s night: Where Ovitz made sure his clients worked only in the major leagues, Yorn pushes his to grow through a mix of big-studio and independent films. “Rick has no enemies,” Addis once told me of his protégé. “He’s not a screamer or yeller. He doesn’t push people around. I’ve never seen anyone use such an incredible natural charm so graciously and effectively and strategically.”

Yorn also has taken care to ensure that his clients remain evenly divided among the major agencies, thus avoiding accusations of taking sides in the inevitable agency wars that are waged almost incessantly. But soon after Titanic fever broke out, Yorn became the Man, the only Hollywood route to the agentless DiCaprio. The craziness of it all began to wear. There was that on-again, off-again mess surrounding the screenplay of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel about a Wall Street serial killer, American Psycho: Was Leo in or was Leo out? Depending on whom you talked to, Yorn was either in over his head or doing a masterful job.

Yorn’s youthful client list was exactly what Ovitz was looking for to complement the over-the-hill gang – Kevin Costner, Sydney Pollack, Martin Scorsese, Warren Beatty, Bill Murray, Robert De Niro, and Dustin Hoffman – that Ovitz had long boasted would join him in any new Hollywood adventure. Among entertainment’s powers-that-be, and beyond, his just representing Costner or Pollack was too easily shrugged off. But representing the star of the most successful movie ever made would be another thing altogether.

As it happens, yorn was not Ovitz’s first choice but his third. About six months ago, Ovitz approached his former best friend and protégé Brad Grey, of the long-established management company Brillstein Grey, with an even better deal than he’s currently offering Yorn. According to knowledgeable sources, Ovitz “wanted to know if Brad was interested in getting into business with him. It was that vague in the beginning.” Ovitz pressed Grey to become his partner, folding his successful management business into an umbrella company that Grey and Ovitz would run and that would include Livent, sports franchises, and so on.

Grey spoke openly with Ovitz about the fact that not only does the ex-Überagent have an enemies list more prominent than Nixon’s but, more to the point, most of those people won’t do business with him – making his prospects for running a talent-management firm dim indeed. Ovitz’s response, according to sources, is that if he amasses a big enough list of A-level clients, then Hollywood will have to deal with him.

But there is another problem raised by Grey: Ovitz’s deal-making style – an unnerving mix of irresistible charm combined with threats, intimidation, and blacklisting made famous during his twenty-year tenure at CAA – isn’t in keeping with the low-key mood in Hollywood today. Neither ICM nor William Morris has ever operated along those lines, and CAA post-Ovitz has transformed itself into a kinder, gentler agency.

In the end, Grey walked away from the deal. “I just couldn’t see it,” he told friends. “It was a nonstarter. This is 1998 and life is short.”

Ovitz did not take Grey’s rejection well, reverting

to form and threatening Grey with words, sources tell me, like “You don’t want to compete with me” and “I’m going to take all your clients away.”

Ovitz then tried – and failed – to entice several CAA and ICM agents, notably CAA’s Patrick Whitesell, who was thanked effusively at this year’s Academy Awards by those Hollywood kids-of-the-moment Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Only then did Ovitz turn his attention back to managers – and specifically to Yorn.

Ovitz has been trying to lure a football team to Los Angeles with a proposed suburban stadium site to be built atop a toxic-waste dump; has interests in several shopping centers; and scalded his hands when Livent proved to be in worse shape than he’d realized when he bought control of the company last April. Getting Yorn would be the first solid piece of the puzzle Ovitz boasts about putting together. But it’s a big if. “This kind of bull-in-a-china-shop behavior is Mike’s pathetic attempt to be involved again in Hollywood,” according to one industry mogul, who adds ruefully that “Ovitz has become a Midas in reverse.”

Contrary to what some say is already a done deal, Yorn himself is vehemently telling Hollywood that he hasn’t made up his mind yet whether to go with Ovitz. That may be true, or he may just be buying time for Ovitz in the event that Interpublic decides to sue for interference with a contract. That Interpublic is bound to take legal action against Ovitz is a virtual given, for this is not the first time that Ovitz has done damage to the Madison Avenue giant: Back in 1991, Ovitz got himself hired as an advertising consultant to Coca-Cola, whose ad agency at the time was Interpublic’s McCann-Erickson. Within a year’s time, Ovitz had elbowed McCann-Erickson out as Coke’s primary supplier of commercials.

The word is that Julie Yorn wants to go with Ovitz but that Rick feels a big debt of gratitude to Addis and Wechsler, who are trying their best to persuade him to stay put. By all accounts, relations among them are still very good – for now. “Ovitz has promised Rick and Julie the sky,” says one Hollywood source close to the situation. “And it’s always the case in this business that when young people start out and they grow their businesses in a very good environment, they forget how much that environment helped them with their business.”

Sighs another knowledgeable source: “Rick wants to be this year’s Sammy Glick. I think it’s going to happen. And I’m very sad about it.

Agent Provocateur