`I think I've got a real problem'

As head of Disney, Michael Eisner knows all about pressure. One day it nearly killed him
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The Independent Culture
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. I liked the fact that he was devoted to his wife Judy and his three children, and that he seemed to genuinely care for my wife, Jane, and our three sons.

I had sensed for some time that Michael was feeling restless as an agent. In mid-July 1994, I suggested that we fly together to a conference in Sun Valley given by Herb Allen, an investment banker, so that we could discuss the possibility of his coming to Disney. He agreed with more enthusiasm than I had expected. "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 Wells's role. [Wells had been president of Disney until his death in a helicopter accident in April 1994.] 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 operated as partners. But it was obvious that Michael was not buying my pitch, and our discussion took on an unacknowledged awkwardness.

He made it very clear that he didn't want to be anyone's No.2. 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 pressure 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. Before long, I was mingling with other guests, including Bill Gates, the head of Microsoft; Warren Buffett, the biggest shareholder in Cap Cities and a legendary investor; and Bob Wright of NBC. 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.

Jane and I were walking the 200 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 65, 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 $100m policy payable to the company in the event of my death.

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.

About 11pm, 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 yoghurt 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 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 oesophageal 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 recognise 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 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 had I dealt with so many difficult events in such a short period. There was Frank Wells's death, above all, and then the ongoing tension with Jeffrey Katzenburg, the head of Disney's filmed entertainment division and, effectively, our third-ranking executive. Our relationship had grown strained during the last couple of years. Then, on 5 April, less than 36 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."

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 haemorrhaging money.

For months before his death, Frank and I had been talking about our plans to reinvent and re-energise Disney. 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, rationalising that I had no time, and ate whatever I could catch on the run. Often, I 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 4am. I awoke three hours later, in order to hear a presentation about the future of broadcasting

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. Afterwards, 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 10 years, to tell her that I wanted to come home the next day, Friday, instead of Saturday,

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 rumours 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. She told me that it had been 18 months, meaning that I was six months overdue. "Could you schedule a new one?" I asked. Lucille set up the test at Cedars- Sinai Hospital for less than two weeks later.

On Thursday 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.

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. To my relief, when we left to catch our flight, 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 autumn 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.

When we landed in Burbank, I got in my car and drove to the hospital alone. Michael Engelberg was waiting when I arrived at Cedars-Sinai shortly before 5pm. So were John Friedman and Dan Berman, cardiologists I had known for years who specialise 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, Neil Buchbinder, had showed up. 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 10 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 co-ordinate 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 his last phrase: "Ninety-eight per cent safe."

I felt as if I had just hit the soft shoulder of a highway at 80 miles an hour. Alarm bells sounded in my head. "You mean the other two per cent 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. 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 feel 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.

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 per cent 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.

"Couldn't we wait and get a second opinion?" I asked Trento.

"Waiting wouldn't be a good idea," he replied. Suddenly I realised that surgery was fine with me. This was an emergency.

It was almost 10pm when I was wheeled into the operation room. Jane stood over me with two of our three sons, Breck, then 23, and Eric, 20. She hadn't yet been able to locate our youngest son, Anders, 16. 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 6.30am. 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. The tube in my throat was taken out shortly after 9am, and as soon as I could speak, I insisted that the press release about my condition included 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 anaesthesia. Instead, I had a single happy thought: "That's the best night's sleep I've had in a year."

This is adapted from `Work in Progress' by Michael Eisner with Tony Schwartz, to be published by Penguin on 19 April at pounds 18.99. To reserve a copy at pounds 18.99 inclusive of postage and packing, please send a cheque made payable to Penguin Books Ltd, or credit card details to: WORK IN PROGRESS OFFER, Penguin Direct, Bath Road, Harmondsworth, UB7 0DA. Offer subject to availability. Open to residents of the UK only. Allow 30 days for delivery. Offer closes on 31 March 1999.