The Taming of Ted Turner

Forget about those legendary tales of excess. Taking the biggest risk of his life, Turner confronted the dark legacy of his father and prevailed.

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ED TURNER, THE EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT of CNN and no relation to his boss, says Turner's personal transformation was, at some level, the result of a professional one: Turner's adjusting to his new environment. "He went from the hearty camaraderie of the Chamber of Commerce and locker-room crowds to the world of great leaders." More important, what Turner recognized in the mid-'80s was that his roller-coaster emotional life, which had served him well in his risk-taking entrepreneurial days, was not particularly useful in running an international company with long-term ambitions and an estimated worth well in excess of $7 billion. The businessman who three times in his life had leveraged almost everything he owned and borrowed heavily -- to buy back his father's billboard company, to start CNN and to purchase MGM -- says he came to believe he did not "have to take desperate gambles anymore."

It was not just that Turner had more to lose; he was also convinced that through some cyclical inevitability he was doomed to lose what he had. "He was hung up on the fact that a lot of people said, 'Well, Ted Turner is the ultimate entrepreneur, and entrepreneurs when they get to $250 million or $1 billion or $2 billion, they crap out, and either they fall to the bottom or they turn their companies over to others,' " says Wussler. "He didn't want that to happen."

In 1986 Turner's premonition came close to happening: his acquisition of MGM/ UA for $1.4 billion buried him so deeply in debt that he had to be bailed out by a consortium of cable operators (including Time Warner, which owns TIME) that invested $562.5 million in the company in exchange for minority ownership. Turner remained chairman, but he was forced to give cable operators seven seats on the 15-member board and veto power over any decision that would cost the company more than $2 million. It was a major setback for a man who lived by his father's homespun sermons, including the idea, in Wussler's words, that "you hang on to as much of your business as you can yourself."

But once Turner had resigned himself to the company's shotgun marriage, it came almost as a relief: it forced stability on Turner just as he was growing weary of his own high-wire act. "One of the first things he said to me," says Fonda, "was, 'I feel like I'm constantly at war, always fighting to survive, risking everything, putting all the cards on the table.' It was always that white-knuckle, fingernail-biting, nerve-destroying kind of situation." In late 1986 and early 1987, according to his longtime assistant Woods, Turner felt so run-down that some doctors thought he had contracted the Epstein-Barr virus; after numerous tests they determined instead that his lack of energy was a kind of altitude sickness from the frequent takeoffs and landings of his travel schedule.

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