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ROBIN ABCARIAN

While in Pursuit of Stardom, They Had a Brush With the Infamous

January 17, 1996|ROBIN ABCARIAN

So, your kid wants to be a star.

Read this, then, as a cautionary tale. Or read it as just another strange Hollywood story.

Perhaps you will find a lesson in it somewhere--that few pass through the portals of Tinseltown without getting slimed, or maybe that heroes turn up in the oddest places. Personally, what I glean is that Andy Warhol might have revised his celebrated length-of-fame theory had he ever come to know the tiresomely ubiquitous Victoria Sellers.

*

The story begins with the Levitt family--Bill, Deanne and their 18-year-old daughter, Valerie, who decided at age 10 that she wanted to act.

Ugh, thought Bill. A real estate consultant by profession, Bill had invested in a couple of Hollywood movies and hadn't been too impressed with the people he'd met. Valerie and Deanne convinced him that taking a few acting lessons was not the same as pursuing a career. Soon enough, though, Valerie got the bug and began auditioning for parts. She was also going through managers--who can be instrumental in guiding an incipient career--the way Murphy Brown goes through secretaries.

Let's see: There was the manager who was a former handbag salesman. He didn't work out. There was the manager who was a very nice man but who had no skills. There was the husband-and-wife team who acted sincere but found Valerie no work. There was the veteran manager who seemed to have a good reputation, Deanne said, "But you can't count her because she was senile."

Finally, there was Don Gibble, young (24), sincere and well-connected. In February 1994, Valerie signed on. Gibble got Valerie lots of auditions. But the Levitts began hearing unsettling stories about him from other parents, and he'd been banned from at least one studio lot for intimidating a casting director. They made excuses; they let him go.

And they chalked it up to nothing more than bad urban luck when they arrived home in Sherman Oaks from a concert one night a few weeks later and were robbed at gunpoint by two young men they'd never seen before.

*

A week or so after the Levitts were robbed, a handsome 41-year-old actor named Sam Jones, perhaps best known for starring in the 1980 movie "Flash Gordon," was standing at a pay phone on Riverside Drive in North Hollywood. He noticed a couple of young men who walked out of a nearby Thai restaurant. They didn't look like minions of Ming the Merciless, but something wasn't quite right.

He jumped in his truck and followed the men as they drove away. At a stoplight, he saw them slip guns under their seats. He jotted down their plate number and returned to the restaurant, where the shaken owners said they'd just been robbed.

Police traced the vehicle to Don Gibble's home in Northridge. The robbery suspects, Oscar Andres Lopez and Anthony Zapata, were living there. They had been on a crime spree during most of the month of April 1994, said prosecutor Carol Fisch, robbing an ice cream parlor, a tanning salon, the Levitts. Also in residence at the home and in possession of stolen jewelry: Victoria Sellers, the errant progeny of Peter Sellers and Britt Ekland about whom we read so much in 1993 when her close relationship with Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss was publicized.

*

A week later, Deanne Levitt sat down to read the newspaper. A local crime story caught her eye. Someone named Lopez had been arrested in connection with a 2-year-old murder case. Two-thirds through the story, Levitt gasped when she read that Lopez had also been charged in a series of armed robberies and that "talent manager Don Gibble . . . has also been charged with receiving stolen property. . . ."

"My hand started to shake," Deanne said. "Bill said, 'What's the matter?' and I said, 'We were set up!' "

*

Sellers pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of receiving stolen property and spent about two weeks in jail. Her name popped up in headlines again some months later when she was arrested again and charged with drug possession and probation violation. (Will someone please tell her those 15 minutes are up?)

Lopez and Zapata were charged with armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon and attempted murder. Lopez awaits trial on the unrelated murder charge and has not yet faced trial on the robberies. Zapata pleaded guilty to armed robbery and was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Gibble was convicted of receiving stolen property and conspiracy to commit robbery for having set up the Levitts. In November, he was sentenced to six years in prison.

(As if you don't love Hollywood enough: At Gibble's sentencing, the mother of one of his clients pleaded with the judge not to put him away. Without Gibble's guidance, she said, her teenage son's career was "languishing.")

Sam Jones, the actor, was lauded for his actions by Mayor Richard Riordan. He has also been nominated to carry the Olympic torch for the 1996 Games.

And Valerie Levitt is away at college. She still hopes to earn a living in the entertainment business. But she's making do without a manager for now.

* Robin Abcarian's column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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