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FRANK WELLS WAS FIFTY YEARS OLD WHEN OUR PATHS CROSSED ON the ski slopes of Vail, Colorado, in the spring of 1982. We agreed to have dinner together that evening, with our wives. Until then, I had never really known Frank, except by reputation. On one level, he was just another Hollywood entertainment executive like me. But Frank had also been a Rhodes scholar, an editor of the law review at Stanford, and a top entertainment lawyer handsome enough to be mistaken for his good friend Clint Eastwood. His outside interests especially intrigued me. He was an environmentalist, a liberal political activist, and a true adventurer. Weeks before we met, he had quit his job as vice chairman of Warner Bros. in order to spend a year trying to climb the highest mountains on each of the seven continents. What sort of man, I wondered, would give up a secure and prestigious position to pursue a lifelong fantasy?
Over dinner, I grilled Frank about his upcoming expedition. I've always been an insatiable interrogator, and there were dozens of times in my childhood when my father begged for relief from my incessant questions. Now I felt compelled to find out exactly what food, ropes, maps, and other equipment Frank intended to bring on his trip; how he would deal with altitude sickness and possible injuries; what sorts of socks, gloves, and underwear he would wear; where he would relieve himself when it was 30 degrees below zero; and how he had chosen his guides and fellow climbers. I was amazed to learn that he didn't have much experience climbing mountains and that he wasn't intending to do any intensive training for his quixotic expedition. His enthusiasm, he freely acknowledged, far exceeded his expertise. As we talked, I felt an odd blend of admiration, envy, and concern that this unusual man sitting across the table from me might be too reckless for his own good.
By the time we parted that evening, we each sensed that our paths would cross again. Sure enough, two years later circumstances pulled us together as partners in running The Walt Disney Company--I as chairman, he as president. From that point on, we began to sail around the world on the Disney adventure. If I was the rudder, he was the keel. For ten years, we never had a fight or a disagreement, or even a misunderstanding. I never once felt angry at him--not until the Easter Sunday afternoon in April 1994 when the ski helicopter carrying him out of the backcountry in northern Nevada crashed and he died instantly. Even then, I felt angry only because Frank was not around to help me deal with a very difficult situation, as he had so many times before. But mostly what I felt was an overwhelming sense of sadness and loss.
For weeks after his death, I still found myself wishing I could pick up the phone to call and get Frank's opinion on one issue or another. During our years together, we must have spoken a dozen times nearly every day. Even today, Frank still appears in flashes of thoughts, streaks of images, wishful fantasies. The loss was bigger than I could have anticipated because Frank occupied so much space in my life, and in Disney's. Three months later, in July 1994, as I prepared to leave for a conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, I was still trying to fill the void.
In a way, I was paying homage to Frank by taking this trip. For years, he had urged me to join him at the annual conference that the investment banker Herb Allen throws every July for executives, including several dozen key people in the media and entertainment industries. Frank loved it. He loved the interplay between all the big players in these companies--the purposeful posturing, the subtle gamesmanship, the camaraderie of shared interests, and the fierce underlying competitiveness. I mostly avoided these clubby events. They just made me uncomfortable. On a rational level, I had no reason to feel out of place, but I did. Somehow, it seemed better business to perform well than to talk about how well you were going to perform. But now that Frank couldn't go, I decided I should.
There was one other reason for attending. It would give me a chance to sit down and talk with Michael Ovitz, the head of CAA (Creative Artists Agency), about the possibility of his taking over Frank's job. Immediately after Frank's death, I had decided not to name a new president. One possible choice was Jeffrey Katzenberg, the head of Disney's filmed entertainment division, and, effectively, our third-ranking executive. But our relationship had grown strained during the past couple of years. Then, on April 5, less than thirty-six hours after Frank's death, Jeffrey stunned me with an ultimatum over lunch. "Either I get Frank's job as president," he said, "or I'm going to leave the company."
