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Michael Eisner
 
Michael Eisner
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Michael Eisner Interview

Entertainment Executive

June 17, 1994
Las Vegas, Nevada

Print Michael Eisner Interview Print Interview

  Michael Eisner

We hear your dad required two hours of reading every night. Could you tell us about that?

Michael Eisner Interview Photo
Michael Eisner: Well, I had to read two hours for every hour of television I wanted to watch. So if I didn't want to watch any television, then I didn't have to read. But when I was growing up, Hopalong Cassidy was popular, and Milton Berle. Dad was pretty unrelenting. Of course, we found ways around that.

What did you like to read?

Michael Eisner: I liked Jack London. This started when I was about five, so I read the things you read in nursery school and kindergarten. When I got older I liked adventure stories, the Hardy Boys, just the stuff that everybody else was reading at that time.

Did you think reading was fun?

Michael Eisner: Not particularly, no. My wife tells me that was her life. She came from a small town in western New York State, with a lot of snow in the winter.


I came from Manhattan, and when you're made to read so you can watch this new technology called television... honestly, to me reading was kind of a chore. Not that I still feel that way, and not that I should have felt that way but, you know, it wasn't a punishment, but it was a necessity to be able to get done what I wanted to get done. Therefore, as a kid I would have rebelled against that. Maybe that's why I went into television.



I was just being facetious. I'm saying that, because I was forced to read at a very young age in order to do something that I wanted to do, which was watch Hopalong Cassidy, maybe in some twisted way that was how I ended up becoming an usher at NBC.


What did you want to do?

Michael Eisner: Well, I think I'm very different than most of the people that are invited to the Academy of Achievement. My sister would have been invited, I would have been the sibling that was left home.


My sister was a competitive ice skater, and very accomplished, and an A student, and I was kind of just breezing my way through grade school. I loved athletics, I played baseball, and basketball and soccer and stuff like that. I was interested in just existing. I didn't have major goals. I watched Ozzie and Harriet, and Leave it to Beaver, and Doris Day movies, and went to college, co-ed college, joined a fraternity and had periodic battles with my father, and built myself into being influenced by a lot of my teachers. Became very interested in the arts, even though I was a pre-med. Maybe I just didn't like the sight of blood, I don't know, but I moved in that direction.


When did you realize TV was a strong attraction for you?

Michael Eisner: I'd like to say I had this vision. I was an English major and a pre-med at college. There was a very attractive girl that was in the theater department; I decided I'd write a play to impress her. I was interested in doing that, that was fun.


I needed a summer job, I became an usher at NBC, because I came from New York. I loved being an usher, I loved handing out tickets for The Tonight Show. I thought it was great being near Jack Paar then, later, Johnny Carson. I just had a good time. I loved the concept of creating intellectual property. I thought I'd be a writer. I wrote a lot of plays, all very mediocre, all written in about two days. Went to Paris to be Ernest Hemingway, stayed a week and came home, and went to work, and just had one job after another in this area of creating ideas. And seeing the effect that one could have culturally, if you really paid attention.


How long was it from being an usher to running a company?


Michael Eisner: I was an usher and then I went back to school, and then I came back, wrote a novel -- or tried to write a novel -- gave up on that. Realized I liked being with people, I became a clerk at NBC. I wrote what time the commercials came on the air. I did traffic for NBC Radio, meaning I'd say what freeway was clogged up, made up names of roads, basically names of girlfriends that I was with the night before, the week before. "There was a log jam on the Throgsneck Bridge on Breckenridge Street..." You know, Breckenridge was actually the name of my wife, but I figured out I could have some fun in the entertainment business. Went to CBS, put the commercials in the children's programs, saw every children's program for a couple of years, worked on the Ed Sullivan Show. Wrote about 300 letters trying to get a job anywhere, finally got the job at ABC. And I think when I was about 27, became in charge of daytime television at ABC, having never seen a soap opera in my life, and children's programming. From there I had various different level jobs at ABC. I always went into an area that was in last place, with a philosophy, "You can't fall off the floor." And was lucky, was at the right time and the right place, with the right ideas, and each one of these areas became number one.


Finally, I guess in my 30s, became in charge of all ABC programming. Got pretty lucky, we did a lot of interesting things at ABC, whether it was Roots, or Rich Man/Poor Man, or Happy Days, or Laverne and Shirley. When I was running children's programming, we did Schoolhouse Rock and After School Specials and a lot of things that were kind of putting more content into what we were doing, not just frivolous, bubblegum kind of stuff.

Gulf and Western and Paramount must have thought I knew what I was doing and they hired me to come as President. And about a year or two after I was there we got lucky with Saturday Night Fever, and Grease, and Heaven Can Wait, and Ordinary People, and Elephant Man, and Terms of Endearment, or whatever.


All along, I was getting more interested in writing, and more and more interested in these cultural phenomena. I didn't even know Saturday Night Fever was a musical. To me it was a story I read in New York magazine called "Tribal Rites of Saturday Night," all about this kid who lived in Brooklyn who was the star in his area. But his area was destined to go nowhere, and he left his friends and he walked across that Verrazano Bridge and went to Manhattan, the Big Apple. I thought that was a great idea for a movie, and didn't really know that the Bee Gees were going to change the world, as far as music was concerned. I've been involved with that a couple of times in my career, where you do something that you believe in and it just creates a cultural phenomenon all over the world. Whether it's dealing with John Travolta, or Happy Days, or now we're doing Home Improvement, we just opened The Lion King. The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and so forth. It's just intellectually stimulating and I enjoy it. I enjoy being with people and I don't know how I got here.


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This page last revised on Sep 22, 2010 09:24 EDT