TED TURNER'S LIFE MAY BEST BE UNDERSTOOD AS A startling series of narrowly missed disasters. When he skippered his yacht in Britain's prestigious Fastnet race in 1979, he was so absorbed in victory that he did not even know a gale was killing 15 yachtsmen in the boats behind him. His costly acquisition of MGM's movie library in 1986, widely considered a bonehead move at the time, now looks like a bargain the Japanese would envy. The Atlanta Braves, which Turner bought in 1976, snuffled along in the gutter for years, then went from last place to first in their division this year and lost the World Series by only a bat's whoosh. And CNN, once derided as the "Chicken Noodle Network" for its low wages and amateurish presentation, is now the video medium of record.
But these public triumphs are nothing compared with what he achieved on Nov. 19 of this year: Turner, alive and well, stabilized by medication and psychiatric counseling, beloved by Jane Fonda, celebrated his 53rd birthday. Fifty-three was the age at which Turner's father shot himself through the head with a .38-cal. pistol, and it was an age that many people who know Turner did not expect him to reach. While most Americans think of Turner as the loud cheerleader of the Braves, the corporate Don Quixote who went after CBS or the peace-loving impresario of the Goodwill Games, those close to him have always known Turner was haunted by a self-imposed deadline. "Ted felt that his father had died tragically and it was his duty to die tragically," says Dee Woods, his assistant of 16 years. Says James Roddey, a former Turner Broadcasting executive and sailing partner of Turner's: "He envisioned himself as part of a tragedy being played out onstage. While everyone kept stopping the show with applause, he knew how it was going to come out."
For Turner, life has been a struggle to master what he calls his "greatest" fear -- the fear of death. "Because if you can get yourself where you're not afraid of dying, then you can . . . move forward a lot faster," he says. Until a few years ago, his top executives would hear Turner talk of suicide in moments of depression. At other times he was convinced he would be killed. "Years ago, I came up with what I was going to say to an assassin if he came to shoot me," he said recently. "You want to know what it is? 'Thanks for not coming sooner.' Pretty good, huh?"