For many reasons--not least that he would choose a moment like this to force the issue--I wasn't prepared to give Jeffrey what he wanted. In the aftermath of Frank's death, I spent time considering other candidates ranging from Bob Daly, the head of Warner Bros., to George Mitchell, the retiring majority leader of the Senate. As the weeks passed, I felt increasingly vulnerable and unsettled. Frank had always made my life fun. We laughed and commiserated and gossiped together. He handled many financial issues and all the details of negotiations on deals, personnel and labor issues. He also mediated disputes among the different divisions in our company. Frank freed me to devote most of my time to broad company issues and to the creative process, but he also served as a sounding board and a devil's advocate on dozens of other issues. He had only one agenda--the company's best interests--and that gave me a great sense of comfort. Over the years, for example, I had occasionally suggested trying to hire Ovitz in one capacity or another. Frank was always completely supportive and unthreatened.
I believed that Michael Ovitz had a certain magic. We first met in 1972, when I was a young programming executive at ABC and he was an agent at William Morris. From the start, I was impressed by his doggedness in trying to sell me game shows, and later, by his entrepreneurial skills. Michael built CAA from the ground up into the most successful talent agency in Hollywood. While we never did much business together--I was rarely willing to pay the prices he sought for his clients --we did become good friends and our families vacationed together frequently. I liked the fact that he was devoted to his wife, Judy, and to his three children, and that he seemed to genuinely care for my wife, Jane, and our three sons. He was tightly wound, with an edgy sense of humor that sometimes put people off balance, but he could also be charming, solicitous, and self-deprecating.
I had sensed for some time that Michael was feeling restless as an agent. In mid-July, I suggested that we fly together to Herb Allen's conference in Sun Valley, so that we could discuss the possibility of his coming to Disney. He agreed, with more enthusiasm than I had expected. On the afternoon of Wednesday, July 13, we took off from Burbank on the Disney plane, along with our wives. Jane had urged me to hire Michael, and while he and I sat talking in the front cabin, she and Judy Ovitz sat talking in the back. For the first time, Michael began to open up further about his ambitions. "I'm ready for a change," he told me. "I think the idea of working together is great. We would make an unbeatable team." For a moment, I felt encouraged, but almost in the next breath, he drew a line in the sand. "We should be co-CEOs," he said. That wasn't what I had in mind. Instead, I tried to find a way to excite him about assuming Frank's role. I talked about what a huge challenge Disney represented, how much freedom he would have in running the company day to day, and the degree to which Frank and I had operated as partners. But it was obvious that Michael was not buying my pitch, and our discussion took on an unacknowledged awkwardness. We agreed to continue talking, but I was upset by the conversation.
In my heart, I had nurtured the hope that Michael would respond to my offer with excitement and support and selflessness. Instead, what I came up against was a man who was accustomed to being described as the most powerful person in Hollywood. He made it very clear that he didn't want to be anyone's number two. From his perspective, and for his ego, he may have been right. From my perspective and my ego--and for Disney's sake--I believed that I was right. One person had to have the final authority. In this view, I had been strongly influenced by Sid Bass, the savvy investor from a legendary Fort Worth, Texas, family, who bought effective control of Disney during a takeover battle in 1984. Sid had also played a decisive role in bringing Frank and me to the company, and over the past decade he had become both an invaluable adviser and a good friend. We discussed everything from arbitrage to architecture, family to finance. On the subject of corporate governance, Sid was unequivocal: one company, one boss.
As we prepared to land, Michael and I were at an impasse, and I was no closer to solving my problem. It was perfectly understandable but nonetheless disappointing. We were headed for separate rental cars when Jane--still not aware how the conversation had gone--said something to Michael about how much I needed his help at Disney. He turned to me. "Yeah," he responded, only half-joking, "I'm the one guy who can save you from having a heart attack."
Moments later, I noticed a little pain in my arms. For years, I had been experiencing this sort of pain during intense exercise. Regular tests showed no abnormalities, and I grew convinced that the pain was caused by stress. The enormous pressures of my job, I concluded, sometimes showed up in psychosomatic symptoms. The pain in the parking lot was a little different, since it had occurred without exercise. Still, I figured it was the altitude, or the tension created by Ovitz's reaction to my offer, or perhaps even an unconscious reaction to his joke about my having a heart attack. In any case, I didn't pay it much heed.
