LOS ANGELES -- In present-day Hollywood, talent agent Michael Ovitz has the kind of clout and position that the studio moguls of the old Hollywood possessed.

Ovitz emerged last weekend as the man who put together MCA Inc. (owner of Universal Studios) and the Japanese company Matsushita in a deal worth $7.5 billion. It is the largest-ever buyout of an American company by a Japanese concern, and as a result, the reputation already affixed to Ovitz -- as "superagent" and "the most powerful man in Hollywood" -- seems certain to grow larger.

This is the second Japanese company that Ovitz, who considers himself something of a student of Eastern philosophy, has helped shepherd into Hollywood. The first was Sony, which acquired Columbia Pictures last year.

At the age of 43, Ovitz -- whether he likes it or not -- is cloaked in his own mystique. His associates at the Creative Artists Agency insist that it is an exaggeration to call him the most powerful man in Hollywood. But there's no denying that there is substance behind the title.

"Who's more powerful?" one studio executive asks rhetorically. "Any single studio head? They come and go. Can {Ovitz} make movies? No. But he can affect whether they get made."

"The business of Hollywood is the business of relationships," offered one television producer. "On this day everybody in Hollywood wishes to have an even warmer relationship with Mike Ovitz." As chairman of CAA, which he and four other renegade agents from the Los Angeles office of the William Morris Agency started in 1975, Ovitz represents some of the best-known actors, directors and writers in the business. His firm's clients include actors Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Tom Cruise, Kevin Costner, Paul Newman, Michael Douglas and Robert De Niro, and actresses Jane Fonda, Cher and Debra Winger. It also represents directors Barry Levinson, Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Ivan Reitman and Steven Spielberg, among others.

If you see the ingredients for the movie "Rain Man" (Hoffman, Cruise, Levinson) in that list -- or "Legal Eagles" (Redford, Winger, Reitman), for another example -- it's no accident. In fact, at the 1989 Academy Awards, "Rain Man" director Levinson and star Hoffman both gave thanks to Ovitz in their acceptance speeches.

"He has a habit of traveling anywhere in the world to meet someone interesting," said one industry source. "He's one of the best-connected human beings I've ever met."

CAA's forte has been putting together name talent in big movies. Although the practice is sometimes referred to as "packaging," CAA officials hate the term and consider it technically incorrect since packaging -- as it's used to refer to agencies that put together talent for television shows -- implies that the agency gets a packaging fee. (CAA takes the standard 10 percent commission of its clients' earnings.)

CAA officials prefer to characterize it as simply putting projects together and helping its clients to work on what they want with the people they want. And in many of those cases, much of the top talent is from the CAA stable.

One CAA associate said the Matsushita deal was simply a case of Ovitz doing what he likes to do -- putting things together, pushing the envelope on what an agency does.

Matsushita hired CAA a year ago to advise it on getting into software -- which is what the Japanese manufacturer of high-tech electronics considers film studios and producers of movies to be. Since then Ovitz and half a dozen CAA agents have worked on putting together a relationship between the Matsushita negotiators and MCA's chairman, Lew Wasserman, and president, Sidney Sheinberg. The efforts culminated in the marathon weekend meetings during which MCA board members agreed to accept the terms of Matsushita's offer. For its work, CAA will receive a substantial fee, which the agency, of course, will not describe in detail.

"Mike is an amazingly tenacious guy," says producer Irving Azoff. "Having worked at MCA for 6 1/2 years and after watching a lot of approaches to Lew Wasserman and Sidney Sheinberg, it was obvious only someone with Mike's determination could hold on."

Although there has been printed speculation that sometime in the future Ovitz might want to run MCA, CAA associates deny this.

Ovitz grew up in Encino in the San Fernando Valley, attending Birmingham High School, where one of his classmates was Michael Milken. They have not maintained any kind of friendship since school. However, Ovitz has remained good friends with another classmate, Oscar-winning actress Sally Field. Ovitz graduated from UCLA, where he met his wife, the former Judy Reich, to whom he is still married after 21 years and three children. They have a home in Brentwood with a gymnasium where Ovitz, a martial-arts enthusiast, works out. He was once a student of martial-arts teacher Steven Seagal, and it was Ovitz who started Seagal on his career as an actor in action films such as "Hard to Kill."

Ironically, Ovitz's first exposure to show business came when he was working his way through college as a tour guide at Universal Studios, the sale of which he just helped engineer. After graduation, Ovitz worked at the William Morris Agency, putting in time in the mail room and as another agent's secretary before leaving to attend law school. That academic stint was brief, however, and he returned to the Morris agency, where he rose quickly, handling a number of daytime television clients, including Bob Barker and Merv Griffin.

But Ovitz and several other agents were unhappy with the rate of advancement at the agency and left -- according to the New York Times they were fired when other members of the agency got wind of their discontent -- to form their own agency. At the beginning they worked out of rented space, with their spouses pitching in to answer phones and all of them sharing a couple of cars. In the years since, however, CAA has come to be considered one of the three best -- along with William Morris and ICM -- in Los Angeles.

CAA has no New York office and its agents have no titles -- except for Ovitz (who's the chairman) and Ron Meyer (a co-founder who's the president). Last year the agency opened much-talked-about new quarters in its own low-rise building. Designed by I.M. Pei, it features an atrium and a Roy Lichtenstein mural in the lobby, reflecting the tastes of Chairman Ovitz, who collects contemporary art.

In the past year, CAA has hired someone to handle press relations and public affairs. The agency's public profile -- and particularly that of Ovitz -- has risen dramatically in the past couple of years and often in less than complimentary ways. Last year Joe Eszterhas, one of Hollywood's most successful screenwriters, accused Ovitz of threatening his career after Eszterhas left CAA to join another agency. The matter eventually faded. Ovitz denied the claim, as did a CAA official yesterday -- in strong language -- and Eszterhas's career has continued to flourish. This year he sold a screenplay called "Basic Instinct" for $3 million.

A CAA official insisted yesterday that Ovitz, usually portrayed as press-shy, does regularly talk to journalists. However, the official said, Ovitz was unable to comment for this story due to the demands of his schedule in light of his latest coup.