Warring With The Kingfish

I woke up on the floor shortly before dawn, sat at a little secretarial desk for the next two hours in the living room of the suite, and wrote detailed notes of everything that Ovitz and Holston had said. I wasn’t sure why I was doing this but an inner voice told me it was important to note all the details while they were still fresh.

Then I went down to the pool area of the hotel and watched the sun cut through the L.A. smog. When I got back to the suite there were two more messages waiting from Barry Hirsch.

“We’ve got to talk,” Barry said when I finally called him. “Michael’s going crazy.”

Michael ovitz in smoking

I met Barry in his office that morning. Michael had called him several times since our meeting.

“He was screaming into the phone,” Barry said, “I’ve never heard him like this.”

When I related the specifics of what Holston had said, Barry said, “I guarantee if he puts the word out it’ll have the same effect on producers. No producer will want to hire you if – right off the top – it means he has no chance for Cruise or Redford or the others.”

I sat there, still somewhat in shock.

“You can’t do this,” Barry said. “You just can’t. I can’t let you do this, Joe.”


Now even more disturbed, I went over to Guy’s house. He got dressed and, as he nearly sputtered with anger, we went over to Barry Hirsch’s office.

On the way over, Guy said, “This doesn’t have to do with me. Don’t think about me in this, think about you. But this is wrong. What they’re doing to you is wrong. I know this is Hollywood and I know this is a mean town, but this isn’t a fucking Mafia town.”

By the time we got to Barry’s office, Guy was red-faced mad. Barry sat there cool as a cucumber, in held, almost remote.

Silver brass knuckles

“Let me understand something, Barry,” Guy said. “You’re Joe’s attorney. You’re an official of the court. Your client’s getting the shit beat out of him, he’s being blackmailed, and you’re advising him to give in to the blackmail. You’re not saying you’ll go to the D.A.’s office. You’re advising Joe to give in to all of it, is that right?”

Barry said, “I’m acting in my client’s best interest.”

“Who’s your client,” Guy said, “Ovitz?”

Barry kept his fabled, gestalt-trained cool.

“Joe’s my client, as you know,” he said icily to Guy. “My client of more than ten years. And my friend of more than ten years. It’s true that I have a lot of clients represented by CAA. It’s true that this firm does a lot of business with CAA. That’s no secret.”

Creative artists agency caa logo

“You’re damn right it’s not,” Guy said.
Barry also pushed the dangers of the prospective United Artists suit against me with Guy.
“It’s a bluff,” Guy said. “It’s bullshit and you know it. No studio is going to sue anyone just to make Mike Ovitz happy.”

Barry smiled. “How much do you want to bet on that?”

“Anything you want,” Guy said.

“Do you want to bet his career?”

Guy’s face darkened even deeper. He got up and walked to the window in Barry’s office. He stared out, his back to us. His shoulders looked slumped.

Under his breath, I heard him say, “You son of bitch.”

Barry pretended that he hadn’t heard it.

Casino chips

“Are you going to give me a piece of paper?” Barry said to Guy, “from ICM that says ICM will cover all of Joe’s legal costs if United Artists sues him? Will you give me a piece of paper that says if Joe has to return any of the moneys UA has advanced him – that ICM will pay those moneys for Joe?”

Guy turned from the window and said, “You know I can’t do that. ICM as a corporate entity will never do that.”

“My case is closed,” Barry said.

“But they’ll never sue Joe!” Guy said.

“If they’ll never sue, then it should mean nothing for ICM to give me a piece of paper. According to you, ICM has no risk.”

Guy never even said goodbye. He went straight to the door and walked out.

I caught up with him at the building’s front door. When I grabbed him by the shoulder he turned, tears in his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I said. I couldn’t look him in the eye. “I can’t leave Ovitz.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I know”

Guy forced a tight smile. “I told you I didn’t want you to do anything that made you uncomfortable.”


I called Barry from the lobby and told him I was staying with CAA. I could easily have walked back upstairs but I didn’t want to see him.

“I don’t think you’ve got a choice,” Barry said. “But it’s a good decision. I think you should tell Michael.”

I said, “You tell Michael.” “Fine,” he said.

I heard the smile in his voice.


I went back to the Westwood Marquis, sat down at the bar, and had a couple of beers. I felt like dog shit. I’d betrayed my friend and I felt like I’d betrayed myself.

The bartender tried to cheer me with stories about the times Dustin Hoffman would come into the bar barefoot and play the piano. I wasn’t listening. All I thought about was that Dustin Hoffman was a CAA client.

And then suddenly, surreally, Rand Holston was there, bubbling over. Barry had let them know and Rand had raced down here to tell me how happy he was and what a good decision I’d made.

He put an arm around me and actually kissed me on the cheek as the bartender stared.

I ran upstairs, dumped all my beach gear into a staircase, and raced out to LAX to get the hell away from this lethal place.


