Agent Provocateur

Photo by Jack Gould

A director arrives home to find fire trucks, police cars and his house in shambles. “It was horrible,” his wife says. “Your agent came to the house; he just went berserk — he raped me, beat up the kids, killed the dog, tore the place to shreds . . .”

“Hold on,” says the director. “My agent came to the house?”

 

No single group — not lawyers, lepers, ex-cons or telephone solicitors — is quite so reviled as Hollywood talent agents. Which makes it all the more startling to attend one of the political “Speaker Soirees” hosted by agent Paul Alan Smith, a social visionary in a profession not known for its humanitarian outreach. At the spacious La Boheme restaurant, on Santa Monica just east of La Cienega, Smith and his co-host, entertainment attorney Lawrence Rose, are providing a bountiful feast of salmon, pasta and blueberry cobbler free of charge for the foot soldiers of the film industry — the assistants, junior agents, VPs and development execs through whose hands all content travels. In return, they agree to listen to a 30-minute speech by a political activist — in this case, LaShawn R. Jefferson, executive director of the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, an international watchdog group and NGO (nongovernmental organization) that gets tough when governments prove recalcitrant, our own included. (Six of the seven indictments in The Hague against Slobodan Milosevic resulted from the group’s research.)

Smith started out at the Triad agency in the early ’80s as an assistant to Arnold Rifkin, later the head of William Morris. “Harry Belafonte was a client,” says Smith, “and every day I would talk to him, and he would say, ‘Never forget to incorporate your moral values into the workplace.’ He said this incessantly. It got so that I didn’t know lunches were for talking about clients; I thought they were for indoctrinating people.” Smith went on to become a television executive at Warner Bros., but eventually his conscience caught up with him, and he left the business on a Razor’s Edge–like quest for spiritual solace through Africa and India. Headhunted by a midsize Beverly Hills–based agency in the mid-’90s (he prefers not to say which one, out of deference to clients who may not share his politics), he took the Marxist dictum “from each according to his ability” to heart — leading him into doomed, quixotic projects like setting up Howard Zinn’s monumental A People’s History of the United States as a miniseries at first Fox, and later HBO. (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were attached as executive producers, on the strength of their name-check in Good Will Hunting.)

After 9/11, concerned that $1,000 ticket prices for liberal benefits were leaving behind the next generation of industry progressives, Smith began hosting soirees at Cava on West Third, picking up the tab on pasta dinners and lectures by the likes of John Stauber, founder of PR Watch, chronicling how up to 40 percent of our nightly news comes from corporate press releases; Norman Solomon of FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), recalling his experiences escorting Sean Penn to Baghdad before the war; and Connie Rice and Bo Taylor on their experiences brokering an L.A. gang truce in 1993. When Cava went under a year ago, Smith decided to take a break; at one time, he estimates, he was tithing a fifth of his income to “invigorate the democracy.” But times being what they are, when La Boheme manager Brian O’Connor stepped forward with a price break, after hosting a previous benefit for Amnesty International, the timing seemed right.

“How do you say something to the majority of Americans, even when it is in their best interest, so that the hairs don’t stand up on the back of their neck?” Smith asks. “We have to be a step ahead of the public relations that attack us. Maybe we’re the Neanderthals, who were said to be smarter and more compassionate than Homo sapiens but terrible fighters, and we just haven’t evolved. But these guys on the right — Rush Limbaugh, etc. — they are not difficult targets. They’re just fighting with the gloves off. And now they’re destroying careers, so enough is enough.”

Jefferson wraps up an impassioned speech about Human Rights Watch’s efforts in combating sex trafficking in Malaysia, rape as a military strategy in Serbia and Kosovo, honor killings in Jordan, serial mutilation in Ciudad Juarez, and domestic abuse everywhere. Young Hollywood — including Xander Berkeley and Sarah Clarke from 24, Kathleen York from The West Wing (Toby Ziegler’s ex), and Gina Belafonte (Harry’s daughter) — listen enrapt and respond enthusiastically when she’s finished. And Smith seems a shade more enthusiastic that his message may be getting through.

 

“I could easily become a radical, step out and talk about my 20 years in show business and how hypocritical everybody is,” he says. “But you’ve got to stay in the game — even just to understand it.”

—Paul Cullum

Happy Gilmore Goes Surfing

Adam Sandler was out surfing the other day, just another average semi-kook on a Surf Tech long board scrambling and bubbling and banging rails for meager little 2-foot waves on a picture-perfect, “I Love L.A.!” afternoon. The ocean didn’t cut him any breaks and neither did the crowd, a couple dozen wave-hungry citizens who were far too intent on getting some to recognize a mega movie star. Which is probably how Sandler wanted it.

When people approached him, he asked their names and introduced himself as Adam. That got him the open-mouthed double take that he probably gets a hundred times a day and ended his moment of relative anonymity.

“Am I old or is Saturday Night Live not funny anymore?” someone asked.

“Hey, it’s not easy to be funny once a week, believe me,” Sandler said.

“What is Shaq like up close and personal?” asked a guy who’d seen Sandler sitting at courtside at a Laker playoff game.

“Confident!” Sandler answered.

Someone pitched a movie idea to Sandler called Bubblehead: “Imagine a guy who has something happen to him, and he can all of a sudden read thought bubbles over people’s heads!”

Sandler just smiled politely.

This went on for about an hour as the surf trickled in and the wind got better and the sun sank behind the mountains. Sander surfs okay, for a Jewish guy from New Hampshire who spends too much time on movie sets making gazillions of dollars — except for one quirk: When he ends a wave, he usually does this dorky, twisting flop which, like everything else he does, is kind of funny. But it’s also kind of hazardous because he lets his board go flying off wherever, and that can have consequences at a surf spot this crowded.

