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Strange Bedfellows : Texas Mattress Mogul Kicks In King-Size Bucks to Fund Chuck Norris Movie

April 16, 1993|JAMES BATES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Down in Texas, Jim McIngvale is known as "Mattress Mack." But that doesn't mean he plans to keep his cash in one.

After conquering the Houston furniture market with a series of zany commercials that inspire comparisons to Southern California auto dealer Cal Worthington, McIngvale has turned his attention to Hollywood.

He is betting $16 million from his own bank account--about 40% of his net worth by his own accounting--on a single film, "Sidekicks." The karate-oriented picture stars action star Chuck Norris, a friend of McIngvale's.

Not only has McIngvale picked up the entire $9 million production budget on the movie, he also is spending about $7 million for prints and advertising. He estimates that the picture needs to gross a minimum of $20 million at the box office, supplemented by a strong showing at the video stores, if he is to break even.

"It's just like wildcatting oil in Texas, except I'm wildcatting motion pictures," McIngvale says.

Whether he hits a gusher or a dry hole should be known in a week or two. The film opened to decent reviews and a fairly strong box office in Houston and Dallas last week, but McIngvale acknowledges that Los Angeles, where it premieres today in advance of its national release, is a much bigger hurdle. For one thing, the film is opening as the city is preoccupied with jury deliberations in the Rodney G. King civil rights trial and nervously anticipating any possible violence that may result.

In addition, the film is being distributed domestically by Triumph Releasing, a low-profile arm of Sony Pictures Entertainment that has not had a major box office hit.

Although Norris' recent films have performed unevenly at the box office compared to his earlier work, he remains a big star on video and overseas.

Norris plays himself in the film, in which an asthmatic boy who takes karate lessons idolizes Norris and dreams of being in his films. Also starring are Beau Bridges, Jonathan Brandis and comic Joe Piscopo. In a casting decision that says a lot about the clout $16 million brings, McIngvale's young son has a small part.

McIngvale and Norris are counting on the film's PG rating to bring in families. For Norris, the rating is unusual.

"As soon as they hear it's a Chuck Norris film, the R rating goes up automatically," Norris says. "But this is not a Chuck Norris, R-rated, kick-butt type of film."

McIngvale met Norris while the star was having difficulty raising money in Houston for an anti-drug program he sponsors for children. McIngvale's wife wrote Norris a check for $50,000. Later, when Norris complained to the couple about difficulties he was having with his investor in "Sidekicks," McIngvale's wife pulled out their checkbook again and wrote a check for $250,000 to take the investors' place.

McIngvale soon became the film's sole financier, making him the latest in a long line of wealthy business executives drawn by the allure of Hollywood. Howard Hughes used his oil-tool money to make films. More recently, former Subaru dealer James G. Robinson has produced such films as "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" at Morgan Creek Productions. Los Angeles clothing designer Carole Little's money is behind the fledging Cinema Line Films.

McIngvale, 42, dreamed of making a Tarzan movie as a child growing up in Dallas. A bench warmer on the 1970 University of Texas football team that shared the national college championship, McIngvale dropped out of college to sell furniture.

With $5,000 in savings, he moved to Houston in 1981 to open his store.

Saturating the airwaves with commercials, McIngvale quickly became a local celebrity. He forks out $3 million annually to bombard the city with schlocky, attention-grabbing television commercials starring himself for his discount furniture warehouse. So notorious are McIngvale's commercials, which sometimes show him dressed as a mattress, that he regularly wins an annual University of Houston poll rating television's worst ads.

Today, McIngvale boasts that at least three times a week parents tell him that his "saves you money" tag line at the end of his commercials were the first words out of their babies' mouths. He also gets headlines other ways, gaining notoriety once by paying $77,000 at an auction for a pig.

McIngvale, who has offset about half of the film's production costs with sales of foreign rights, is spending much of his time now on the movie, visiting theaters at night and sending three of his furniture salesmen to Los Angeles to make sure theaters have enough posters and T-shirts.

He has a company called Gallery Films, named after his Gallery Furniture operation. He says he hopes to stay in the film business, provided he doesn't lose his shirt.

"This is a pretty impulsive roll of the dice," he says.

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