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In the Company of Sharks

Being a Hollywood producer's assistant is about the most degrading thing you can do. But it makes amusing reading.

August 28, 1996|BILL HIGGINS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In Los Angeles there are two stellar reduction techniques, one for the body, the other for the mind.

If you're fat, there's UCLA's Obesity Center, where they'll hand you a prescription for fen-phen. For those with overweight egos, there's a job as a Hollywood assistant, where they'll hand you your head if you can't find a phone number immediately, have the walnut gearshift knob for the Ferrari delivered instantly, and the dry-cleaning back quicker than an agent can flick a Rolodex.

This colorful universe of show biz Torquemada and willing victim is the central theme of John H. Richardson's "The Vipers' Club" (Morrow, 1996). It's the story of a young Columbia University professor who gives up academia for the riches of Hollywood only to find he's bringing the boss pastrami sandwiches--"Get an extra pickle . . . get five of them"--at midnight.

"Being an assistant is a degrading job, but if you're strong enough to survive it, you're strong enough to conquer the world," Richardson says. "Unfortunately, you tend to come out of it as twisted as the people you worked for."

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Richardson originally spun the tale as a serial novel with the title "The Blue Screen." It ran monthly during 1993 in Premiere magazine, where he was a senior writer. At the time, he lived in Los Angeles. He's since moved with his wife and two daughters to Westchester, N.Y. Before starting publication, Richardson wrote three chapters plus an outline, but the blueprint went by the wayside as he learned to write a novel monthly.

"When you're writing a serial, you're hyper-conscious of keeping the reader's attention," he says. "I discovered the joy of cliffhangers. After a while I was panting after the audience. Sometimes I really embarrassed myself."

There was an unfortunate incident when he ended a chapter with a bullet flying through a window and then had no idea what to do with the slug in the next chapter. "I got carried away," he says now. These flaws and a changed plot line were worked on in the two years between serialization and book publication.

Though Richardson, ever mindful of his lawyer's advice, says all his characters are composites, the resemblance between the character Max Fisher and the real-life Joel Silver, the producer whose credits include "Executive Decision" and "Die Hard" and was the subject of two Premiere articles by Richardson, is clearly apparent. The author says: "It sounds like him and I stole a lot of the lines from him."

Other characters sound like Larry Gordon, Heidi Fleiss, the late Madam Alex, a mix of Don Simpson and Robert Evans, and Kim Masters, who co-wrote the current bestseller "Hit and Run" (Simon & Schuster).

At the time the novel was running in Premiere, Silver said he thought Richardson "managed to really get into the Hollywood psyche" and "does have a snapshot of the current reality." As for the story being about him: "What can I say? I don't think this character is the most incredibly flattering portrayal of a producer in the history of Hollywood, and I don't see that much of me in the way he functions and works. But there are some things that John has been around and picked up that maybe can point to me. But I think as much of it points to other people as well."

Richardson says that when the book proposal was sent to publishers, Silver somehow got one of the few copies and immediately called him from Japan.

"He was yelling, 'I can stop this book with one phone call!' " recalls Richardson, who says the producer was gracious enough not to make that call to whomever it was he could have made it. He also believes it was a former Silver assistant who slipped him the proposal.

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At the time he wrote the serial, Richardson thought he was plowing fresh ground with the idea of the assistant / mentor relationship as the axis upon which Hollywood turns. Between the time of the serialization and the book's publication, George Huang made the film "Swimming With Sharks," which trolls the same waters.

"George Huang was an assistant working in Joel's office when my book started appearing in Premiere," Richardson says. "As far as I know he hadn't written a word of his script at that time. So, all I have to say about George Huang is he doesn't have to worry about swimming with sharks--there's such a thing as professional courtesy." (Huang did not return several calls inviting a reply.)

Looking at either the book or the film, what baffles an outsider unbitten by the Hollywood bug is why anyone, especially someone who's just spent a fortune on an Ivy League education, would take a menial job paying between $350 and $500 a week at which they're pretty much assured of being martyred in the name of show business.

"There's no other way to earn your wings in this town," says James Johnston, who rose from assistant to director of development at Imperial Films. "You don't have a choice. And you sneer at someone who didn't got through it."

To those for whom the system works, it's boot camp. You enter a civilian, you leave a Hollywood Marine.

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