Ovitz was born to a Jewish family in Chicago, Illinois, the son of a liquor wholesaler. Raised in Encino, California, he attended Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, a classmate of Sally Field. While a pre-med student at UCLA, he began his entertainment career as a part-time tour guide at Universal Studios. Upon graduating from UCLA in 1968 with a degree in theater, film, and television, he secured a job in the mailroom at the William Morris Agency. Within a year he was promoted, becoming a highly successful television agent. Six years later, he and four other young colleagues left William Morris to found Creative Artists Agency.
Ovitz founded Creative Artists Agency in 1975 along with fellow William Morris Agents Ron Meyer, Bill Haber, Rowland Perkins, and Mike Rosenfeld. Borrowing only $21,000 from a bank, the agents rented a small office, conducting business on card tables and rented chairs, their wives taking turns as agency receptionist.
Under his direction, CAA quickly grew from a start-up organization to the world’s leading talent agency, expanding from television into film, investment banking, and advertising. Ovitz was known for assembling “package deals”, wherein CAA would utilize its talent base to provide directors, actors and screenwriters to a studio, thus shifting the negotiating leverage from the studios to the talent. As CAA rose in stature Ovitz became one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. Promoted to President, then to Chairman of the Board, his roles at CAA were numerous. He served as talent agent to Hollywood actors Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Costner, John Belushi, Michael Douglas, Bill Murray, Sylvester Stallone, and Barbra Streisand, as well as directors Steven Spielberg, Barry Levinson, and Sydney Pollack. He also provided corporate consulting services, helping negotiate several major international business mergers and deals including Matsushita’s acquisition of MCA/Universal, the financial rescue of MGM/United Artists, and Sony’s acquisition of Columbia Pictures. His signing of Coca-Cola as a CAA client from agency McCann-Erickson had a significant impact on the advertising industry. He negotiated 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.
Ovitz resigned from CAA in 1995 to become president of the Walt Disney Company under chairman Michael Eisner. Ovitz quickly grew frustrated with his role in the company and vague definition of duties. After a tumultuous year as Eisner's second in command, he was dismissed by Eisner in January 1997 and left Disney with a (previously agreed upon) severance package valued at $38 million in cash and an estimated $100 million in stock.
Disney shareholders later sued Eisner and Disney's board of directors for awarding Ovitz such a large severance package. Later court proceedings reflect that Ovitz' stock options were granted when he was hired to induce him to join the company, not granted when he was fired. In 2005 the court upheld Disney's payment.
In January 1999, Ovitz formed CKE, comprising four distinct companies: Artist Management Group (AMG), Artist Production Group (APG), Artist Television Group (ATG) and Lynx Technology Group (LTG). In 2002 Ovitz sold AMG to Jeff Kwatinetz for an estimated $12 million, which was merged into his management group The Firm.
After the sale of AMG, Ovitz became the subject of controversy for remarks made in a Vanity Fair interview, wherein he blamed the downfall of AMG upon a Hollywood cabal led by Dreamworks cofounder David Geffen which Ovitz described as the "gay mafia" (despite the fact that most of its purported members were not gay). In addition to Geffen, the list included New York Times Hollywood correspondent Bernie Weinraub, Disney Chairman (and former employer) Michael Eisner; Bryan Lourd, Kevin Huvane, and Richard Lovett, partners at CAA, Universal Studios president Ronald Meyer (Ovitz's former partner at CAA); and Vivendi Universal Entertainment CEO Barry Diller. "If I were to establish the foundation of the negativity," Ovitz stated, "it all comes down to David Geffen and Bernie Weinraub. Everything comes back to those two. It’s the same group [quoted] in every article." He later apologized for his Vanity Fair comments.
Ovitz now acts as a private investor who has informally advised the careers of luminaries such as Martin Scorsese. Active in philanthropy, he donated $25 million in 1999 to spearhead fund raising efforts for UCLA's Medical Center, and has contributed significantly to numerous other philanthropic endeavors. A private investor and businessman, his notable activities have ranged from attempts to bring an NFL team to the Los Angeles Coliseum to ventures in online media.
Ovitz is considered among the world's top 200 art collectors. His contemporary pieces include works by Pablo Picasso, Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and many others.
His daughter is New York fashion designer Kimberly Ovitz.
In 2015 Ovitz became engaged to Tamara Mellon despite still being legally married to his wife Judy.