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What Makes Sammy Scream? : A Hellish Night Out With Sam Kinison, the Most Dangerous Man in Show Business

November 20, 1988|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

How Kinison has dealt with his career is another story. MTV frequently uses Kinison as a guest veejay and emcee (he's hosting the video network's New Year's Eve broadcast) but he once showed up two hours late for an MTV Video Awards press conference. He also got in hot water with "Saturday Night Live" for appearing on the show with a routine cleared by network censors, then adding forbidden drug jokes at the last minute. ("It just came into my head," he said slyly.)

His most notorious escapade was "Atuk," an ill-fated United Artists movie vehicle (he played an Eskimo who became a media darling) that was shut down after eight days of shooting earlier this year. Who caused the debacle is open to debate.

Kinison blames his former manager, Elliot Abbott, who he claims told Kinison that he could rewrite the film script before shooting began--while telling UA the opposite. Once Kinison realized he didn't have creative control, all hell broke loose. "I did not walk off the picture," Kinison insists. "They shut it down. I was very professional. I even went to dog-sled school so I'd be prepared for the part. They tried to find someone to replace me and only when they couldn't did they shut it down."

Abbott insisted that both UA and director Alan Metter "welcomed" Kinison's input. "Everybody encouraged Sam to rewrite dialogue," said Abbott. "The problem was that Sam and his writers didn't get any of the new pages in until the day before filming began--and even then it was obvious Sam hadn't really read them. I think it was the case of a great comedic mind who couldn't focus on the work at hand."

When relations between Kinison and the production deteriorated, Abbott said several UA execs flew in for a meeting. "Sam behaved very badly," he said. "He was adamant that if he was forced to make the film that he'd just walk through the role. Then he threatened to go on talk shows and badmouth the picture. You can imagine how that behavior went over with executives who were about to sign a $15 million check to finance the film. They saw the writing on the wall and decided to cut their losses."

Abbott and Kinison split up shortly thereafter. "I hadn't seen a talent like Sam in years," said Abbott, who has managed numerous pop musicians, including Randy Newman. "But I realized I was dealing with someone who couldn't reciprocate. You have to be a professional in this business. Sometimes Sam was tremendous--and sometimes he was absolutely impossible."

Shortly after the Alan Metter-directed film shut down, UA filed a $5.6-million lawsuit against Kinison and Abbott (who was also the film's executive producer) in Los Angeles Superior Court, citing them for breach of contract and fraud.

(A UA spokeswoman said it was company policy to not comment about lawsuits while in litigation).

Several sources close to UA confirmed that the studio tried to replace Kinison, but all were critical of the comic's behavior. "It was very ugly," one said. "He made all sorts of outrageous, obnoxious demands--and threats--as if he were a huge star already."

How out-of-control is Kinison?

"He's been known to not show up when he's supposed to show up," acknowledged Chris Albrecht, senior vice president of original programming at HBO. "But when he was doing our special, he wasn't difficult. Well, not extraordinarily difficult."

Albrecht remains a fan, but with reservations. "When I first dealt with Sam, his ego was in check. But as he developed a cult reputation, his attitude changed--he started traveling with an entourage, which is usually a bad sign. Sam's very headstrong in terms of his career. And some people could interpret that stubbornness as self-destructiveness."

While having his picture taken at a Hollywood Boulevard mural, Kinison found himself cornered by a wild-eyed street person. Clearly a fan ("Hey, I know you from TV!"), the toothless man bummed cigarettes, volunteered several lengthy monologues about religious faith and badgered everyone on the scene for spare change.

If Kinison was uncomfortable, he didn't show it. In fact, he began jabbering away with the bum, apparently curious to see if he could make any sense of his ravings. Finally, when the man began raising his voice and muttering incoherently, Kinison quietly asked his assistant to bring him some money. She returned with a white envelope, bulging with cash, which apparently serves as Kinison's wallet.

The comic took out a $20 bill and handed it to his toothless visitor. The man grinned, shouted his thanks and scurried away, as if worried that his benefactor might change his mind and take the money back. Slapping the envelope of cash in his palm, Kinison shouted, "You owe me, pal!"

Sam Kinison has survived a rocky family life. Two bad marriages. The blow-up of his ill-fated feature film ("I was Mr. Box-Office Poison," he now boasts. "My agents, CAA, they didn't just drop me. They didn't call to hear my side of the story--they didn't even call to cuss me out!").

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