In Court Files, Hollywood’s Mr. Fix-It at Work
May 21, 2007
By DAVID M. HALBFINGER and ALLISON HOPE WEINER
LOS ANGELES, May 20 — Just hours after a raft of articles suggesting the impending collapse of his business hit the papers on April 11, 2002, Michael S. Ovitz did what Hollywood moguls had done for a generation: He called Anthony Pellicano.
“I need to see you,” Mr. Ovitz said, asking for a private meeting at an out-of-the-way spot. “This is the single most complex situation imaginable.”
They all went to Mr. Pellicano when their situations seemed too complex, or the stakes too high, to leave anything to chance: executives and actors, studio bosses and their jilted spouses, the hottest and the has-been. In nearly 20 years in Los Angeles, he had made himself into the rightful owner of that breathless title, “Detective to the Stars,” the one man who would, and seemingly could, do anything to clean up any mess.
So when federal agents raided Mr. Pellicano’s office in November 2002, his case became a local obsession: who would be fingered next, people wondered anxiously, as investigators gathered evidence and listened to Mr. Pellicano’s wiretap tapes.
Perhaps the case has not lived up to its advance billing as the biggest Hollywood scandal in decades. More than a dozen people have been arrested, including a movie director, the head of a Century City law firm and a cast of minor characters.
Mr. Pellicano himself sits in jail, awaiting trial on charges that his vaunted detective prowess actually boiled down to an almost addict-like reliance on illegal wiretaps. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of wiretapping and conspiracy. Only one actual wiretap has been produced by prosecutors, and defense lawyers dispute its authenticity.
Still, the evidence so far — 150,000 pages of documents and hundreds of recordings Mr. Pellicano made of his own phone calls, many of which include discussions of wiretapping — is a rich sourcebook of show-business manners, mores and argot, a vicarious tour through the dysfunctional heart of Hollywood.
The case file, much of which was obtained by The New York Times, illustrates the economics of information in the place that values it most — a community devoted to the manufacture, control and perpetuation of image. And it explains why Mr. Pellicano, who trafficked in all manner of potentially damaging data, was so eagerly hired and his unmasking so direly feared.
The marketplace was filled with potential buyers, from the top of the town to the bottom of the D-list, in the movies, television, music, even the art and sports worlds. Stars might have had the most to lose if secrets were exposed. But entertainment executives — for whom job security is notoriously fleeting, and reputations as evanescent as last weekend’s box office — had ample reason to think others were plotting against them, or at least rooting for them to fail.
Back in the golden days of Hollywood, the studios had in-house detectives to erase the indiscretions of their bosses and stars. In the era of outsourcing, Mr. Pellicano set himself up as a fixer for hire, on a $25,000 nonrefundable retainer, creating a character to suit whatever his clients imagined him to be: old-time shamus or shady ex-spy, geeky technophile or mobbed-up muscle. His constant allusions to being “connected,” to his roots in Al Capone’s old stomping ground of Cicero, Ill., nurtured what, for some customers, was a captivating aura of violence.
From his suite on Sunset Boulevard, he maneuvered his way into the confidences of the powerful and fabulous, peddling information as ammunition or as protection from the unintended consequences of their lives.
A Penchant for Celebrities
He started out in Chicago in the 1960s tracking deadbeat customers for the Spiegel catalog, then hung out a shingle as a private investigator. From the beginning, he made celebrity clients his calling card. When the remains of Elizabeth Taylor’s husband, the producer Mike Todd, disappeared from a Chicago cemetery in 1978, Mr. Pellicano led the police, and news cameras, right to them.
He also acquired a mastery of audio technology, and was constantly quoted in Watergate-era articles about detecting wiretaps and electronic bugs. When a tape said to be of the exiled shah of Iran surfaced, The Times hired Mr. Pellicano, “one of the country’s top voice analysis” experts, to authenticate it.
For a private eye selling himself to celebrities, however, Chicago was not as target-rich as Los Angeles. Mr. Pellicano moved west to help John Z. DeLorean, the carmaker and playboy, fight cocaine charges, and the acquittal instantly established him in town.
As his business exploded, so did the range of services he offered. It was an open secret that the menu included wiretapping.
Eavesdropping was nothing new in Hollywood. As early as the 1950s, a small industry of security companies was kept busy sweeping for bugs in the homes and offices of studio executives and cheating husbands. But by the mid-1990s, Mr. Pellicano had revolutionized the practice, inventing a virtually undetectable wiretapping technique.
His wiretaps were installed not inside a target location but outside, in phone company junction boxes, and connected over telephone lines either directly to his office or to a laptop in a nearby apartment that recorded every call. Eventually, he devised a way to operate many wiretaps at once. By the late 1990s, to hear him tell it in conversations with clients, he was tapping phones all over town. (His lawyers did not respond to messages requesting comment.)
