Rather, it was a single phone call from an industry legend offering him a job at a low point in his life.

At age 26, Nathanson was unemployed and living in his parents' home with his wife and two small children. Six months earlier, he had been a marketing executive at a cable operator that got sold to Warner Cable. He had tried unsuccessfully to put together an investor group to buy another cable company. But those plans fell apart.

Out of the blue, Nathanson got a phone call from Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the NFL's Washington Redskins. The mogul had just taken over an ailing cable operator, Teleprompter Corp.

"Cooke calls me up, introduces himself and says: 'I'd like to talk to you. Can you get on a plane and meet me in New York tomorrow?'"

Nathanson got on a red-eye and walked into Cooke's apartment at the Waldorf Towers.

"It was 11 a.m. and he greeted me in his robe and pajamas," he said. "At that time, Cooke was in his 60s and he started out by asking me if I thought I was pretty smart which is a really tough question. And he said, 'If you're so smart Mark, how come you're not a millionaire like I was at your age?'"

"I told him I hoped to become one, if he was offering me a job," he said. "But then I made the mistake of telling him that I'd have to check with my wife first."

Cooke didn't like that response. He told Nathanson that if he had to check with his wife, then he was the wrong person for the job. The interview was over. Nathanson flew home.

But two days later, he got another call from Cooke, who had a reputation for hiring young stars in the industry and working them like dogs.

"He asked me: 'Do you want to work for Jack Kent Cooke?' he always referred to himself in the third person. But I didn't know what I would be doing and when I asked him, he said: 'You'll be working for Jack Kent Cooke.'"

Nathanson was hired as vice president of marketing and programming at Teleprompter.

Cooke managed in a short time to turn the struggling cable operator around. By the time Nathanson was 29, he had made $600,000 in stock options, which he used along with money borrowed from his family to buy Falcon Cable, an independent cable operator that he sold in 1999 to Paul Allen for $3.6 billion.

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