Turner: Tough Father 'Made Me a Better Man'

The media mogul recounts his colorful life in autobiography "Call Me Ted."

ByABC News via logo
November 10, 2008, 12:54 PM

Nov. 11, 2008 -- Ted Turner had a difficult childhood and suffered beatings from an alcoholic father, the media mogul told "Good Morning America."

"You either break down or you break out," he said of his travails. "The losers break down, the winners break out."

The hardships and victories that make up Turner are the subject of his just-released autobiography, "Call Me Ted," co-written with media executive Bill Burke.

Not a reflective man by nature, the "mouth of the South" nevertheless decided it was time to put the details of his big, colorful life on paper.

"Well, I'm turning 70 now, and my memory's starting to fade a little bit, so I figured if I didn't get it done now, it might be too late," Turner said today in an interview with "Good Morning America."

There's no shortage of raw material to work with from Turner's life. The media mogul created CNN, the country's first 24-hour news network; as a philanthropist, he gave $1 billion to fund the United Nations Foundation; he won the America's Cup for sailing and won a World Series as owner of Major League Baseball's Atlanta Braves; and with 2 million acres to his name, he's America's biggest landowner.

But for Turner, such success was borne out of tragedy.

His sister, Mary Jean, died of an illness at 17 years old. Turner does not remember much of it.

"Your brain has a way of overcoming it by blocking it out, because you can't just sit around," he said. "What you've got to do is think about something else and work your way through it. If you just think about the tragedy all the time, you'll become suicidal."

In 1963 Turner's father took his own life. After his father's death, Turner said he started working harder than he ever had before.

"Well, I knew that's what he wanted me to do. That's what he trained me to do, so I just did it," he said.

But as successful as he was in the business world, Turner struggled in his personal life. Three failed marriages and five children later, he says he now knows the root of the problem.

"I was working so hard, I really didn't have as much time for my family or my children as I would have liked to have," he said. "I did the best I could and the time we did spend together was quality time."

When he married left-wing Oscar-winning actress Jane Fonda in 1991, they seemed an unlikely couple. Their marriage lasted 10 years, and even years after their divorce they remain very much on each others' mind.

"If Ted needed me I would be there in a blue minute," an emotional Fonda told Morley Safer on "60 Minutes" Sunday night. "I'm not getting emotional because I wish I were still living with him. But he touches me deeply, deeply. The contradictions that make up Ted Turner."

Watching that clip Monday on "Good Morning America," Turner smiled and said, "That was pretty sweet. She was the best wife I ever had."

Turner was married twice before Fonda.

Turner, who made billions of dollars on his cable ventures and then lost more than $7 billion after the disastrous merger of Time Warner and AOL, knows something about economic downturns.

Turner took one accounting course in college, but said, "I do have the ability to see the future pretty well."

An ardent environmentalist, Turner said "green" energy offers the best economic hope for the country right now.

"We have to do it if we want to survive," Turner said on "GMA." "We have to stop burning fossil fuel. It's an antiquated way of doing things. It's time to move into the 21st century with the energy system."

Building a new energy system, he said, will create "high-tech jobs, people building these windmills and solar panels, installing them. That's the way we're going to get out of this recession. We're going to be doing the right thing and make money doing it, too."