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Hidden Cameras Put an Unlikely Star in Focus

Television* Jeff Norman, self-described provocateur, is featured on similar shows on two networks.

July 12, 2002|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Struggling actors and comics frequently complain that they can't get arrested. Jeff Norman, who sees himself as technically neither but is essentially a bit of both, not only could but literally did.

Bearing some resemblance to Richard Deacon, who played Mel Cooley on "The Dick Van Dyke Show," Norman hardly seems likely to become a matinee idol, yet the current demand for titillating, inexpensive television is such that he finds himself featured in two prime-time programs on different networks--NBC's hidden-camera prank show "Spy TV" and Fox's similar "Invasion of the Hidden Cameras," which debuts tonight.

"That officially makes me America's sweetheart," Norman said.

Granted, the Fox series was produced a few years ago, before the network stated its intent to curtail an overreliance on such fare after embarrassing revelations about bachelor Rick Rockwell--who had a restraining order against him obtained by an ex-girlfriend--followed "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?"

A less heralded event, meanwhile, involved Norman himself, who was arrested in Boise, Idaho, on charges of disturbing the peace while perpetrating an elaborate hoax for a never-broadcast Fox special, "World's Nastiest Neighbors."

The 1998 stunt occurred when Norman and a crew leased a house on a quiet cul-de-sac and proceeded to stage mud-wrestling matches in a frontyard filled with 52 plastic pink flamingos, tiki torches and a large trampoline.

They invited perplexed neighbors over using a bullhorn and taped their aghast reactions with, among other things, a miniature camera inside a pair of oversized sunglasses.

The charade lasted several days before concerned residents called the police, who hauled Norman in and confiscated more than 30 videotapes.

"I don't see anything in there that's all that frightening, but these people are very intolerant and uptight," Norman said recently, adding, "I've never had handcuffs on before, and it hurt."

Far from being humiliated, though, Norman considers Boise the apex of his hidden-camera career.

The deception, he noted, dragged on for several days--a departure from most pranks, in which producers have only a few minutes before they reveal the gag to get "marks" to sign a release form allowing their images to be used. "People almost always sign," Norman said.

Admittedly, Norman's career is a rather strange one, including documentary films, work for a now-defunct online entertainment site and his latest project, a Pat Paulsen-like run for the presidency built on a platform that includes a national "pizza night," extending summer by two weeks and making procreation "a privilege."

Norman's agent, Richard Lawrence, hopes there is a TV special or series in documenting the presidential run, which Norman, at least, appears to be taking seriously. Even Lawrence struggles in trying to characterize him.

"He just looks at life differently," Lawrence said, adding in regard to the way the TV landscape has shifted, "There's a need for people doing unusual things."

"I'm definitely not an actor," Norman said. "I never really knew what to call myself. A provocateur, I guess.... I've always enjoyed interacting with the unsuspecting public."

Although rarely as protracted as what he tried to pull off in Boise, the hidden-camera pranks Norman specializes in are clearly less innocuous than, say, "Candid Camera."

A "Spy TV" stunt, for example, involved getting pizza deliverymen to help perform a mock surgery (although they didn't know it wasn't real) in a seedy motel room. One became so unnerved at the grisly spectacle that he abruptly exited through the window.

Some have decried this programming trend as being mean-spirited, among them Peter Funt, son of the late Allen Funt and overseer of the "Candid Camera" franchise. Still, hidden-camera shows have proliferated, including the WB's comedic "JKX: The Jamie Kennedy Experiment," Fox's upcoming "Meet the Marks" and MTV's "Celebrity Undercover."

For his part, Norman dismisses any criticism, suggesting that the public accepts and understands that the shows are designed simply to entertain. As for the risk that someone could be hurt, he said, "I didn't expect anybody to jump out a window, and I don't think any reasonable person would."

Jeff Boggs, the executive producer of "Spy TV," said Norman and the program's other regular contributors possess the improvisational skills necessary to make the genre work--unlike many of the more traditional sitcom actors who come in.

"He's probably the furthest thing in Hollywood from a leading man--kind of a cross between Gavin MacLeod and Chris Elliott," quipped Boggs, who previously worked on Tom Green's MTV show and who calls Norman a friend.

As for the prospects of a TV show chronicling Norman's transformation from unlikely TV presence to presidential candidate, his agent expressed confidence someone will eventually take the plunge. After all, it should be unusual--and reasonably priced.

"I think we'll get to do it," Lawrence said. "Like everything else in TV, it's just a question of when."

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