When we arrived at the lodge, the first person I ran into was Barry Diller, with whom I had first worked at ABC, and later at Paramount, where he was chairman and I was president. During the previous several weeks, he had mounted what appeared to be a successful bid to purchase CBS, only to have it fall apart at the last moment. Now Diller took me aside. "John Malone is going to back me in a new bid" he confided, referring to the chairman of TCI, one of the country's largest cable operators, which was later purchased by AT&T. We had recently begun to consider buying NBC, but I didn't have a chance to share this news with Barry. We spoke only briefly before being interrupted by another group of guests, Malone among them. When it came to talking with him, I felt as if I were guarding Michael Jordan one-on-one. Malone is so verbally facile and so knowledgeable on many subjects --among them technology, about which I knew relatively little at the time--that I didn't feel entirely comfortable with him. Self-protectively, I kept my distance.
Before long, I was mingling with other guests, including Bill Gates, the head of Microsoft; Tom Murphy, chairman of Capital Cities/ABC; Warren Buffett, the biggest shareholder in Cap Cities and a legendary investor; Bob Wright of NBC, with whom our acquisition talks had just begun; Jeffrey Katzenberg; and perhaps two dozen others. A photographer hired for the occasion walked around snapping off pictures, and the atmosphere was relaxed. It was as if a group of top college basketball coaches had come together to share a beer and swap stories before the NCAA finals. This was a group of men who were totally driven and fiercely competitive, but in an informal setting they seemed to share an easy connection.
The explanation wasn't suprising. People are always most comfortable in their own clubs--whether that means a bowling league, a church choir, or, in this case, the small group of executives who happen to run media and entertainment companies. Even so, there was an unspoken pecking order. The most favored guests--the Ovitzes among them--stayed in condominiums. The next tier--which included Jane and me--got smaller rooms in the main lodge but were among the group invited for meals at Herb Allen's condominium. I never learned where the rest of the invited guests ate their meals.
Jane and I were walking the two hundred yards to dinner when the pain returned, this time in both my biceps. I had to stop and rest along the way. My mind ran on two tracks when it came to pain that might relate to my heart. One was psychological. I've always been fascinated by the power of the unconscious. We all have unacknowledged desires, hatreds, and fears that cause anxious states of mind and sometimes show up in physical symptoms. But I also felt real fear. My father began experiencing bad angina in his fifties. When he had quadruple bypass surgery, at sixty-five, I felt certain that I, too, was doomed. On one level, I was convinced that any physical pain I experienced was really in my head. On another, I assumed fatalistically that heart disease was my genetic destiny.
The medical experts said otherwise. Each year, and sometimes twice, I went to the hospital and took a stress test, and each time the doctors told me I was fine. Two years earlier, I had flown to Houston to undergo a state-of-the-art PET scan. In this procedure, a chemical is injected into the coronary arteries which makes it possible to measure very precisely even small changes in levels of blockage. My friend Dustin Hoffman, who came along for the adventure, referred to the trip as a "Jewish Deliverance ." As my injections were being prepared, the only thing that interested the nurses was getting Dustin's autograph.
Once again, I was given a clean bill of health. Not long afterwards, Disney decided to take out insurance on my life. Doctors from three separate insurance companies examined me and approved a $100 million policy payable to the company in the event of my death. It provided some solace that three large, highly conservative insurance companies were willing to bet on my life.
I spent much of dinner at Herb Allen's talking to Tom Brokaw, the NBC anchorman, who told me a long story about fly-fishing with his friend Robert Redford--evidence of just how intermingled the worlds of news and entertainment had become. It was hard to know who was a bigger celebrity at this point, Redford or Brokaw. As we talked, a photographer continued to click away, memorializing much the same group of people shown on the walls from last year's conference. I felt a wave of sadness when I came across several photographs of Frank. In each one, he had a big, buoyant smile on his face.
About 11:00 p.m., Jane and I finally left with a group of other guests to walk back to our rooms. I noticed the local hospital across the street from Herb's condo and joked that it looked more like a camp infirmary than a big-time medical facility. As we walked, the pain in my arms returned. I didn't want to create a scene, so I announced a sudden craving for frozen yogurt and stopped to buy a cup at a store along the way. It gave me an excuse to rest a moment. I pretended to find the other stores equally compelling, pausing several more times to window-shop.
Jane went to bed shortly after 11:30, while I stayed up reading magazines. Although I was lying down, the pain persisted. I tried to ignore it, but eventually I couldn't. "Jane," I said, "I think I'm having a real problem." She had heard it all before, indulged my minor hypochondria dozens of times.
