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Buddies in a wide-collar world

March 04, 2004|Robert Abele | Special to The Times

OUTSIDE L.A.'s Superior Court Building in downtown, Ben Stiller's hot-rod moment is approaching. The June skies have stopped drizzling on the cast and crew of "Starsky and Hutch," and Stiller is ready to really live part of Starsky: gun the engine of the cop show's infamous red-and-white Gran Torino, and peel away with a macho flourish.

As the crew sets up the shot, Stiller -- perfectly '70s with his permed hair and regulation tough-guy, Army-green jacket -- can't hide his excitement.

His driving-training lingo is fresh in his head. "This is called a hot pullout," he authoritatively tells director Todd Phillips, standing nearby.

"It's called an insurance liability," Phillips wisecracks back.

Stiller, who plays the take-a-bite-out-of-crime lawman Starsky to costar Owen Wilson's more coolly savvy detective Hutch, grips the wheel and punches the gas. The tires screech. But rather than burn rubber, Stiller shreds the parking space's white lines so that their ripped-up fragments fly through the air like shot-out party favors.

This "Starsky and Hutch" is intended to be a comedy -- Snoop Dogg plays pimp-informant Huggy Bear, after all -- but this isn't what Phillips had in mind. Next take, the director decides, no pullout. "Take the keys away," Phillips says to no one in particular, laughing.

Later, Wilson recalls standing still for a "sliding 90" shot -- in which the stunt driver steers the car straight at him, turns, and brakes inches away. It was nothing. But riding shotgun with Stiller? A lesson in guts. "He wants to do all this driving because he took a three-day course, and it puts me in some very dangerous positions," Wilson says in his understated drawl. "Guy grew up in New York City and didn't have a license till he was 22."

During a break in filming, Stiller acknowledges that this whole shoot is a childhood fantasy being played out. "For a young Jewish kid on the Upper West Side with dark, curly hair, David Starsky was definitely a role model," says Stiller. The series, which ran from 1975 to 1979, starred Paul Michael Glaser as Starsky and David Soul as Hutch, swinging bachelors who tackled crime in "Bay City" (whose sunny yet cold-looking climate Phillips calls "Pittsburgh, Calif."). Stiller says, "I was 10 years old, the target demographic. With your best friend, you would just pretend you were those guys."

Now he's walking that fine line between homage and parody. What do you do with Glaser's arm-flailing, chest-puffing sprint in pursuit of a crook? "I look at it as a real guy run," says Stiller. "You see a guy not trying to look cool while he's running, [not] trying to be as aerodynamic as possible." The mini-deconstruction gets him laughing, but at the same time he looks serious. "We know we don't want it to be a spoof. It's a comedy with action."

The action isn't too fancy either, which is just how Phillips likes it. "The idea of the movie was always low-fi," he says. "This is how it used to be, when guys rolled up their sleeves and threw somebody out a window. That was action!" Stiller, too, extols the bygone two-man fight aesthetic: "We hope we can excite people by punching in unison."

When development started on a "Starsky and Hutch" movie, the approach was strictly by-the-book: a modern-day buddy-cop movie. That languished until Stiller picked up the project and got "Old School" co-writer/director Todd Phillips involved. Phillips and writing partner Scot Armstrong did a comic rewrite that set it squarely in the '70s, so instead of wink-wink jokes about wide collars, it's a relationship comedy set in the world of wide collars.

"We told Warner Bros., 'We're making a romantic comedy between two straight guys,' " recalls Phillips. "It follows those beats. This is the origin story that predates the show, so there's putting them together, then they're not a good match, the fighting and breaking up and then getting together to overcome the villain." (In this case, the villain is a cocaine kingpin played by Vince Vaughn.)

But would this concept have gotten a green light quite so quickly if Stiller hadn't also envisioned reteaming with Owen Wilson? Arguably the closest thing to a modern-day Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, the pair were dim male models in the Stiller-directed "Zoolander," competitive suitors in "Meet the Parents," and two of the eccentrics in "The Royal Tenenbaums," which Wilson co-wrote.

Stiller's at a loss to explain their chemistry. "He makes me laugh as a person in life.... When I saw him in 'Bottle Rocket,' I think I laughed through the whole movie." Wilson, who usually plays mellow surfer to Stiller's uptight lifeguard, says they just fit. "We may have different personas in movies, but we're more similar in what we think is funny."

As for playing a badge-carrying icon of blond-haired sex appeal, Wilson admits his memories of the show are fuzzy. "I was pretty little. I remember more about ['Miami Vice's'] Crockett and Tubbs."

One person who recalls "Starsky and Hutch" quite well, however, is Stiller's mother, actress Anne Meara. In the fall of 1975 Meara had a new CBS drama called "Kate McShane." It lasted barely two months opposite a certain youth-driven plainclothes detective show on ABC.

"I told my mom we were doing the movie," says Stiller, "and she was like, 'Oh. That was the show that got us canceled.' "

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