The next morning Ovitz called me in San Rafael. He sounded bright and upbeat.

“How’s the Thousand-Pound Gorilla this morning?” I said.

“Hanging from the rafters,” Ovitz said. “He’s been fed some bananas. Then he said, “You made the right decision. I knew you would.”

That hurt.

I said, “You did, huh?”

He said, ‘Yeah, I think I know you pretty well. If you need anything, just call.”

He laughed. “Business as usual,” he said.

Thousand pound gorilla


Rand Holston called every day talking about new deals and new projects. I was waiting for Guy to call… but he didn’t.

Heart painted with blood

Gerri and the kids and I were spending a lot of time at the new house we’d bought in the Dominican section of San Rafael, talking about knocking walls out and the décor… but my heart wasn’t in it.

“Are you okay, Dad?” Steve asked me.

Suzi said, “Don’t you like this house, Dad?”

I felt awful being there. I felt like I’d damaged something deep within myself.

I’d allowed someone to beat me up, to treat me like dirt.

I kept stewing about these things, feeling a leaden depression as, a week later, I went back to L.A. with Gerri and the kids for a research screening of Music Box, my new film. I hated these demographically fine-tuned research screenings but had been through my share of them. They always ended with a focus group, a collection of dunces who, with varying degrees of pomposity, played Siskel and Ebert for an evening, knowing that every little thing they said would make a big difference to the studio people observing.

Dunce arrow up sign

Sure enough, at the end of this focus group, some fool got up and vehemently suggested a new ending for the movie…finding Jessica Lange’s war criminal father innocent, thereby, in my mind, turning the movie into a tool for those right-wingers who wanted war criminal prosecutions ended.

As I was walking out of the theater, smiling to myself about what the amateur moron/critic was suggesting, I felt an arm go around my back. I looked and it was Rand Holston, saying, in his most unctuous tone: “Joe, don’t listen to him. You wrote a brilliant movie. I’m proud of you and CAA’s proud of you.”

And I knew at that moment it was over… that Ovitz and Holston were out of my life…that I just couldn’t do this… that I was leaving Ovitz and Holston and CAA and going back to Guy. It was like I’d gone into anaphylactic shock at Holston’s touch and the greasy taste of his words.

I looked at him and laughed suddenly. He looked at me bewildered.

Gerri and the kids and I went back to the Westwood Marquis, to the same suite where I’d fallen asleep on the floor that night Ovitz had mugged me.

I laid it out for them. I couldn’t stay with CAA after what Ovitz had done to me. I couldn’t betray Guy. I couldn’t betray myself.

I didn’t know, I explained to Gerri and Steve and Suzi what the consequences would be … but I was afraid.

For sale sign

It might mean that my career in Hollywood would end. It might mean that we’d have much less money.

And then I came to the most painful part.

It meant, I explained, that we couldn’t live in the big house we’d just bought. I couldn’t risk a mortgage payment like this with Ovitz’s threats hanging over my head. We were going to have to sell the new house, I said, and live in the old one.

They were kids – Steve was fifteen, Suzi almost thirteen- they were deeply disappointed, but they understood. Gerri, who’d been married to me for twenty- one years, was, as usual, unconditionally supportive although I knew how much she loved the house. I was moved and thanked her.

Over the next two days in Marin, I thought about what I was going to do. Okay, Ovitz swore by his teeny little volume of The Art of War (he’d even sent me a copy years ago)… but I grew up in the back alleys of Cleveland’s West Side.


I was going to write him a letter.

I would recount all the ugly things he and Holston had said to me. And at the end of the letter I would tell him to go fuck himself. I would cc this letter to Holston, Barry Hirsch, Guy, and Irwin Winkler. And I would make sure that this letter leaked all over town and into the papers.

It was, as I saw it, a preemptive strike, It would be more difficult for him to “put me into the fucking ground” and “blow my brains out” if the whole world was watching him and his Art of War- trained foot soldiers.

It would be more difficult for him to persuade United Artists to sue me if United Artists knew that the world would know that Michael Ovitz had put them up to it.

Blow brains out stencil

It would be more difficult for him to destroy my relationships with Barry Hirsch and Irwin Winkler if they knew the world would know they were so afraid of Michael Ovitz that they blew me off.

And it would be more difficult for studio heads to do no business with me if the world would consider them Ovitz’s pawns.

The publicity…the fallout…would, I thought, be my best armor to keep my career from being put into the ground. I told no one what my plan was, not even Gerri and my kids. I wanted to be able to credibly deny leaking this letter when it hit the fan.

And I knew just how it would leak. My friend Costa-Gavras was back in Paris. I didn’t have his Paris address, so I was going to send a Xerox of my letter to Ovitz to Costa…through his agent at William Morris, John Ptak.

But I wasn’t going to seal the envelope to Costa. I was betting that Hollywood being Hollywood, Ptak wouldn’t be able to resist taking a peek at what was inside the envelope addressed to Costa.