Mr. Pellicano’s association with Bert Fields, a litigator known for his confrontational style, gave him entree to a client list studded with stars like Tom Cruise and executives like Mr. Ovitz and the talent manager Brad Grey.
“I don’t care how you get information,” David Moriarty, a lawyer helping Mr. Fields defend Mr. Grey, told Mr. Pellicano in one recorded conversation.
“You’re my kind of man,” the private eye shot back.
(Asked for comment, Mr. Moriarty’s lawyer said that the quotation had been taken out of context, and that prosecutors had cleared his client of any wrongdoing.)
In fact, two cases involving Mr. Grey produced roughly three-quarters of the documents in the Pellicano file.
When the comedian Garry Shandling went up against Mr. Grey, his longtime manager, in 1998, Mr. Fields took Mr. Grey’s case, and before long, the detective was running what prosecutors say were illegal checks on witnesses like Mr. Shandling’s accountant, personal assistant and girlfriend.
Two years later, Vincent Zenga, an upstart screenwriter-producer known as Bo, sued Mr. Grey over credit and profits from the hit horror spoof “Scary Movie.” During a deposition, Mr. Grey squirmed in the witness chair as Mr. Zenga’s lawyer depicted him as an unethical exploiter of other people’s work.
After two grueling days, one of Mr. Grey’s lawyers e-mailed a colleague with a simple message: “Brad wants to hire Anthony Pellicano to investigate Zenga.” The lawyer added a request, to “see if we asked Zenga for his cellphone no. during his depo.”
Mr. Pellicano was quickly on the case, wiretapping Mr. Zenga. What Mr. Pellicano heard was helpful not only in defeating Mr. Zenga in court; it could also be used to stymie his career. When Mr. Pellicano mentioned that Mr. Zenga was doing deals with the Imagine and Miramax film companies, one of Mr. Grey’s lawyers responded, “We ought to be able to put a stop to that.”
In a statement on Friday, Mr. Grey said he believed that everyone on the legal team at Mr. Fields’s law firm, including Mr. Pellicano, “was acting properly, and I knew nothing of the improper activities now alleged against him.” Mr. Fields’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
Michael S. Ovitz saw threats coming from every direction.
In his prime, as head of Creative Artists Agency, he had been considered “the most powerful man in Hollywood.” By April 2002, his new talent and production company was falling apart even as he tried to sell it; his old protégés at Creative Artists were picking off his clients one by one; and he believed that his enemies were using the news media to broadcast and speed his undoing.
On the day he mysteriously asked Mr. Pellicano for a 30-minute meeting — one mentioned nowhere in Mr. Ovitz’s detailed appointment calendars for 2002 — another round of articles had reported the defection of the comedian and actor Robin Williams back to Creative Artists.
Mr. Ovitz later told the F.B.I. that he asked Mr. Pellicano to learn what would be printed about him in the coming months and to uncover embarrassing information about his enemies that he could use against them, documents show. Mr. Ovitz’s lawyer declined to comment for this article.
John McTiernan, the director of blockbusters like “Die Hard” and “The Hunt for Red October,” hired Mr. Pellicano to wiretap his producer.
In the summer of 2000, filming an ill-fated remake of the 1970s cult film “Rollerball,” Mr. McTiernan became convinced that the producer, Charles Roven, was undermining him with the movie’s financiers and executives at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
“I sort of would like to know what he’s saying to the studio, and if there is any place where he’s clearly saying one thing to the studio and saying something else to others,” Mr. McTiernan said in a conversation recorded by Mr. Pellicano.
But the detective offered only generalities. “Jesus Christ,” he said, describing his first round of eavesdropping. “I mean, scheming. Wriggling. Lying. Hypocrisy. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.”
When Mr. Pellicano complained that the sheer volume of calls meant that finding the most valuable information would be like hunting for a needle in a haystack, Mr. McTiernan asked if his computer could listen for the juiciest stuff, specific words or names.
“No, no, no, no, no. That’s in the movies,” Mr. Pellicano said.
Balking at the expense, Mr. McTiernan told Mr. Pellicano to take down the wiretaps. But he asked Mr. Pellicano to save the tapes — just in case.
Mr. McTiernan, who declined to comment for this article, became the first movie-industry casualty of the federal investigation, when he pleaded guilty last year to falsely telling an F.B.I. agent that he had no knowledge of any wiretapping by Mr. Pellicano and had never discussed it with him.
The Perfect Hollywood Persona
Hollywood is sustained by its own peculiar system of mutual advantage. There are the boldface names, their lives often complicated by overlapping personal and professional conflicts, who believe that one call to the right person (and a lot of money) can solve any problem. And then there are the service providers — the agents, lawyers, publicists, assistants and countless others — who stroke the egos of the people paying the bills and get to have their own egos stroked according to their proximity to celebrity. Mr. Pellicano’s consigliere persona, reinforced by the Italian opera on his telephone system, was a perfect fit.
