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Dreams of Hollywood Disappear Along With Fake 'Real Rome'

August 27, 2005|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

There are two reasons that Jeff Barr, an aspiring screenwriter, won't be able to bring himself to watch Sunday's debut of the HBO series "Rome."

The first reason is that Barr is among 18 writers, art and costume designers, researchers and a producer who allege that they were victims of a con involving a docudrama project called "Real Rome," which they mistakenly believed also was backed by HBO.

The second reason is that Barr, 24, who moved from Columbus, Ohio, for the "Real Rome" job, can't afford premium cable these days. Having never been paid for his work, he can barely make his rent.

Since discovering that "Real Rome" wasn't real, Barr said, "I feel like my dreams have been destroyed."

The person who destroyed those dreams, Barr and others alleged in interviews and in formal complaints to the state labor commissioner, is Wayne Heyman-Hanks, a 43-year-old self-proclaimed producer who also goes by the name Dewey Wayne Hanks Jr.

They said Hanks fabricated an elaborate deception that lured not just hopeful novices but also accomplished professionals.

"It seemed like a big deal," said John Vaughan, the former director of production for MCA Television, recalling how Hanks persuaded him to come aboard. Later, when Vaughan learned he'd been fooled, he said, "I couldn't believe it. I was staggering around in a daze."

"Real Rome" looked legit. Hanks housed his enterprise in a Studio City bungalow across from the CBS Studio Center soundstages on Radford Avenue. But it turns out that he never paid the rent. "Real Rome" employees were hired at competitive rates that seemed to imply Hanks had both cash and credibility. But not a single paycheck ever materialized.

Hanks denied that he presided over a hoax. In an interview, he also disputed the claim, made by several people, that he repeatedly told them that HBO planned to use "Real Rome" as an "appetite whetter" to drum up interest in its "Rome" series.

"This is a muddy, convoluted thing that's full of misinformation, gossip and character assassination," he said.

Hanks blamed the disintegration of "Real Rome" on a Danish screenwriter named Jesper Kodahl Andersen, who Hanks said had agreed to finance the project.

Andersen, who was supposed to direct "Real Rome," called that "a total fabrication." He said he too was Hanks' victim, having spent $60,000 of his savings to help pay expenses on "Real Rome" and two other projects.

Court records show that Hanks has been in trouble before. Over the last decade, Hanks and companies he ran have been sued at least a dozen times by creditors seeking payment.

"We're still waiting for our money," said Mitch Russell, executive vice president of Chelsea Studios, a Los Angeles company that won a $5,000 judgment against Hanks in 2001 after he leased offices to conduct auditions for another project, but did not pay his bill.

This April, as he was assembling the "Real Rome" staff, Hanks was arrested and charged with lewd conduct and indecent exposure after he allegedly exposed himself to a Los Angeles police officer, who was undercover. He has pleaded not guilty.

When The Times called Hanks to schedule a prearranged follow-up interview, Hanks' telephone number had been disconnected. He has vacated the Studio City apartment where he used to live.

The story of how Hanks persuaded 18 people to embark on "Real Rome" says as much about the culture of Hollywood as it does about any one man's wiles. In a town where appearances can be as important as reality, Hanks talked the talk.

In the entertainment industry, where relationships are the mortar with which deals are cemented, Hanks also claimed to have friends in high places -- people with impressive credits who could get projects on the air. Then, as each new person joined his project, Hanks built upon his or her connections and reputation to lure others.

Anna Waterhouse was one of the first hired. A 50-year-old professor at Orange Coast College who has worked as a script doctor, she learned of the project when a friend saw an ad that billed "Real Rome" as a "premium cable-network series."

She'd never heard of Hanks' LightForce Productions, but she agreed to meet him for coffee. He and screenwriter Andersen arrived wearing faded T-shirts and jeans, looking more like "aging college students" than major players, Waterhouse thought. Hanks, a heavyset man with a courtly Alabama accent, drove a pickup truck, not a BMW.

But when Waterhouse vetted him on the Internet, she liked what she found: several articles in Alabama newspapers that called Hanks a successful Hollywood producer who planned to use his film profits to buy fire equipment to donate to various cities in his home state.

Hanks offered Waterhouse $6,480 a week -- more than her usual rate -- and offered to make her head writer. When he presented her with a 13-week contract, she signed.

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