HOLLYWOOD -- Mike Ovitz, the most powerful agent in Hollywood, took a call from a friendly longtime competitor. The call was about a hot character actor whom Ovitz wanted to sign at Creative Artists Agency. The competitor didn't want to lose the star character actor, and said so. "You have everyone else in town," pleaded the competitor. "Must you have this actor, too?" Ovitz understood immediately. The actor stayed put. And he's still a character actor.

The story has a cotton-candy quality -- it may or may not be apocryphal. But it's verified by several members of the agents' wing of the Hollywood power pack known as the Boys Club. The point is, the Boys Club takes care of its own, on some gut level. The club also competes ferociously and plays for high stakes, not always as gentlemen. The reason: Power shifts in the agency business (it travels as if on a train, in the agents' own words. In the last 20 years, the train has made only four major stops), from Freddie Fields at Creative Management Associates to Sue Mengers at International Creative Management to Stan Kamen at William Morris to Mike Ovitz at Creative Artists Agency. When a train stops only four times in 20 years the other passengers (read "agents") are bound to be restless.

More to the point: Are modern agents happy being agents? In years past an agent was almost always on his way elsewhere -- usually to a studio job or his own production company. Three of the four people named above are no longer agents (Freddie Fields became a producer, Sue Mengers took a "breather" from the business, Stan Kamen died a year ago) and that leaves Ovitz. If he's at the pinnacle of the heap, it's a very small heap.

Are the other players alike in any way, other than being collected into categories like killer and nurturer and pleaser and schmoozer? Do they merely reassure insecure people all day long and send them off with false hopes?

In "The Way We Were," Barbra Streisand is introduced at a Hollywood party to Allyn Ann McLerie, a woman referred to as "the greatest agent in town." McLerie looks up from her croquet mallet and shoots Streisand an ironic glance. "If I were a great agent -- would I be an agent?" The line referred to the self-deprecation historically heaped on agents by themselves.

And if agents didn't put themselves down, there were others who were willing. The following story is not apocryphal.

The legendary Paul Kohner, whose clients include John Huston and Ingmar Bergman, became an agent in 1936. In the early '50s, he and Huston and writer Peter Viertel spent some time with Ernest Hemingway in the south of France. Hemingway was so taken with Kohner that he invited the agent to visit him in Cuba. Even Huston was impressed.

"Hemingway sure went for Paul," Huston told Viertel. "Is he always that chummy with agents?"

"You'll get a kick out of this," replied Viertel. "When I told Hemingway that Paul was an agent, he flinched. 'An agent!' Hemingway bellowed. 'I thought he was a money man.' "

In modern Hollywood, agents are money men; some of them are major players in the same echelon as studio executives. Their bonuses can be six figures; their partnerships are like annuities; their clout in getting a picture made is considerable. "In the early '80s more pictures were put together in Stan Kamen's office than at MGM or Columbia," said a colleague of the late William Morris agent. (Kamen's client list included Streisand, Diane Keaton, Warren Beatty, Goldie Hawn, Chevy Chase and Kurt Russell.)

Since the '30s when Myron Selznick and Frank Orsatti began playing David to William Morris' Goliath, agents began to take on different colorations. The job -- selling the client -- hasn't changed, but the style has. The first power twins, the buckarooing MCA and the paternalistic William Morris -- were as different as Sen. Daniel Inouye and Lt. Col. Oliver North. The private grammar, the lingo, that agents speak changes each decade, even if the power doesn't. In the '80s the lingo is fast and the power is high stakes, but the profile is low. In the '70s the opposite was true.

To be very specific: The flamboyant Freddie Fields probably was the most powerful agent of the early '70s. Paul Newman and Robert Redford were his clients at Creative Management Associates, which in 1975 merged into International Creative Management, the same year Fields became an independent producer. The most powerful agent of the mid-'80s is the completely unflamboyant Mike Ovitz.

The difference between the two is everything: Fields lived in the high-rolling tradition of agents like Charles Feldman and Leland Hayward -- a showplace house on the best block in Beverly Hills, Christmases in Acapulco with cronies like Ted Ashley and Jim Aubrey -- with parties to match; Ovitz spends weekends in a remote area beyond Malibu and has quietly gotten the legendary I.M. Pei to agree to design the new Creative Artists Agency headquarters in Los Angeles. Ovitz is more a throwback to the late MCA founder Jules Stein, who believed that the client is the star, not the agent.

Does a decade make that much difference? This decade does. The last intoxicating incident that any agent can remember, on or off the record, was the late-'70s lunchtime imbroglio between agent Bobby Littman and producer Sidney Beckerman on the patio of Ma Maison: Littman, who at the time was dating the producer's daughter, slugged the producer, and the patio came to life.