The singer and actress Courtney Love called in 2001. She was fighting to get out of her record contract, fighting the surviving Nirvana musicians over control of the estate of her late husband, Kurt Cobain, and supporting her producer and boyfriend, James Barber, in a child-custody fight. She also feared that a disgruntled former assistant who had hacked into her e-mail account might publish her correspondence with friends like Drew Barrymore, Russell Crowe and even her psychic.
Ms. Love complained to Mr. Pellicano that previous private eyes had turned out to be overpriced frauds, wimps or geeks. She wanted someone who could do it all, she told him, who would use whatever tools it took to get results — from refinement to “baseball bats.” “And I need them all under one roof,” she said.
“Listen, Courtney, if you come to me, that’s the end of that,” Mr. Pellicano said. “My clients are my family, and that’s it.”
Ms. Love indicated her approval.
“There is no other way around it,” he said. “I’m very heavy-handed, honey.”
“I need heavy-handed, baby,” Ms. Love said. “I like talking to an Italian.”
“Sicilian, honey,” he corrected.
“Well, that’s even better.”
The tapes do not tell what Mr. Pellicano ultimately did for Ms. Love, who declined to comment for this article. But for stars who lived and died on image, perhaps his most valuable service was making sure a private problem did not metastasize into a public spectacle. In one conversation in 2001, the comedian and actor Chris Rock showed how attuned he was to the levels of outrage evoked by different types of scandal.
A Stirring of Ambitions
Mr. Rock feared that his rising stardom was being threatened by an accusation that an adulterous one-night tryst two and a half years earlier had not been consensual.
“I’m better off getting caught with needles in my arm, I really am,” he fretted. “Needles with pictures: ‘Here’s Chris Rock shooting heroin.’ Much better blow to the career.”
“I’m not going to let it happen,” Mr. Pellicano assured him. “Just stick with me, baby. I’ll take care of it.”
Mr. Pellicano read from the woman’s police report, saying he was not supposed to have gotten a copy, and then confided that the police were not taking her seriously. (No charges were brought. Mr. Rock declined to comment for this article.)
He also offered some unsolicited career advice, asking about Mr. Rock’s latest movie, a romantic comedy called “Down to Earth,” and cautioning him not to “get too fluffy” in choosing parts. “Look what happened to Richard Pryor,” he said.
Inevitably, Mr. Pellicano’s life stirred his own Hollywood ambitions. In 1993, he collaborated with the director Michael Mann and the writer Cynthia Cidré on a screenplay about a private eye who squashes tabloid stories, wiretaps his prey and charges a $25,000 nonrefundable retainer. (“We’re living in a society where the rich and famous think they can pay for and get away with anything,” one character observes.)
That project stalled, but in early 2002, Mr. Pellicano put together a pitch for a TV series he described as a “Sopranos” for Los Angeles. He sold it to Brad Grey’s company, producer of “The Sopranos,” which took it to HBO.
Worried that the network would rob him of credit and money, Mr. Pellicano received a mollifying call from Mr. Grey.
“They said that they will not give me executive producer credit,” Mr. Pellicano complained.
“Well, I will take care of that. What’s the next thing?” Mr. Grey asked.
“I have to have story credit,” Mr. Pellicano said. After all, he said, he had written much of the pilot script.
When Mr. Grey promised to remedy the situation — and assured him that a $15,000-per-episode fee was respectable in the TV market — Mr. Pellicano regained his usual bravado.
“You’re my friend,” he told Mr. Grey. “If you said, ‘Anthony, I get $10 million, you get $10,000,’ that’s it.” He added: “You are my friend forever. And if you called me up and said, ‘Anthony, we’re passing,’ I’d say, ‘O.K., Brad, what else is going on?’ ”
Still, a moment later, Mr. Pellicano could not resist complaining again about his fee.
“When I did the consulting for the script for Fox with Michael Mann, I got $250,000,” he said.
But that was for a film, Mr. Grey said, adding, “That’s a better business.”
Mr. Pellicano never got his series. It was rejected by HBO sometime in 2002.
Mr. Grey himself left TV for the movie business in February 2005, when he was named chairman of Paramount Pictures. Last week, in his statement, he said: “When you talked with Anthony Pellicano, you immediately saw he was a colorful character, which made his HBO series a great idea then. Ironically, it may be an even better idea today.”
Indeed, Mr. Mann never gave up on making a film about a Hollywood detective, and this month he announced a new script, set on the old MGM lot in the 1930s. Leonardo DiCaprio is set to star, Variety reported, as “the kind of detective studios once relied on to clean up the scandals” of their stars.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company