Dino De Laurentiis, it seemed, had run out of options.
After a final appeal in January, the Immigration and Naturalization Service denied De Laurentiis a dozen visas for a crew of Italian hair stylists, makeup artists and technicians to complete the miniseries "Noble House" at his Wilmington, N.C., studios.
De Laurentiis Entertainment Group's eight-hour adaptation of James Clavell's novel, scheduled for broadcast on NBC next season, faced certain production delays as it relocated from exterior shooting in Hong Kong to interior filming in the United States. Film industry unions instrumental in persuading the INS to deny the visas said there was a simple solution: Hire Americans.
On Monday, however, De Laurentiis' crew began work on schedule.
Something unexpected had happened. Two weeks ago, the INS reversed its H-1 visa denials by invoking a statute usually reserved for emergency admissions cases--such as foreign witnesses to U.S. legal proceedings or Soviet defectors--to "parole" the Italians onto their jobs.
Industry observers say this was a good example of the conflicting forces at work on the INS as it carries out its mandate to decide what foreign performers, artists and technicians to allow into the United States to work.
Moreover, they say that proposed new regulations won't resolve the dilemma. Producers and promoters say the near-success of the unions in blocking "Noble House" demonstrates how much power they have over hiring. The unions argue that, while there are artists of distinction who deserve to work in the United States, many of lesser merit are being allowed in to take Americans' jobs.
In the case of "Noble House," the controversy began when Make-up Artists and Hair Stylist Local 706 challenged the visa applications last December.
Siding with the unions, the INS denied the visas because the individuals did not meet its standard of "artistic preeminence" in their fields.
Attorneys for De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG) then enlisted the help of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in attempting to secure the visas, a studio official and a Helms staffer confirmed.
"The same people have to work on hair and makeup for continuity," contended Jayme Bednaraczyk, assistant to studio president Martha Schumacher. "You can't have people walk into a building in Hong Kong and look different when they get inside here."
She also noted that the North Carolina work is budgeted for $16 million and would create about 200 local jobs.
In the wake of the INS flip-flop, unions and labor groups are accusing the agency of caving in to pressure from Helms, who once called for U.S. troops to keep Mexicans on their side of the border.
"Helms urges the INS to be tough on the Mexicans, but when it comes to bringing in highly paid positions for his benefactor, De Laurentiis, he urges the INS to look the other way," said Bruce Doering, business representative of the International Photographers Guild, Local 659 in Hollywood.
Barbara Lukens, press secretary for Helms, declined to comment on his role in the affair, saying, "It was the constituent's request, so we regard that as a private matter."
Richard Norton, INS associate commissioner of examinations in Washington, D.C., who permitted the De Laurentiis crew to work in the United States, said he wasn't approached by anyone from Helms' office. He said that federal law gives the INS the discretion to grant exceptions to immigration law in many circumstances, including those which are considered to be in the public interest or where the INS may have acted in error.
"This is not to say we did act in error," he quickly added. But there is evidence, he said, that the DEG employees who were first hired to film in Hong Kong may have applied for the wrong kind of visas.
"With a major production scheduled, with people's jobs at stake and with money going down the drain," he said, "it seemed reasonably discreet to exercise parole."
Jessica Bagg, an attorney for De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, said, "I don't think it's his (De Laurentiis') goal to break the back of the unions. We just happen to be in a right-to-work state making medium- to low-budget movies."
In strong disagreement is Howard J. Smit, business representative of Make-up Artists and Hair Stylist Local 706, who boasted just two weeks ago about how he had stopped De Laurentiis, who became a U.S. citizen last September.
"He (De Laurentiis) doesn't give a damn where he gets his people, as long as he saves himself a buck," Smit said. The Italian hair stylists and makeup artists, he said, will be paid $1,600 per week, compared to $2,500 to $3,500 a week his union members would earn. DEG confirmed the figure.
"I will take any action necessary to stop our government from shoving foreigners down our throats," Smit said. "It's bad enough that the corporations have exported our jobs all over the world, but here we have people, who have not even begun to be qualified, taking jobs away from own people."
Still, the odds of getting the INS to reverse itself again are slim, some union officials admitted. The DEG employees have up to 90 days to reapply for the appropriate visas while they continue to work. By then, however, filming should be completed, Bednaraczyk said.
Besides a concern for preserving the film's visual continuity, the visa petitions filed on behalf of the hair stylists and makeup artists said they were uniquely qualified because of their illusionary work, which required giving the movie's Caucasian actors Asian facial characteristics.
Smit contends that such "illusionary" effects are the stock in trade of his union and its members would have no difficulty reproducing them.
In an effort to establish their credentials, the visa petitions filed on behalf of the makeup artists and hair stylists listed "Lady Hawke," "Popeye," "Doctor Faust" and "Satyricon" among other film credits.
"I'm not questioning their ability to perform the job (overseas), I'm questioning their ability to do our job here," Smit said. "Not one of them (the hair stylists and makeup artists) has received any awards," he said, referring to one of the criteria that INS officials use to determine artistic preeminence. "The people I represent have won Oscars and Emmys."
Kay Shannon in The Times' Washington bureau contributed to this story.