I was further betting that if Ptak read it, he’d show it to William Morris super- agent Sue Mengers, the biggest Ovitz-hater in town. I was sure if Mengers got her hands on it, she’d spread it all over town.

Three days after Rand Holston put his arms around me, I sat down at my manual typewriter, the notes I had taken at the Westwood Marquis nearby, and wrote my letter to Michael Ovitz. It came out of me in a white-hot fury. I wrote it in forty minutes and then retyped it in another hour.

With notes in hand, I recounted the things Ovitz and Holston had said to me… and then I concluded this way:

To say that I was in shock after my meeting with you and Rand would be putting it mildly. What you were threatening me with was a twisted new version of the old-fashioned blacklist. I felt like the character in Irwin’s new script whose career was destroyed because he refused to inform on his friends. You were threatening to destroy my career because I was refusing to turn my back on a friend.

I live in Marin County; I spend my time with my family and with my work; I’ve avoided industry power entanglements for thirteen years. Now I felt, as I told my wife when I came home to think all this over, like an infant who wakes up in a crib with a thousand-pound gorilla screeching in his face. In the two weeks that have gone by, I have thought about little else than the things you and Rand said to me. Plain and simple, cutting out all the smiles and friendliness, it’s blackmail. It’s extortion, the street hood protection racket we’ve seen too many times in bad gangster movies. If you don’t pay us the money, we’ll burn your store down. Never mind that in this case it wasn’t even about money – not for a while, anyway: I told you that ICM didn’t even want to split the commissions with you on any of my existing deals – “Fuck the commissions,” you said, “I don’t care about the commissions.”

Even the dialogue, I reflected, was out of those bad gangster movies: “blow your brains out” and “put you into the fucking ground” and “If you make me eat shit, I’m going to make you eat shit.”

As I thought about what happened, I continued, increasingly, to be horrified by it. You are agents. Your role is to help and encourage my career and my creativity. Your role is not to place me in personal emotional turmoil. Your role is not to threaten to destroy my family’s livelihood if I don’t do your bidding. I am not an asset; I am a human being. I am not a painting hung on a wall; I am not a part of a chess set. I am not a piece of meat to be “traded” for other pieces of meat. I am not a child playing with blocks. This isn’t a game. It’s my life.

What I have decided, simply, after this period of time, is that I cannot live with myself and continue to be represented by you. I find the threats you and Rand made to be morally repugnant. I simply can’t function on a day-to-day business basis with you and Rand without feeling myself dirtied.

Maybe you can beat the hell out of some people and they will smile at you afterward and make nice, but I can’t do that. I have always believed, both personally and in my scripts, in the triumph of the human spirit. I have abhorred bullying of all kinds- by government, by police, by political extremism of the Left and the Right, by the rich- maybe it’s because I came to this country as a child and was the victim of a lot of bullying when I was an adolescent.

But I always fought back; I was bloodied a lot, but I fought back. I know the risks I am taking: I am not doing this blithely. Yes, you might very well be about to hurt me with your stars, your directors, and your friends on the executive level. Yes, Irwin and Barry are friends of yours and maybe you will be able to damage my relationship with them – but as much as I treasure those relationships, if my decision to leave CAA affects them, then they’re not worth it anyway. Yes, you might sue me or convince UA and God knows who else to sue me. And yes, I know that you can play dirty – the things you said about Guy in your meeting with me was nothing less than character assassination.

But I will risk all that. Rich or poor, successful or not, I have always been able to look myself in the mirror. I am not saying that I don’t take your threats seriously; I take your threats very seriously indeed. But I have discussed all of this with my wife, with my fifteen-year-old boy and my thirteen-year-old girl, and they support my decision.

After three years of searching, we bought a bigger and much more expensive house recently. We have decided, because of your threats and the uncertainty they cast on my future, to put the new house up for sale and stay in our old one. You told me of your feeling for your own family; do you have any idea how much pain and turmoil you’ve caused mine?

I think the biggest reason I can’t stay with you has to do with my children. I have taught them to fight for what’s right. What you did is wrong. I can’t teach my children one thing and then, on the most elementary level, do another. I am not that kind of man.

So do whatever you want to do, Mike, and fuck you. I have my family and I have my old manual typewriter and they have always been the things I’ve treasured the most. Barry Hirsch will officially notify you that I have left CAA and from this date on Guy McElwaine will represent me.


I went down to the stationery story in San Rafael, made six Xerox copies, drove home, addressed the envelopes, and took them to Federal Express in Larkspur Landing. I drove back to San Rafael, bought two hot dogs on the street, took them into the Positively Fourth Street saloon, and ate them with two cold Beck’s beers. Hendrix was on the jukebox. I felt high. I felt like I could kiss the sky.

Joe eszterhas with black sunglasses