Times change. Ma Maison is as much a memory, albeit a glamorous one, as Ciro's or the Hillcrest Country Club in their primes. It's Morton's that's replaced Hillcrest, and the Boys Club sits in front. On a given night at Morton's, quiet business dinners are served to agents in Armani suits who go to bed early and don't talk about drugs, let alone do them. It's likely they've gone to Yale, and not just pretended to, as some Hollywood types used to do. Most likely they are white family men.

Most importantly they understand the rules of the Boys Club. They know by heart the first Law of Uncle Abe Lastfogel, the late longtime chief of William Morris: "Don't poach a client from a smaller agency." The second law: Agencies are the one place that males begin in the mail room, then become secretaries, as Rick Nicita and Lenny Hirshan did, and wind up as executives. The third and latest law: Certain clients (Dustin Hoffman, for example) are not going to pay full 10 percent commission.

Those who do best at raise time are the ones who know what "constellates" (as the lingo goes) around an agent, the hype or lack thereof, the clients newly signed. The topmost agents also know the ultimate rule of the '80s: Agents are players but not personalities.

So how do they play? They play with rituals, but without flash or fireworks. The family birthday party has replaced the dinner party. At Richard Dreyfuss' first birthday party for son Benjamin, agents from competing offices, friends of the family, sat together and huddled, but didn't schmooze. (The semantic difference is important: "Shmooze," which CAA agent Jane Sindell had as a license plate when she was at International Creative Management, is what agents call shop talk. Huddling is just huddling -- it isn't business.)

Also unsurprising is the notion of agents from different companies socializing. Rival agents are often closer to each other -- Stan Kamen and Sue Mengers dined together every four weeks without fail -- than to their clients, though the client gets the empathy. But there is an artificiality to competition within the club; veteran agents understand "the long day," as one put it, "and we get together to celebrate another long day, another client lost or kept, another contract, another season."

They also understand the unspoken spy system that exists within studios; when a script is sent from an agent to a studio, a piece of gossip may be attached. The return? An answer as to which executive liked which script.

The power shift right now is generational, toward agents who came of age in the '60s, who have ego but also pride, and a political framework. The one big party that anyone remembers Mike Ovitz giving in the last two years was for Sen. Bill Bradley, which Ovitz cohosted with Disney chairman and friend Michael Eisner. The modern framework includes teamwork; setting up your colleagues for a fall is frowned upon. Teamwork is one major reason for the enormous rise of CAA -- within 25 minutes of a script submitted for client Bette Midler, every CAA agent is apprised. Access to top material -- and the processing of it -- is any agency's strength.

It's a trench mentality -- "We are in this together" -- that's now at work. The instant philosophies behind "The One-Minute Manager" are not unknown at modern agencies. What studios were until the '60s, a home base, is what agencies have become. Bicoastal teams of agents within a single company "look after" a star, maybe even groom him, much as a studio once did. To elevate the actor quickly, they then package him with fellow star clients, as Sam Cohn attempted with Mandy Patinkin in "Heartburn." (Patinkin was replaced one week into filming by Jack Nicholson, but the package was in place.)

The next possible shift: a return of the studio as a home base, as seen in Disney's signing of Tom Hanks and Carol Burnett to Midler-like deals. Burnett, for instance, will be used by Disney's development teams for TV projects as well as features; her longtime agent Bill Robinson will be involved in the material -- and Disney in the process acquires a major TV asset.

And in a world where the term "baby moguls" (coined by writer Maureen Orth) is no longer heard, agents are staying put. Studio jobs are fewer, and agency jobs offer mound building (read "career building"). An agent's background can be anything; Nicole David and Paula Wagner were actresses; Peter Benedek and Sam Cohn were lawyers.

And yes, there's inbreeding, and coupling: International Creative Management's Hildy Gottlieb is married to director Walter Hill, who is the best friend of ICM Chairman Jeff Berg. Creative Artists Agency's Paula Wagner and Rick Nicita are married; Jack Rapke and Laurie Perlman have a marriage born at CAA, though Perlman has since left to become a producer at Warner Bros.; at William Morris the couple is Carey Woods and Cynthia Shelton. But how did they get from there to here? How did their names get on the map?

What puts an agent on the map is one of two things: an impenetrable relationship with a client or an event.

An example of an event would be the sleeper success of director Robert Zemeckis with "Romancing the Stone." The director's agent, Jack Rapke, got put on the map. The first studio check for Zemeckis was in the low seven figures; such checks constitute getting on the map. In the recent past, another event could have been a winter weekend in Aspen with all kinds of white powder.

The other ultimate way to get on the map is a client-agent relationship, a solid joined-at-the-hip one. It's understood, for example, that Steve Martin will probably never leave Marty Klein and John Gaines at Agency for the Performing Arts. It's assumed that Amy Irving and agent Nicole David are in it for the long run. Ed Limato at William Morris has been Richard Gere's first and only agent. William Hurt is never even approached without the understanding that Triad's Gene Parseghian is the conduit.

Of such arcs are careers built.