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Cussler struggles on the stand; another suit is filed

The novelist's agent is accused of overstating book sales before the `Sahara' film flop.

February 14, 2007|Glenn F. Bunting | Times Staff Writer

As novelist Clive Cussler struggled at times on the witness stand Tuesday in a Hollywood breach-of-contract trial, lawyers for his opponent, billionaire Philip Anschutz, filed a lawsuit in Denver alleging that the author's literary agent fraudulently inflated the number of Cussler books sold worldwide.

Anschutz's production company, Crusader Entertainment, would never have made the feature film "Sahara" if it had known that Cussler's New York agent, Peter Lampack, had "concealed the true facts for several years," according to the lawsuit.

The filing of the litigation came about as Lampack completed his sixth day of trial testimony in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom.

"It is a typical Anschutz bullying tactic to try to intimidate a witness on the other side by suing him personally," Cussler lawyer Bertram Fields said. "It is disgusting and despicable."

Anschutz agreed in 2000 to pay Cussler $10 million per book for the film rights to his Dirk Pitt adventure series based on Lampack's claim that the author had sold more than 100 million copies, the lawsuit says. It was not until last year that lawyers for Anschutz discovered that the actual number sold was "in the range of 30 million books," according to the lawsuit.

Both Cussler and Lampack have denied that they misrepresented the number of books sold. They said the "more than 100 million" figure was an accurate estimate based on the best available information.

Cussler initially sued Anschutz's Crusader Entertainment in 2004 for allegedly reneging on a written agreement that gave him extraordinary approval rights over "Sahara," the 2005 film starring Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz. Anschutz countersued, claiming that Cussler sabotaged the film, which has lost about $105 million.

On Tuesday, Cussler appeared confused on occasion in response to friendly questioning from Fields.

When asked the name of an Academy Award-winning screenwriter whose script Cussler approved, the 75-year-old novelist said "David Hart" -- combining the names of "Sahara" writers David S. Ward, who won an Oscar for "The Sting," and James V. Hart.

In another instance, Fields asked Cussler whether he got along with director Rob Bowman.

"We didn't," Cussler responded. "I never met him.... Oh, I'm sorry

Sporting a silver goatee, Cussler appeared at ease throughout most of his testimony, which lasted less than two hours.

Fields began by asking, "Do you feel OK?"

"I'm not too bad," Cussler said.

The attorney then asked Cussler to confirm that his wife of 47 years died of cancer in 2003 and that he had undergone quintuple bypass surgery in 2005, a procedure that is said to have contributed to a loss of memory.

"Prior to the operation, my memory wasn't probably too great," Cussler said. "It's improved."

After Cussler's testimony, Anschutz attorney Alan Rader said in an interview, "They are piling one excuse on top of another. How many does it take before it all becomes unbelievable?"

Anschutz's attorneys startled the courtroom by declining to cross-examine Cussler. When Superior Court Judge John P. Shook directed Fields to call his next witness, the attorney said he had no one available.

"We anticipated days of cross-examination," Fields said. "This is very embarrassing. I apologize for that."

Anschutz's attorneys said they decided during the lunch recess to pass up the opportunity to confront Cussler because "nothing new" came out during his testimony. They said they planned to call Cussler to the stand after presenting their case to the jury.

Anschutz's attorneys "must be smoking some funny substances if they think Clive didn't score well with the jury," Fields said. "I think they liked him and they believed him."

glenn.bunting@latimes.com

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