"Roll over and go to sleep. You'll be fine in the morning," she replied, knowing that I was looking for reassurance. But the pain, the anxiety, and now some nausea kept escalating.
"Jane," I said finally, "I'm going to the hospital. If I drop dead right here, you're going to feel really dumb." Sympathetic but still unconvinced, she got up and we both got dressed. By the time we arrived at the hospital, the pain had gone away. Now I was the one who felt dumb. The doctor did a precautionary electrocardiogram, but as he expected, it showed nothing unusual. "What you felt were probably transitory esophageal spasms," he said, "or maybe it was something you ate. It's certainly nothing serious." He prescribed Xanax to help me sleep.
"Do you really feel confident about letting me go?" I asked.
"Mr. Eisner," he said, "I recognize your name, and I want you to know that my wife and my kids and I all love the Disney Company. We took our spring vacation at Disneyland, and last week we all went to see The Lion King together. I promise you that I would never, ever, let you out of this hospital if anything could possibly be wrong."
I felt reassured. There were certainly enough pressures in my life to account for my symptoms. Never before had I dealt with so many difficult events in such a short period. There was Frank's death, above all, and then the ongoing tension with Jeffrey, including the possibility that he might soon exercise his contractual right to leave the company. There were also business problems, led by Euro Disney, the theme park we had opened outside Paris two years earlier. By the summer of 1993--having spent far too much to build it, overestimated demand, and then run into a severe recession--the park was hemorrhaging money. Frank and I had put together a team from Disney to restructure our deal with the international consortium of banks that financed Euro Disney, and months were spent in difficult negotiations. In March 1994, just a month before Frank's death, we had finally come to an agreement that bought us time to turn the park around. Still, the long uncertainty and the relentless bad press had been hard on everyone involved.
Meanwhile, attendance at our domestic theme parks, Walt Disney World in Orlando and Disneyland in Anaheim, had been flat for nearly a year, and none of us was really sure why. Live-action movies were also lagging. Our extraordinary success in animation-- The Lion King had just opened to gigantic business--deflected public attention from the fact that for more than two years, most of our other movies had been losing money. Finally, there was the growing controversy over Disney's America, the new theme park that we were proposing to build in northern Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. I had championed the project myself. Despite opposition from wealthy landowners in the surrounding countryside, I believed that we would eventually prevail. But I was also beginning to wonder whether a long, ugly battle now being led by prominent historians was worth the toll it was taking on our company.
For months before his death, Frank and I had been talking about our plans to reinvent and reenergize Disney. We already had significant executive changes in mind, and new businesses we were prepared to launch. I had begun working longer hours than ever, and for the first time in my life I had difficulty sleeping. I also gave up exercising, rationalizing that I had no time, and ate whatever I could catch on the run. Often, it wasn't very healthy. As for the worries about my heart, I dealt with them mostly through a blend of denial and cholesterol-lowering drugs.
By the time Jane and I returned from the hospital, and I fell back asleep, it was 4:00 a.m. I awoke three hours later, in order to hear a presentation about the future of broadcasting by Tom Murphy and his team at Capital Cities/ABC, a company that we had nearly made a deal to buy a year earlier. The presentation took me aback. It was built around a series of large poster boards, showing in different colors exactly which of their prime-time series were licensed from outside producers, which ones they owned in partnership with others, and which they owned outright. "We want to move toward owning every show on the schedule, either wholly or in part," Murphy explained. I certainly understood the value of such a strategy for ABC, but it made me more concerned than ever about Disney's ability to sell its programs to the networks.
My bigger concern was that I still felt a lot of pain when I tried to walk more than a few steps. I made it through two more morning presentations, and then another lunch hosted by Herb Allen. Afterwards, while others went off to hike and play golf in their Allen & Company shirts, I returned to my room, feeling as if I had attended one fraternity party too many. I called Lucille Martin, who was once Walt Disney's secretary and had been mine for the past ten years, to tell her that I wanted to come home the next day, Friday, instead of Saturday, as originally planned.
