Day of the Hunter
But while living well be the best revenge for some people, for Barry Diller it may not be enough. That is one of the explanations offered for the highly publicized $10 billion bid by Diller and a group of investors at-tempting to mount a hostile takeover of Paramount Communications, which had been planning to merge with Viacom. It escaped no one's notice that nearly 10 years ago Diller left as head of Paramount Pictures after tangling with Martin Davis, who still runs the parent company. Diller. for his part, indignantly denies there are personal motives behind his move. "Our proposal had no emotional aspect other than the fondness I have for the 10 years I spent at Paramount." he said of the proposed deal, which would create the world's fifth-biggest entertainment conglomerate.
As it happens, many former employees—not all at Paramount—don't have equally fond memories of the sometimes confrontational Diller. While head of Fox Television, he was once in the midst of a heated discussion with a top aide when he hurled a videocassette that left a hole in a wall. He also had a very public falling out with Joan Rivers, who was then hosting a late-night talk show for Fox. As the ratings plunged, Diller began to strip Rivers's husband, Edgar Rosenberg, of his producing duties, then fired her. Today, though, she speaks glowingly of Diller. "I've mended fences," she says. "He is absolutely brilliant."
Almost no one disputes that Diller is among the most energetic and creative executives in Hollywood. He was raised in Beverly Hills, one of two sons of a wealthy builder. As a youngster, Diller played with the children of Danny Thomas—Tony, Theresa and Mario. And it was to Thomas that Diller appealed, after dropping out of UCLA in his freshman year, for help getting a job at the William Morris Agency. Starling out in the mail room, Diller dedicated himself to learning the entertainment trade by reading the agency's vast archives. "It took me three years to finish," he said later.
When he did, though, he had acquired the equivalent of a Ph.D. in showbiz. He joined ABC in 1966 as the aide to the vice president in charge of programming, and within a few years he was challenging established formulas by pushing such innovations as made-for-TV movies and blockbuster miniseries (Roots). At 32 he was lapped to head Paramount by Charles Bluhdorn, the founder of parent company Gulf + Western. Soon the once-moribund studio was churning out one megahit after another—Saturday Night Fever, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Beverly Hills Cop. But when Bluhdorn died, his successor, Davis, immediately clashed with Diller, who left in 1984.
Diller look over the helm of Twentieth Century Fox, another faltering studio, and once again worked his magic, backing hits like Big and Die Hard. Bui his greatest achievement was in helping Fox's new owner. Rupert Murdoch, launch the country's fourth television network in 1986.
The hallmark of Diller's management style is bold vision combined with an almost obsessive attention to detail. While at Fox, for instance, he even went so far as to choose graphics for shows and pick the color schemes for sets. Recently he acquired a new instrument of control: an Apple PowerBook laptop computer, which he pecks at constantly in plotting strategies. Diller is vigilant in guarding his private life. Never married, his only visible relationship has been with designer Diane Von Furstenberg, 46, with whom he once lived for several years. Still one of his closest friends, along with fellow mogul David Geffen and producer Sandy Gallin, she is fiercely protective of his reputation. "Barry is wonderful," she says. "He is tough, but he is not a pig."
Last year, looking for new challenges outside Fox, Diller quit, explaining, "I want to own my own store." Within a matter of months, he put together a deal to buy QVC, the largest home-shopping channel. If successful in his bid for Paramount, he might be able to create a fifth network and blaze a trail into the new world of interactive television, where customers could select their own programming. And if he isn't successful in this latest chapter of a remarkable career? Attending a gala dinner in New York City last week, the businessman mellowed for a moment, then replied, "I'll be sad." Von Furstenberg, standing by, was impressed. "Oh," she purred, "what a sweet answer."
JOYCE WAGNER in Los Angeles and MARIA EFTIMIADES in New York City