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COLUMN ONE : Streetwise Gumshoe to the Stars : When Hollywood's A-list wants protection from gossip and lawsuits, they put Anthony Pellicano on the case. Some see him as a pushy showoff, but he says he likes to play hardball.

September 11, 1993|SHAWN HUBLER and JAMES BATES | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Tinseltown is a nasty little neighborhood, full of rumors and secrets and tattletales. Just when you think you've made it, someone pops up to soak you or soil you or sic the cops on your tail.

Somebody has to look out for all those big names and big checkbooks. Somebody has to be gumshoe to the stars. And this year's Beverly Hills 911 is Anthony J. Pellicano Jr., the least private private eye in town.

Here he is on "Larry King Live," sticking up for Michael Jackson. There he is battling gossip linking a Columbia Pictures executive to accused madam Heidi Fleiss. Magazines report that a coterie of stars pooled $2 million each to pay Pellicano for protection from the tabloids. He even made the big screen as a technical adviser on "The Firm."

To those closest to him, Pellicano is a devoted family man, a onetime punk who was raised by a divorced single mom and who has vowed that his own children will never experience his hard knocks. "Family is sacred to me," he said, his office walls overflowing with photos of his second wife and nine children. His voice grows thick when he recalls the day his 5-year-old autistic son learned to kiss.

But to those on the business end of his $25,000 retainer fee, Pellicano is part hard-boiled detective and part hardball PR man, a tough talker in a thousand-dollar suit who does not carry a gun but whose telephone Muzak is the Sicilian opera used in "The Godfather, Part III."

"You always want to be on the right side of Anthony Pellicano," warned "Top Gun" producer Don Simpson, whom Pellicano helped shield when an ex-secretary took Simpson to court.

His critics--whom he calls "wimps" and "babies" and worse--agree, in harsher terms.

"He goes in like a junkyard dog to find dirt," said Charles Theodore Mathews, lawyer for the plaintiff in the Simpson suit.

Pellicano, meanwhile, is proud of what he does. "Anybody who wants to malign one of my clients, I dig into their pasts," he said. "So they gotta take the same heat that they dish out."

*

Behind the wheel of his jet-black Lexus, the one with the Louisville Slugger in the trunk, the dark-eyed man in the crisp, white shirt glared at a traffic jam. Somewhere, a roomful of sweating, cursing reporters awaited the latest damage control in the Michael Jackson child molestation investigation. It was his job to deliver. And here he was, stuck in a construction zone.

"What is this? What, are we goin' crazy here? What is this, no left turn? "

So the "ultimate problem-solver," as he calls himself, did what ultimate problem-solvers do--he turned left anyway. Moments later, Anthony (the Pelican) Pellicano was standing at a microphone in Century City, a trim, balding man popping Chiclets and handing out audiotapes that he said would discredit Jackson's accusers once and for all.

From high school dropout to spin doctor for the King of Pop--not bad for a guy from the mean streets of Cicero, Ill.

"I have had no luck, but everything I have in life, I have made for myself. I am self-made," Pellicano said in an interview.

His beginnings were inauspicious. Kicked out of high school because he was "too interested in being a tough guy," he acquired discipline and a diploma in the Army Signal Corps.

In those days, he was Tony Pellican--his grandfather had dropped the O when the family left Sicily. By the time he finished his stint as an Army cryptographer, he had changed his surname to Pellicano, in honor of his heritage, he said.

Back in Chicago, he became a bill collector for the Spiegel catalogue. Working under the pseudonym Tony Fortune, he traced people who had skipped out on debts. One day he was scanning the Yellow Pages when he noticed how many ads there were for detective agencies.

"So I called the biggest ad in there and I said, 'Listen, I'm the best skip tracer there is, I wanna do all your work, give me your hardest case,' " Pellicano said. "They had been looking for this (missing) little girl for six weeks and I found her in two days. How? With intelligence, logic, common sense, a tremendous amount of imagination and an acute perception."

He cracked a smile.

"Actually, I just worked my ass off, that's all."

By 1969, he had hung out his own shingle. Chicago investigators still talk about the twin Lincoln Continentals he drove, the samurai swords on his office walls and the way he sealed his letters with wax.

Key to his practice was the Psychological Stress Evaluator, a controversial contraption that purported to measure stress--and thus, signs of deception--in the voice.

But what really set Pellicano apart, colleagues said, was his hyperbole. A copy of his resume, circa 1975, describes his company as an agency "whose services are as diverse as its director's talents" and claims a "perfect score" in locating 3,964 missing persons.

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