After spending parts of two days testifying that he was continually sabotaged by senior managers and his boss during his brief tenure as president of the Walt Disney Company, Michael S. Ovitz, the former president, found himself on the defensive late Wednesday about his continuing relationship with the talent agency he had left for Disney.
Steven G. Schulman, the lawyer for Disney shareholders suing over the board’s handling of Mr. Ovitz’s controversial tenure in the mid-1990’s, attacked one of the tenets of Mr. Ovitz’s defense: that he gave up a lucrative career at Creative Artists Agency after 21 years to join Disney in 1995.
Mr. Schulman pointed out that Mr. Ovitz still received rent from the building where the agency he co-founded is located. Mr. Ovitz, he added, also gets a stake in commissions in the current Creative Artists, which was reorganized when he left.
And Mr. Schulman pressed Mr. Ovitz about a joint venture – to produce advertising – that he helped former Creative Artists colleagues set up with Coca-Cola and Disney.
Mr. Ovitz said Disney officials approved the venture. “For you to suggest I did anything underhanded in this deal or took money is ludicrous and insulting,” Mr. Ovitz said.
Mr. Ovitz was testifying in a lawsuit filed seven years ago by Disney shareholders, who contend the board of directors breached its fiduciary responsibility when Michael D. Eisner, the company’s chief executive, hired Mr. Ovitz as president in 1995 and then signed off 14 months later on a severance package valued at $140 million. In the morning, under questioning by his attorney, Mark Epstein, Mr. Ovitz elaborated on Tuesday’s testimony about how senior managers and Mr. Eisner turned against him from the start.
“I guess you could say I got pushed out the sixth-floor window,” Mr. Ovitz said in the morning, referring to the office he had on the sixth floor of Disney’s headquarters in Burbank, Calif. Later, he added, “I was being left out of meetings. Nobody was calling me. All of a sudden I found myself with no information.”
Mr. Ovitz said he was dumbfounded by the change in Mr. Eisner, whom he considered a close friend; Mr. Eisner even came to the hospital for the birth of Mr. Ovitz’s first son, he said.
“Until the day I die, I’ll never be able to understand how I spent 25 years with the man and his family, and within 60 days of taking the position, he decides I’m a number of things,” including a “psychopath,” Mr. Ovitz said.
In the morning testimony, Mr. Ovitz said he believed he could have saved his job in 1996 if he had been able to discuss his differences with Mr. Eisner over the Thanksgiving or Christmas holiday in Aspen, Colo., where their two families had celebrated for years. But, he said, he never got the chance.
Mr. Ovitz said that in the fall, Sanford P. Litvack, the chief of corporate operations at the time, came to his office and said: “Michael wants you out of the company. He isn’t going to change his mind. So leave.”
Mr. Ovitz contended that Mr. Litvack was trying to undermine him, first refusing to work for him and later lecturing him on Disney’s strict expense and gift policy. Mr. Ovitz said he responded, “Mr. Litvack, if Michael Eisner wants to terminate my services at this company he ought to come in here and do it to my face.”