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De Luca's Behavior Has Town Buzzing, Some Worried

March 27, 1998|Claudia Eller and James Bates

"Titanic" sweeping Monday night's Oscars wasn't the only talk of Hollywood this week.

Mike De Luca was.

The president of production at New Line Cinema--no stranger to outrageous public behavior--created one of the more embarrassing spectacles Hollywood has seen in some time by committing a very public indiscretion at an A-list pre-Oscar party Friday night.

Industry insiders--some of whom are De Luca's closest allies--are concerned that the rebellious 32-year-old--who's been widely touted as one of New Hollywood's best and brightest young executives--is self-destructing and needs to be reined in.

The Brooklyn native is known almost as much for his brash conduct and impulsive, don't-give-a-damn attitude as for his keen creative instincts in picking such popular films as "The Mask," "Dumb and Dumber," "Seven," "Boogie Nights," "Wag the Dog" and "The Wedding Singer."

But he clearly crossed the line last weekend, when, at a party attended by some of Hollywood's top stars, agents, producers and executives, he dropped his pants and engaged in oral sex with a young woman as several guests looked on. The incident, which took place in the backyard of William Morris Agency President Arnold Rifkin's Pacific Palisades home, elicited tittering as well as outrage from some guests and the host, who had security guards escort De Luca from the property.

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Occurring on the weekend leading up to Hollywood's biggest annual event, De Luca's actions made the East Coast tabloids in a New York minute and adds up to a public embarrassment for New Line. The former independent is now owned by publicly traded media giant Time Warner Inc.

De Luca's behavior also suggests a cautionary tale in the making. His friends hope this latest episode will serve as a wake-up call to a man with a history that includes public fistfights and drunken driving. So far, De Luca seems only to savor his image as a street-smart tough guy who favors denim and leather over suits and ties and enjoys riding a Harley.

"He needs to get help," said a concerned associate at New Line, who contacted The Times after hearing that an article was in the works. The source recounted recent incidents of reckless behavior on De Luca's part. Anybody who knows him will tell you that the most recent spectacle was signature De Luca.

Neither De Luca nor the company would comment on the matter.

Sources said De Luca will not be fired over Friday night's events but he received a stern reprimand from his bosses, Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne, and apologies were made to Rifkin and others.

The incident raises the question of when an executive's antics in private life become a business issue.

It also begs the question of whether Hollywood holds its executives to a different standard than other major industries. There are some Fortune 500 companies that would have swiftly fired an executive who exhibited that kind of behavior at a major industry function.

Even among movie companies, New Line tends to have a nonconformist working environment, where executives are given a lot of latitude and quirky behavior is often accepted.

In the past, Hollywood generally has tolerated unconventional behavior, particularly if the perpetrator is successful. One glaring example is producer Don Simpson, who dropped dead of a drug overdose in 1996 after a troubled life. As documented in Charles Fleming's just-published book, "High Concept," Simpson's wild lifestyle personified excess in Hollywood during the 1980s.

De Luca's penchant for partying, chasing women and outrageous personal conduct may be something of an aberration today; sober lifestyles have become much more common among younger as well as veteran executives working in Hollywood.

Many of those in the industry believe Hollywood has changed dramatically from the days when executives snorted cocaine openly in their offices and excess was considered cool. A few years ago, golden-boy agent and brash "young Turk" Jay Moloney--a Michael Ovitz protege considered one of the industry's hottest young players--was forced to leave powerhouse Creative Artists Agency after he tried to get his drug problem under control, but failed.

According to various accounts, De Luca's personal antics don't seem to be adversely affecting his job performance.

His allies are quick to defend him. "It's like with Clinton. I overlook his personal behavior because he's doing a great job as president," said one.

But, by and large, De Luca's friends and colleagues are concerned that the young executive's personal life is spinning out of control. Various descriptions of him include "an accident waiting to happen," "self-destructive," "his own worst enemy" and "haunted."

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Friends say De Luca has flaunted his problems by courting the media and relishing the publicity.

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