Once, Sandler paddled and stood on a wave that a young woman was already riding. He took off anyway, as is par for this place, and then rode the wave for a while, with the girl behind him and someone else behind her. When he got to the end, Sandler did that twisting dismount, and his board flew up and popped the girl good in the side of her head. For a second there it looked like he might have done serious damage, but the girl brushed it off, kicked out and paddled back out on her knees.

As she passed the inside pack, someone asked if she was okay.

“I’m fine,” she smiled. “You know how this place is.”

“Do you know who that was?”

“No,” she said, already over it.

“That was Adam Sandler!”

The girl stopped paddling for a moment, then howled, “Celebrity Justice, here I come!” She paddled back to the top of the point to get some more.

—Ben Marcus

Krusty the Klown Plaza? Is it just us, or does this detail from architect Renzo Piano’s blue-print for the County Museum of Art look suspiciously like a certain animated character?

Reality Bites

L.A. surfers love to talk sharks.

I’ve seen jerk-offs trying to scare off newbies with all sorts of exaggerated claims. The great white shark that spent last summer lounging around San Onofre grew from a length of 8 feet in June to an August tally of 24. It’s all chatter.

So, when I paddled out at Sunset Beach last Monday, the last thing on my mind was the recent shark sightings at Will Rogers Beach. After all, I learned to surf in San Francisco, right in the middle of the great white feeding grounds known as the “red triangle.” I paid no attention to the fact that four 8-footers — either great whites or makos — were swimming less than a half-mile away. Nor did I care that one of the sharks swam over to a boat of local lifeguards — atypical behavior for a shark in this area. None of that mattered, because there was a south swell in the water, and I wanted some waves while the getting was good.

The getting was exceptionally good because there were only about 15 guys in the water — nearly empty for Sunset with a decent swell. After the third of three quick rides, I noticed something odd — a couple of news trucks parked by the side of the road. By the time I paddled back, everyone was talking about the trucks.

 

“You know what they’re here for?”

“They’re here for footage of us becoming lunch.”

“Fuck ’em.”

Shark attacks on surfers are rare. Between 1990 and 1999 there were 441. According to a 2000 Surfrider Foundation report, a surfer can expect to be attacked by a shark once in a million sessions. Nonetheless, within 10 minutes, the water had emptied out. In 15, it was just me and one other guy.

“You ain’t leaving?” he asked.

“No way.”

“Me either.”

Then he caught the next wave and was gone. It was just me and the news crews waiting for me to get eaten. I paddled into a nice wave and had the whole ocean to my smug, macho self. It had been a while since I had surfed at Sunset — just long enough to forget that there’s an inside section that shallows and where the waves wall up. Unprepared, I got punched by the lip and knocked off my board. Roiling in the water, I had only one thought: Was that the lip that hit me or was that something bigger, something with teeth, something in the 24-foot range? That was all it took. I took my smug, macho self home. Later, I found a small tear in the back of my wetsuit. Could have been there for months. Could have been there for hours.

—Steven Kotler

If You Believe

If Andy Kaufman decided to return from the dead, wouldn’t he do it somewhere better than House of Blues — like on national television? Even so, several “Andy Kaufman — Dead or Alive?” attendees put the odds of Andy’s second coming at around 50/50, while most Kaufman fanatics knew the likelihood was more like one-in-a-trillion, but came just in case. One man’s shirt read, “If Andy doesn’t show up, I’ll kill him.”

The event, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the comedian’s demise, was put together by Kaufman accomplice Bob Zmuda (and was featured two weeks ago as an L.A. Weekly cover story). After shelling out $50 for a cheap seat and standing in line for an hour — some paid up to $250 for VIP tickets — I was ushered into the club and stood around for a few more hours. Zmuda opened by introducing show-biz types who had Kaufman-related stories, including Andy Dick, who joked that his recent drug bust at Coachella may have been a Kaufmanesque hoax.

Finally, they showed the movie, which Zmuda had promoted as an “Andy Kaufman film that’s never been presented in public and will never be shown again.” That’s when things turned ugly. The film didn’t feature Andy Kaufman, but rather Jim Carrey insisting he was Andy Kaufman. A disgusted audience member yelled, “Bob Zmuda sucks! Jim Carrey sucks!” Others stormed out, muttering, “I want my money back.” When the movie ended, booing drowned out the applause. Security guards were discussing the possibility of a riot.

Tony Clifton temporarily redeemed the event. The obnoxious alter ego of Kaufman and Zmuda was in fine form and boasted an elaborate Vegas-style stage show. He even dumped water on an audience member who seemed genuinely pissed off. (Then again, in classic Kaufman/Clifton fashion, the man could’ve been a plant.)

After the show, Zmuda invited everyone across the street to the Comedy Store for milk and cookies. Following an impressive display of Mexican wrestling, Moonlite BunnyRanch owner Dennis Hof came onstage with a bunch of his breast-flashing prostitutes and announced that anyone who shows up the next night at his legal Nevada whorehouse with a ticket stub will be given a freebie. Everyone was then invited to walk a few blocks to Kaufman’s former apartment, where much Andy memorabilia was on display.

For all of the hype, though, the event lacked the mind-fuck for which Kaufman was famous. Couldn’t they have at least faked Kaufman’s resurrection? Then again, even from beyond the grave, the ultimate prankster did dupe hundreds of people into spending thousands of dollars on a mediocre-at-best event.

—Dan Kapelovitz


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