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California and the West | THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION
/ FAYE FIORE

Hollywood's Best Friend Is No Democrat

July 20, 1999|FAYE FIORE

Mark Foley was 25 and running a restaurant with his mother on Florida's east coast when a movie crew showed up one day in 1980 to shoot "Body Heat." They descended on the little town of Lake Worth and the whole place seemed to light up. (Literally. They shot the fire scene just south of there.)

Business at the Lettuce Patch boomed. Foley even got a walk-on part--most of which ended up on the cutting room floor, except for his left ear. Who could have predicted that one day scores of celebrities and entertainment luminaries would know Mark Foley as a Hollywood player?

Before he went to Congress in 1994, Foley had founded a catering company, run his restaurant and sold real estate. His closest tie to Hollywood was his grandmother's house in Pasadena. Now, as head of the 21-member House Entertainment Task Force, he has taken his place as one of the industry's greatest champions in Washington.

This 44-year-old from Florida, whose previous cause was sugar cane price supports, is leading the charge for Southern California's No. 1 cash crop. This third-term Republican is making 1st Amendment arguments on behalf of traditionally Democratic Tinseltown.

Talk about unexpected plot twists.

"He's young. He's aggressive. He understands the importance of entertainment as an economic prize for the country," said one studio lobbyist. "He is helping to undo the historic misconception that only Democrats are friendly to Hollywood."

Not to mention, he loves movie stars.

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The job sort of fell into his lap. Rep. Sonny Bono had co-founded the Entertainment Task Force in 1994 to help the GOP woo industry support. Foley signed right up. He's always admired the craft, having acted a little in community theater. Not to mention that time in 1991 when he met Gregg Allman's drummer, Butch Trucks, during a real estate deal and got invited to travel with the band.

Then Bono died in a January 1998 skiing accident. Some thought a Californian should succeed him as task force leader--there are six on board, including Bono's widow, Mary--but none was as committed as Foley. Before you could say "Action!" there he was shepherding Alec Baldwin down the marbled corridors of Congress, posing on the Capitol steps with supermodel Stephanie Seymour and escorting John Travolta to meet then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

He has long understood the mutual ogling that happens between politicians and stars, and has done his share to bring them together. When the Capitol police refused to let actress Melanie Griffith cross between the House and Senate on a lobbying trip to Washington, Foley ran to the rescue.

"Melanie! Hi!" he said when he spotted her looking distressed. "Remember me? I came to your house in Beverly Hills."

The guards took one look at Foley's congressional pin, and off the two went ("This is great!" Griffith squeaked. "Look how quick we're going!") to the office of a delighted Rep. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) to make a pitch to save the National Endowment for the Arts. Unfortunately, she fell asleep twice during the meeting, but that's another story.

*

Of course, there is more to the job than ushering celebrities about Washington and it is on the legislative front that Foley has made his mark. He helped enact a treaty that protects creative works from Internet pirates and is working to stop the foreign exodus of film production.

Foley has drawn the most attention on the issue of movie violence, marshaling GOP colleagues to defeat an amendment by powerful Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde that would have made it a crime to sell "violent" material to children under 17. Entertainment leaders say it was Foley's influence that brought conservatives and liberals together to trounce Hyde's proposal by an unexpectedly wide margin.

"Government shouldn't be the divining rod for what is decent or indecent," says Foley, who recently rushed to the House floor to defend airing of "The Holocaust" on NBC. "Washington, regrettably, is a city that seeks to pin the blame on somebody. . . and it's easy to blame crime on a movie. But I saw 'Bonnie and Clyde' five times, and it didn't make me rob banks."

Which is not to say Hollywood is blameless, Foley notes, acknowledging a link between youths and film violence. "But that's something the industry has to flush out itself."

His efforts are not unnoticed in Florida, which has a growing entertainment presence in Disney and Universal theme parks and numerous recording studios. But nowhere are the fruits of his labor more appreciated than in Hollywood.

Movie stars aren't exactly rushing him to lunch at the Palm, but they do stop in to say hello. While some in Congress are busy demonizing Hollywood, Foley's is considered a steady voice reminding his colleagues of the value and popularity of the industry some seek to control.

"It's not like tobacco, which is addictive," he says. "Nobody drags people to the movies."

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