After graduating from UCLA with a degree in theater, film and television, Ovitz began his career at the William Morris Agency, but left with four other agents in 1975 to found Creative Artists Agency.
While at CAA, he was responsible for pioneering the practice of "packaging" writers, directors, and actors for motion pictures. This practice led to CAA and its clients holding significant negotiating leverage over the major studios. Various industry critics, such as entertainment-securities attorney John Cones in his recent book, Hollywood Wars, maintain that the practice of packaging is an illegal tie-in prohibited by federal and state antitrust laws.
Ovitz is also well-known for negotiating David Letterman's move from NBC to CBS, chronicled in the book The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night by Bill Carter, as well as for discovering the action star Steven Seagal.
In 1995, he resigned from CAA to become president of the Walt Disney Company under chairman Michael Eisner. Sixteen months after taking office, he was dismissed by Disney's board of directors and received $38 million in cash and $100 million in stock as a severance package. Later court proceedings reflect that Ovitz' stock options were granted when he was hired to induce him to join The Walt Disney Company, not granted when he was fired, and the $100 million figure was an estimate by undreported news sources of what his stock options might hypothetically be worth; before his hiring and firing became the subject of a major lawsuit in which the $100 million value of his stock options was seriously questioned, and in which both he and The Walt Disney Company Prevailed.
This, along with the failure of his subsequent venture, the Artist Management Group, led him to claim that his downfall had been engineered by a Hollywood cabal he referred to as the "gay mafia". Ovitz sold AMG to Jeff Kwatinetz for an estimated $12 million, which was merged into his talent agency The Firm.
Today, Ovitz is a private investor who continues to informally advise the careers of luminaries such as Martin Scorsese, David Letterman and Tom Clancy. He is also a passionate basketball fan and art collector.