MIAMI - It is difficult to figure out why Michael Eisner would want to be a talk-show host. For one thing, he’s got a billion dollars. Literally - Forbes magazine says so. For another, he worries himself sick that he’ll flub something on camera, no matter how wildly improbable - like, say, mixing up the name of a shrimp-dumpling dish with a famous war crime.
“Oh yeah, when I was on Martha Stewart’s show, I was cooking shrimp shao mai and I was really afraid I was going to say shrimp My Lai,” Eisner recalls. “I kept saying the name to myself to get it right. It was kind of silly to have me on there anyway. Cooking is not my forte. But I did have an advantage - the guy before me was doing worms and compost.”
Eisner is considerably more adept at analyzing business and entertainment - and, especially, the business of entertainment - than he is at making dumplings, so his CNBC talk show “Conversations With Michael Eisner” sticks pretty much to those topics with guests ranging from stars like John Travolta to corporate honchos like Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks.
Still, it seems an odd place to find the guy who spent two decades rebuilding Disney from a floundering film studio into a $50 billion global entertainment empire before walking away from an acrimonious dispute with stockholders two years ago.
“Well, I did have some experience. I hosted `The Wonderful World Of Disney’ for 20 years,” Eisner teases. “Seriously, what am I gonna do? Play golf? Sit on an island somewhere? It’s not my personality.”
“Conversations,” however, is less a talk show than a televised power lunch. Because the sprawling Disney empire Eisner built contained so many disparate elements - a cruise line, a hockey team, a worldwide chain of amusement parks, a movie studio, several television networks - he can make the business equivalent of pillow talk with almost anybody.
When Bob Iger, the man who succeeded him as Disney CEO, appeared on the show, Eisner chatted with him about the difficulties in striking a deal with Pixar, the animation studio that made Disney hits like “Cars” and “Finding Nemo.” Eisner’s failure to nail it down was a major factor in his departure from Disney. “It was expensive, right?” he queried Iger in a respectful tone.
When Micky Arison visited, Eisner - recalling his own difficulties running the California Angels as part of publicly held Disney - wondered with more than a touch of envy what it was like to be boss of the Miami Heat without having to answer to stockholders. Gloria Estefan and Eisner reminisced about the deal that brought the singer’s Cuban restaurant Bongos to Disney World.
“That’s why we call them conversations rather than interviews,” Eisner says. “I know all these people. We can either exaggerate together or tell the truth together. But we both know the whole story.”
He’s particularly engrossed by success stories of people who grew up in homes where a parent was missing and money was scarce.
“Even when I was a kid, if there was a story in Time magazine on people like that, I would be fascinated,” Eisner recounts. “And now I’ve talked to everybody from (comedian) Steve Martin to the top executives of the corporate world. An incredibly high percentage had a parent who died when they were in high school or earlier. Steve Martin, Lorne Michaels, Gloria Estefan.
“There’s something about a kid having to participate in the upbringing of a family that gives people an edge that helps them be successful later ... People who have suffered that disability have learned early in life to rely on themselves rather than others.”
Not, Eisner is quick to add, that he’s among them. “My parents were fine - I had a good childhood, with an affluent background,” he muses. “I must have some other problems.”
He certainly has at least one: a pervasive if good-humored paranoia about how he looks on camera. “The camera makes me look fat,” Eisner complains as a producer fusses with the placement of his chair on the makeshift set thrown together at the Delano Hotel penthouse where “Conversations” is taping. The producer, who’s clearly heard this before, offers a solution: “Want me to put a bag over your head?”
That, scoffs Eisner, is only slightly less onerous a solution than the one real movie stars turn to. “I was on a flight with Paul Newman, and all he eats are carrots and celery. The reason he looks this good is that he’s about” - he holds his thumb and finger about two inches apart - “this big. So it’s not worth it.”
Eisner has been doing “Conversations” for over a year now, ever since CNBC President Mark Hoffman saw him guest-hosting Charlie Rose’s PBS talk show and decided he was a natural. The show, which airs only once a month, is by no means Eisner’s only gig: His “day job,” as he calls it, is his new studio, Vuguru, which is investing heavily in webisodes, the Internet mini-shows that seem to be Hollywood’s next big thing.
“When I first talked with CNBC, I agreed to do one `Conversations,’” Eisner says. `Then they said, `How about another six?’ Then they said, `How about another 12?’ It’s not like I ever had a plan about this. So who knows where it will go?”
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