I also told Lucille about my visit to the hospital the night before. Jane had paid with a Disney insurance card, and I was concerned that when our personnel department received the bill, it could prompt rumors about the state of my health. "Just to be safe," I said, "why don't you call the hospital and have them send the bill directly to the office? I'll pay it myself." Then I asked her when I last had a stress test. After a quick check, she told me that it had been eighteen months, meaning that I was six months overdue. "Could you schedule a new one?" I asked. Several hours later, Lucille called to say that she had set up the test at Cedars-Sinai Hospital for July 28--less than two weeks later--and that I was now scheduled to leave Sun Valley at 3:00 p.m. Friday.
On Thursday evening, I spent most of dinner talking with Warren Buffett, while Jane spoke to his wife, Susie. Warren hardly looked the part of one of the wealthiest men in the world. Casually dressed and understated in manner, he exuded a quiet self-assurance but had no interest in drawing attention to himself. At one point, David Geffen, who had made a lot of money selling his record company to MCA, walked into the room and spotted Buffett. He walked over and immediately dropped to his knees, genuflecting. "Oh my lord," he said. "I'm at the feet of the king." Warren seemed amused, but said nothing.
When I returned to my room that evening, I checked in with Lucille again. Among my messages was one from Michael Engelberg. He said it wasn't urgent, but Engelberg is our family doctor. I decided to call him back. "Are you planning to have a stress test?" he asked.
"Why do you ask?" I replied.
"Because Lucille mentioned that you've been having chest pains," Engelberg said. We talked a little more and I considered getting off without mentioning my hospital visit the night before. I was embarrassed that perhaps I'd made too much fuss over nothing. Finally I mumbled something about the pain in my arms. Engelberg perked up. "Tell me about the symptoms you're having," he said. Reluctantly, I took him through the events of the past two days.
"I think you should have the stress test as soon as you come back," he said. I was about to tell Engelberg that he was overreacting when I remembered a story he had told me about one of his close friends, Richard Levinson, a television writer and producer who helped to create hit shows such as Columbo . At dinner one evening, Levinson told Engelberg he'd been experiencing chest pains. Engelberg tried to persuade him to go to a hospital immediately for a stress test. Levinson was on his way to New York but promised that he would schedule a test as soon as he returned to Los Angeles. A night or two later, he dictated some notes into a tape recorder about the location of all of his belongings and dropped dead of a heart attack.
"Is this a Richard Levinson situation?" I asked.
"I doubt it," Engelberg assured me. "But I'd still like you to get the test as soon as possible." We agreed that I would go straight to Cedars-Sinai when I arrived back on Friday afternoon. "I'll meet you there," he told me.
I felt better. Somehow, setting up the test solved the problem. Now I could relax, stay through lunch, and enjoy my last day at the conference. On Friday morning, I awoke in time to attend the first presentation of the day, an entertainment industry forum chaired by Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America. The panel included Jeffrey Katzenberg. As always, he was aggressive and outspoken, but he also interrupted the other speakers and cracked bad jokes. I felt that he was representing Disney poorly, especially for somebody who wanted to be president of the company. When I mentioned my reaction to Jane and to Ovitz, who were sitting beside me, they both told me to let it go. "Jeffrey is Jeffrey," Michael said. "He is not doing anything new or different." I decided I was just being too sensitive. After the panel ended, I had a good conversation with Barry Diller. I told him that we had no interest in pursuing CBS, but that we were having some preliminary discussions about acquiring NBC. For a moment, it all seemed a little surreal: two guys who had started together at the age of twenty-four as low-level assistants at ABC casually talking about buying two of the three major television networks.
Later in the morning, Ovitz suggested that we take a bicycle trip into town together and talk some more. Without explaining that I was reluctant to exert myself, I begged off. At lunch, both Jane and Judy pressed for Michael and me to meet again, and so did he. I agreed, but first we had yet another photo session--this one a group shot by Annie Leibovitz, for a special issue that Vanity Fair was doing about Hollywood. Memorializing the conference in pictures seemed to be one of its primary agendas. (Months later, when I saw the photograph in the magazine, I would be amazed by how healthy I looked.) After the photo session, Ovitz suggested we take a walk, but I said I'd prefer to talk in his condominium. Our discussion got no further than it had on the plane.
