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The Ultimate Collection : Toys were Toby Halicki's obsession, a way to re-create a lost childhood. Now, they're going to be sold.

May 03, 1992|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Insiders know it is a memorial built by a man born the prototype of anyone who never threw anything away because you never know when you might need it.

It was in Halicki's genes. His father owned a junkyard in Dunkirk, N. Y. His childhood lost among 12 siblings, Halicki spent much of it in the yard--driving, dismantling, cutting and cannibalizing cars.

At age 14, he left home with $40 and headed for Gardena.

He pumped gas, opened an auto body shop while in high school and merged happily with Southern California's passion for chopped and channeled, tucked and rolled, flame-painted street rods cruising Main.

Halicki turned his car profits into real estate that he then rolled over into the movie business.

In 1974, at age 23, he wrote, produced, directed and starred in "Gone in 60 Seconds," which left only a minor scratch on the memory of Hollywood. Although post-Bullitt, it was among the first of the mass crash movies--93 cars were destroyed during one 40-minute chase sequence.

Video Movie Guide has since sentenced the movie as: "Bone dull except for the 40-minute car chase finale, which is 20 minutes too long."

But it played big in Europe.

In 1982, Halicki again did everything, including his own stunts, in "The Junkman." More than 140 cars were wrecked in his second movie, which sank to a one-turkey rating.

Three years ago--and just three months after his marriage to actress-model Denice Shakarian--Halicki began shooting "Gone in 60 Seconds II." This time, he told reporters, he was pulling back from doing his own stunts: "I still enjoy getting in the car and racing it out or doing the crashes in it. But I've limited it down.

"You can always have chase sequences where things go wrong. You have to be careful."

Halicki wasn't careful enough.

Halfway through shooting his movie, the script called for a tractor-trailer to crash through a series of parked cars before ramming and toppling a 100-foot water tower. Just before the take, workers cut through a tower support. The structure began to creak and lean.

A cable snapped. It lashed around a telephone pole, which fell and crushed Halicki.

Denice Halicki remembers her husband as a driven, hard-living, sensitive man with "a lot of fears about dying before his time. He was fearful. He was preoccupied."

Which may explain certain items in the collection.

Halicki kept special copies of the New York Daily News and the Los Angeles Times--issues in which the violent deaths of singer Ricky Nelson and millionaire race driver Peter Revson made front-page news.

Two tickets were displayed near his desk--one to a 1980 tribute near the spot where James Dean died, the other to the estate auction of the late Steve McQueen.

But Denice Halicki also knew a happier man, one who courted her for six years, taking her cross-country and across Europe to buy toys by the load, sometimes by the collection. This tough guy, she says, drove a Rolls-Royce with a Teddy bear buckled-up alongside and celebrated Christmas as a warm, monthlong spectacle. With Toby Halicki as a recurring Santa Claus.

The preoccupation with toys, she continues, was no mystery.

"That was the little boy in him," she believes. "He was overcompensating for his childhood . . . most of which he blocked out and what he remembered was working for the family."

The excess of toys, the duplication of items (sometimes by the dozens), is just as easy to understand.

"Toby wanted to be the biggest, the best," she says. "He had something to prove."

What Halicki may have proved is that old T-shirt and bumper slogan: He who dies with the most toys wins.

"Toby not only won, he retired the trophy," says expert Rothermel, still up to his armpits in Hornby trains and Dinky toys. "In fact, it's probably around here somewhere."

The victory, however, may ring hollow.

Halicki's last will and testament, one page scribbled on a Wolcott's form, leaves a home on eight acres, a Rolls-Royce and $1.5 million in "cash, cars or property" to his widow. His brother and a sister will divide $550,000, with lesser amounts to several employees.

Despite its erasures, initialed alterations, underlining and overwriting, Halicki wrote emphatically:

"Split (the estate) fast and dirty and have a good time. Anyone who screws with or contests this will gets $1 only. I expect the above parties will work together to share this wealth quietly and not blow it . . . on attorneys.

Halicki made one last demand: "No probate."

But co-executors Denice Halicki and brother Felix Halicki fell out and the will entered probate. An administrator has been appointed by the court. The clarification hearings, motions and orders have dragged on.

Now Denice Halicki, through Beverly Hills attorney Kirk Hallam, has appealed the auction order. The appeal seeks to allow her to specify items she would like to receive from the warehouse as part of her $1.5-million inheritance.

Attorney Valerie Merritt represents the court-appointed administrator. She says the estate's gross value is about $4 million. On the other hand, there are "significant liabilities," including creditors claiming $3 million. And there are court costs and attorneys' fees.

"We have said that there is a distinct possibility that this estate is insolvent," Merritt says. "In that case, Denice Halicki, Felix Halicki and others will get nothing."

So he who died with the most toys may have left only Whoopee cushions.

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