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COVER STORY

Speak Softly and Carry a Big Shtick

Adam Sandler has parlayed his bizarro outcasts into big box office without a lot of media help, thank you very much.

November 05, 2000|PAUL BROWNFIELD | Paul Brownfield is a Times staff writer

In the end, I got no closer to Adam Sandler than lunch with his manager, Sandy Wernick. The lunch was meant to convince me of the futility of attempting a Sandler story in the first place. Sandler doesn't do print interviews, hasn't done them for two years, although there is no apparent flash point for his having gone silent. There is instead the general sense among what is known as "Team Sandler" that Sandler doesn't need the media--and by media they mean the harder-to-control film writers who have dismissed Sandler as a fluke, or worse, a public health risk. Their criticism, for now, is irrelevant: Combined, Sandler's last three movies, all made at relatively sane prices, have grossed about $400 million domestically. As Sandler's publicist, Cindy Guagenti, told me, explaining why it didn't matter where I was from: "His fans don't read" these articles.

By virtue of the wall around him, though, Sandler automatically becomes more interesting than any number of stars who sit down with interviewers to parcel out the quotes and the charisma. Even if the answers aren't provocative, as Sandler's people maintain, the questions are: What is he hiding? Why boycott print interviews when critics hardly need access to him to continue to trash his movies? At a screening for "Little Nicky," his new movie that opens Friday, I spoke to some of the foreign TV press who would be sitting down with Sandler for five minutes of promotional sound bites. Press junket veterans, they all agreed that Sandler doesn't give print interviews because on the cold, hard page, he is out of context, a goofy-shy person whose behavior is inevitably misconstrued or not construed at all. One reporter said she wanted to use quotes from Sandler's "Big Daddy" junket for a magazine article. They were the same quotes Sandler had given to her in front of the camera, but the star's representatives nixed it.

Sandler himself has been quoted in the past as saying ". . . when I talk about me and comedy, I've never heard anything come out of my mouth that sounds too interesting." But Sandler is no longer just a movie star, he's a genre-unto-himself--a brand--and it is clear that he understands how best to reach his customers. For "Little Nicky," a big-budget, special-effects-driven comedy in which he plays the son of the devil, Sandler would take his case straight to the people on demographically friendly shows like "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," MTV's "TRL" and an infomercial program on Comedy Central called "Canned Ham."

In other words, there is method behind his madness--the same method that made his previous movies--whether "The Wedding Singer" or "The Waterboy" or "Big Daddy"--mainstream hits. Sandler, 34, is by many accounts a hard-working, grounded, soup-to-nuts participant in his product, guiding everything from the script to the cutting of the trailer. To consort with journalists is to cede control to people with whom he does not get final cut. Nor do the various comedic images he projects--the guy with no prospects but great cable and a dime bag of pot, say--mix well with articles about his power-broker clout in Hollywood.

"How can he be singing about owning a piece of [crap] car when [people know] he's making $20 million a movie?" says a source who has worked with Sandler on his comedy albums.

With Team Sandler on a winning streak, Sandler is attached as producer to a number of comedy scripts around town. On paper anyway, he has become a kind of AmeriCorps for other former "Saturday Night Live" cast members whose film careers are otherwise dormant. His Happy Madison Productions is developing feature scripts for Dana Carvey, Norm Macdonald, Kevin Nealon, Colin Quinn and David Spade ("Joe Dirt," another project starring Spade and produced by Sandler, recently finished shooting). They are mostly clients of the management firm run by Brad Grey and Bernie Brillstein, where Sandler too is a client.

There is also Rob Schneider's upcoming film "Animal," a follow-up to Schneider's surprise 1999 hit, "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo." "Deuce," say insiders, is the blueprint for Sandler's emergence as a producer, for he was able to take a comedian who couldn't sell tickets and a concept that most dismissed as one-note and get a nice return on the investment. ("Deuce" grossed more than $65 million and did brisk home video sales). Can Carvey, Macdonald, Spade et al. be similarly Sandlerized?

"They're so smart they broke Rob to America," says a longtime Sandler friend, noting Schneider's pre-"Deuce" unpopularity in the marketplace. "They're so hooked into their crowd, they were able to figure out what they wanted."

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