Finally I had to leave to catch a three o'clock flight back. To my relief, I was able to carry my bags and Jane's to the car without any pain. Because we were considering NBC as a possible acquisition, I had brought along several of their fall pilots--the first episodes of new shows --to watch on the plane. One of them was the two-hour premiere of ER , the hospital series created by Michael Crichton and co-produced by Steven Spielberg. It was already generating a buzz in Hollywood. It only takes a single show to turn a network's prime-time schedule around-- Cosby had done just that for NBC ten years earlier--and I wanted to gauge whether ER had similar potential. I was also interested in seeing what Spielberg and Crichton had produced. Their last collaboration, after all, had been Jurassic Park . It was immediately obvious that ER was a very promising show, but the scenes in the emergency room were so graphic that I could hardly watch them. Jane turned away completely.
When we landed in Burbank, I got in my car and drove to the hospital alone. We agreed that Jane would drop off our bags at home, and then meet me. Michael Engelberg was waiting when I arrived at Cedars-Sinai shortly before 5:00 p.m. So were John Friedman and Dan Berman, cardiologists I had known for years who specialize in nuclear imaging. I was very familiar with the stress test procedure. The first thing they do is inject you, at rest, with a radioactive isotope, and measure the flow of blood as it moves through your coronary arteries. This test proved normal, which was good news. A problem at this stage would have indicated that I had already suffered some sort of heart attack. Next, they put me on the treadmill. The last time I'd taken this test, I walked up a fairly steep incline without a problem for the entire test. This time, both of my arms began to ache almost immediately. The electrocardiogram showed indications that were not normal, and the doctors stopped the test after just four minutes. It was a precautionary move. The last thing they wanted to risk was precipitating a heart attack from overexertion during a medical procedure.
By this time, both Jane and another cardiologist, Neff Buchbinder, had showed up. I remember feeling surprised to see Buchbinder late on a Friday afternoon in July. I didn't even know he'd been called. He took one look at the test results, listened to the description of my symptoms, and concluded that he wanted an immediate angiogram. This is a more precise way to examine the arteries themselves. A needle is inserted into the upper thigh, and then a thin plastic tube is fed through the needle up into the aorta so that a dye can be injected directly into the coronary arteries and the details of the blockages read on an X ray. Alarmed by how rapidly things were moving, Jane tried to slow everyone down. She began asking all the right questions, pointing out that they had never even finished the stress test. To my surprise, I found myself getting angry with her.
"Climb on the bandwagon, Jane," I said. "We've been waiting ten years for this. It's really happening this time. Let's get serious and stop denying." I had moved into my executive mode. Next, I insisted on being checked into the hospital under a false name. Then I called Lucille and asked her to come over and help coordinate our stories to avoid any leaks to the media. I was sure that I would be released that evening, or the next morning at the latest. There was no point in creating unnecessary concerns about my health.
"What are the risks involved in an angiogram?" I asked Buchbinder.
He described the risks in some detail, but all I heard was the last phrase he said: "Ninety-eight percent safe."
I felt as if I had just hit the soft shoulder or a highway at 80 miles an hour. Alarm bells sounded in my head. "You mean the other two percent have a problem or die?" I asked, hoping for a quick no.
"Yes," he said.
My inquisitiveness had backfired on me. Suddenly, I felt unsettled, close to panic. Moments later, I experienced intense pain not just in my arms but also in the neck and chest. My anxiety was making the pain worse. Engelberg called for morphine, which helps to lower the heart rate by reducing the pain that fuels anxiety. Unfortunately, no one could find any. It had been stocked in the pharmacy, apparently out of a concern that drug users were stealing it from the shelves of the supply room. Engelberg became angry, and the tension in the room escalated palpably. The next thing I knew, I was being wheeled into the emergency room. People were hovering over me asking questions and handing me consent forms to sign. All I could think of was ER , the pilot I'd just watched. Suddenly, I was living it.
I asked Jane to sign the papers. This was not permissible, we were told. I did the best I could without my reading glasses. Buchbinder explained that he expected the angiogram to show considerable blockage. If it did, he said, they would want to do an immediate angioplasty. In this procedure, a small balloon is passed through a tube inside a coronary artery. When the balloon is inflated, it creates more room for the blood to flow freely. In all likelihood I would still be able to leave the hospital the next day.
