Ovitz Takes the Stand in Disney Shareholder Case

27 October 2004

Michael Ovitz, legendary Hollywood agent and later the short-lived president of the Walt Disney Company, took the stand Tuesday in the showbiz blockbuster of the year - Disney shareholders versus the Disney board of directors.

Cast by Disney attorneys in the role of an incorrigible liar and a manipulative and incompetent executive, Ovitz appeared to have been coached by Tom Hanks as Mr Innocent-But-Nice-Guy.

Some in court attested to an eerie sound, not unlike that of background violins, as Ovitz told of the first task handed to him by [then] chairman/ceo Michael Eisner - to "deal with" Robert Iger, now group president, and the only internal candidate in the running to take over from Eisner as chief executive.

"I don't know why," Ovitz told the Delaware court yesterday, "but Michael Eisner had a problem with Mr Iger and wanted me to deal with that".

Prompted by his lawyer, Ovitz agreed that it was indeed he who had selflessly persuaded Eisner to retain Iger's services: "A big weak spot [at Disney] is how they handle people," he explained.

Even before he joined the mouse mill in 1995, Ovitz claimed, there were forces within the company working against him. He declared himself "flabbergasted" when two top executives - meeting at Eisner's home, ostensibly to discuss the media announcement of his appointment - said they declined to report to him.

It seems that chief financial officer Steve Bollenbach, greeted Ovitz with the words: "Hello, I'm not reporting to you'", while group general counsel Sanford Litvack echoed: "I'm not either."

When Ovitz complained of this to his boss and friend of 25-years standing, Eisner soothed him with the words: "We'll be the bosses and it will all be OK." Conscious of their long friendship, Ovitz placed a touching trust in his pal: "I assumed we'd work it out," he said.

He also claimed that within days of taking up his post with the company, Roy E Disney (then chairman of the animation division and now a leader of the group of dissident shareholders) sent a memo to his staff telling them they did not report to Ovitz.

According to one onlooker at the hearing, there was scarcely a dry eye in the house. The case continues.

Data sourced from Financial Times Online; additional content by WARC staff