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August 23, 1992|JOE RHODES

For Joel Silver, whose reputation for volatility has earned him almost as much notoriety as the action-adventure blockbusters he's produced (the "Lethal Weapons" "Die Hards" and "Predator," to name some), conversation is a contact sport.

Whenever he's on a movie set, he seems to be a man bouncing from one crisis to the next, barking out orders to his legions of assistants, careening from one high-decibel exchange to another, his face always inches from the person he's addressing, his hands flailing wildly as he talks, a never-ending fusillade of operatic gestures and rapid-fire verbal blasts.

And tonight doesn't seem to be any different, even though Silver is directing, not producing this particular project, "Split Personality," an episode of HBO's "Tales from the Crypt" starring Joe Pesci as a lowlife con man who pretends to be two different people so he can marry a set of rich twin sisters. Of course, when they find out there's only one of him, well, figure it out yourself.

Why would Silver, who's never directed anything in his life, get a chance to direct this? Because he happens to be one of the series' executive producers and part-owner.

"I always wanted to act, just once, which I did (playing the maniacal director) in 'Roger Rabbit,' " Silver says, finding a fraction of a second to answer a question as he whizzes around the set. "And I always wanted to direct, just once. And since this is a show that I own along with my partners, I thought this was the perfect opportunity.

"It only takes five days to shoot it and I know I'm not going to go over budget," says the man who, as a producer, has presided over some of Hollywood's most expensive films. And how does he know that, as a director, he'll be any more cost-efficient?

"Because it's my money."

Silver, 39, says he's been asked to direct before, but never wanted to take time away from his other projects. Even now, basking in the glow of the "Lethal Weapon III," he's gearing up for "Beverly Hills Cop III," a Sylvester Stallone action pic and a collaboration with Joel and Ethan Coen.

"A producer's job is to keep all these balls in the air," Silver says. "It's like those guys who used to spin those plates on sticks on 'The Ed Sullivan Show.' For me to take time out to direct means taking the plates off the stick and putting them on the shelf. Normally, I just can't do that. But for five days, I can."

Although, from the looks of it, Silver is still spinning a fair amount of crockery. As much as he talks about the focus it takes to be a director, he seems to be doing a million things at once. One moment he's talking to the cinematographer about how he wants to set up a shot, the next he's glad-handing some studio executives who have dropped by just to say hello. Screenwriters are talking to him about prospective scripts. Associates talk about deals. And then there are the phone calls, an endless parade of hand-held cellular distractions.

"The point," Silver yells into the receiver, even as the crew goes on with the business of setting up cameras and positioning lights, "is that the guy is a schmuck."

It is late on a Friday night, in the middle of a shoot that won't wrap until 7 a.m. The cast, the crew and everyone who has been around him for the last five exhausting nights look dead tired, but Silver, as always, is a large, bearded perpetual motion machine, storming from one end of the Pantages Theater lobby to the other, the enormous shirttail of his loose-fitting beige cotton shirt billowing behind him as he walks.

"Make me a list of songs about twins," he barks at one point, making his way past the theater's grand old staircases and Art Deco statuary. "Is Joey here? Where's Joey? Has anybody seen Pesci?"

Silver waits, just for a moment, in the center of the lobby, which has been outfitted, for the night, to look like a rundown casino. There are slot machines along the back wall, blackjack and crap tables to either side of the bar, which has been cheesed up with red leather and topped with a huge multicolored bouquet of illuminated plastic fibers, the kind you see in malls at bad-taste specialty shops. Silver's assistants, most of them dressed just like their boss in pseudo-safari wear and rubber-soled desert boots, fan out across the set to search for Pesci. Too late, though. Silver is moving again.

"He's already doing better than some directors I've worked with," Pesci says later, getting ready to play a scene at the blackjack table. "He knows when he's got a shot and when to move on, which is half the battle. People think that somebody can just get lucky and produce movies that make a lot of money. It's not so. You have to have talent to succeed at anything."

"Being a producer is what I've always wanted to do," Silver will say when the filming is finished, asked if he plans to direct again. "The producer is the one who gets the story together, gets the people, makes the picture happen. The producer is the guy who gets the notion and carries it all the way through. This was just something I wanted to try. I did it and now I'm done."

A few minutes later, Joel Silver will have to leave. "You've already had more time with me than anyone in show business," he says. And there is, as always, another call to take.

"Split Personality" airs on "Tales From the Crypt" Wednesday at 10 p.m. on HBO.

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