Once they moved me to the emergency room, they found some morphine. All my cares melted away. Even the screaming of the man in the bed next to me was nothing more than a mild distraction. I doubt that the drug fully accounted for the relief that I felt. I thrive on action, and I was finally getting some. For the first time, I knew that the problem with my heart was real, and it was going to be taken care of, at long last. I felt comfortable consigning my body to these good doctors. It also occurred to me--in my morphine haze--that I had a good excuse to get out of two weekend commitments I had made months earlier. Back then, the prospect of listening to the Three Tenors sing opera at Dodger Stadium and of attending the World Cup soccer finals had both sounded like fun. As the dates grew closer, it dawned on me that I had no desire to fight the traffic and the crowds. I was mulling all this over when Lucille arrived. She was carrying a huge pile of mail that had accumulated at the office in my absence. I couldn't resist trying to be cool and deadpan in the face of adversity. "I don't think I'm going to be able to deal with that just now," I told her, flat on my back.
When the pictures from the angiogram began to come up on the screen, I could see the blockage myself. It was one of the few times that a design image on a computer screen didn't excite me. Well over 95 percent of the anterior descending branch of my left coronary artery--a part of my anatomy to which I'd never before given much consideration--was blocked. By this point, another doctor had arrived on the scene. Alfredo Trento was the Italian-born head of cardiac surgery at Cedars-Sinai, and he was blunt in his assessment. "I recommend an immediate coronary bypass," he said. This was a double shock. I didn't know anything about Trento, and I had never imagined that I might need a bypass.
I called Jane over. "Where was this guy trained?" She knew I was hoping to hear Harvard or Yale. "Tijuana," she replied, with a straight face. I felt relieved that she could joke at all. Even so, I worried that on a Friday evening, the chances of finding a sharp, well-rested, top-level surgeon were slim. A decade earlier, when my father had his bypass, I had insisted that they perform it on a Monday morning.
"Couldn't we wait and get a second opinion?" I asked Trento.
"Waiting wouldn't be a good idea," he replied. Suddenly, I realized that surgery was fine with me. This was an emergency. The train was already rolling down the tracks. Why stop now and have to spend the whole weekend worrying? Only much later did I learn that Trento is a superb heart surgeon. What I can't remember is how I discovered, while awaiting surgery, that he is also a rabid soccer fan. Apparently I was lucid enough to make a deal with him just before I went under. "You can have my ticket to the finals of the World Cup," I told Trento, "so long as I live to watch the event on television."
It was almost 10:00 p.m. when I was wheeled into the operating room. Jane stood over me with two of our three sons, Breck, then twenty-three, and Eric, twenty. She hadn't yet been able to locate our youngest son, Anders, sixteen. I felt relaxed enough--or melodramatic enough--to spend a few moments making last-minute requests. Perhaps I'd watched too many movies in my day, or maybe I was just trying to stay in control.
"I want to be buried above ground, not below," I told Jane. (Being above ground just sounded more comfortable to me.) "Also," I went on, "I really don't want you to build the new house we've been considering, because ours is fine, and we don't need a bigger one." In both cases, I was using the leverage of my imminent surgery to win deathbed agreements from my wife. My final request was made to Jane, Breck, and Eric together. "If it becomes an issue," I said, "I think that either Ovitz or Diller would be good choices to succeed me." Jane couldn't believe I was making all these preoperative deals. "Fine, fine," she said, and then she kissed me, and told me I'd be all right. For my benefit, she kept her emotions in check. As I watched my sons walk out of the room, I could see that they looked sad and worried.
I don't remember feeling any fear as I went under. When I next opened my eyes and looked at a clock near my bed, it said 6:30 a.m. I was alone in the intensive-care unit and I desperately wanted the tube that had been put in my throat to be taken out. Within a few hours, I would be surrounded by my Family again. By 11:00 a.m., Ovitz would show up, having cut short the start of his own family's long-planned vacation cruise to take over my convalescence. My sister and mother were already on their way from New York. Patty and Roy Disney were racing to get a flight back to Los Angeles from their vacation home in Ireland. The tube in my throat was taken out shortly after 9:00 a.m., and as soon as I could speak, I insisted that the press release about my condition include a quote from the surgeon. I had seen too many companies release misleading information about the medical conditions of their executives. If I was truly out of danger, I wanted Alfredo Trento to be the one to say so. Of course, what I really wanted was to be reassured myself.
But none of this was what came into my mind when I first awoke from the anesthesia. Instead, I had a single happy thought: "That's the best night's sleep I've had in a year."
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