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Wrong-Way Mike Finding Fame Painful

April 11, 1985|BOB BAKER | Times Staff Writer

Misadventure made Michael Lewis famous. Now it's making him miserable.

The tale of how an exhausted Sacramento college student misheard a series of airport announcements and found himself bound for Auckland instead of Oakland became an instant pop legend last week.

Lewis was hot. The day after his mixed-up odyssey ended, he appeared on "The Tonight Show." Then he signed a contract with a Hollywood producer for a TV movie. Promotional trips to New York and Chicago were planned.

It was glamorous and exciting, and--as usually happens when fame strikes--it didn't stay that way.

By Tuesday, Lewis was seeing a doctor for emotional and physical fatigue caused by sleeplessness since the media began pursuing him.

Contract Dispute

If that wasn't enough, the Hollywood dark side surfaced. Less than a week after he became a folk hero, Mike became ensnarled in a contract dispute.

"I'm climbing walls," Lewis said Wednesday, sitting in the Sacramento office of his newly retained agent. "I haven't been able to sleep. I wasn't able to think."

His agent, Evie Cogley, invoked Andy Warhol's oft-quoted prediction that everyone in this media-conscious society will eventually be famous for 15 minutes.

Lewis' problem, Cogley said, is that "his 15 minutes have been going on for a week."

"I'm really nervous," Lewis said. "I can't believe all this is happening because of getting on the wrong plane. . . . It's pretty mind-boggling."

"He's a nervous wreck," said Lewis' mother, Hilde.

Lewis' mishap began March 31 when he flew home from a European vacation. He took an Air New Zealand London-to-Auckland flight and should have gotten off in Los Angeles and taken another plane to Oakland.

Instead, convinced that the Air New Zealand crew was directing Oakland-bound passengers into a transit area, Lewis headed off with the Auckland-bound passengers and later reboarded with them. Questioned by airplane personnel before the plane took off, he was asked twice if he was going to Auckland and twice answered affirmatively, according to an Air New Zealand spokesman.

'They Talk Different'

Lewis' explanation: First, he had a severe case of jet lag, and second, the British-accented crew "didn't say Auckland. They said Oakland. They talk different."

It was not until shortly after takeoff that Lewis realized his error. The next day the airline flew him home from Auckland at no charge.

Soon after that, fame was on the phone: "Good Morning America" had found his unlisted phone number. A couple of hours later he was being interviewed on nationwide television.

Then "The Tonight Show" show called. Lewis did 12 minutes with Johnny Carson the following night. ("We were worried you might go to Buena Park instead of Burbank," the host deadpanned.)

Producer Gil Cabot ("I know when I see story potential") contacted him after the show and convinced Lewis to sign what Hollywood refers to as a "deal memo."

Meanwhile, Lewis' family waited in Sacramento, hoping that the still-weary young man was successfully coping with his stardom.

By early this week, it was obvious that the answer was no.

Lewis was still unable to sleep ("This is very exciting for him, but he can't sit down for five minutes," said Don Levenhagen, a friend of Lewis' mother), and his family was worried.

Through Levenhagen, the family contacted agent Cogley, who agreed to represent him.

When Cogley looked at the contract Lewis had signed, she thought he had been victimized.

The contact promises Lewis 30% of the money that Cabot's JenStar Productions makes if it sells a "Wrong-Way Mike" story in a production deal. It also calls for Lewis to work as a technical consultant during production.

Contract Called Unfair

Cogley said it was unfair that the contract provided no immediate payment.

Lewis said in an interview that he had felt pressured by Cabot to sign over rights to his story.

"I was so scared of blowing the whole deal, I was more than happy to do anything," Lewis said. "I was tired and nervous."

Cabot denied that he had pressured Lewis and said Lewis was lucky to be offered a contract at all because a movie on the incident could be made without his participation simply by changing the protagonist's name.

"These people," he said of the Lewis family, "do not know this industry."

The little war grew nastier when Cabot learned Tuesday that Lewis had retained an agent and that media inquiries were being referred to Cogley rather than to Cabot's Sunset Boulevard office.

Cabot sent Lewis a telegram warning him, "You are shutting the door to a wonderful opportunity."

Lewis sat on a couch in his agent's office Wednesday, still looking a little frazzled and sighed: "I don't know what's going to happen. It seems like everybody else knows more than me."

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