The ‘Lowe Tapes’: Hollywood Watches and Wonders

Times Staff Writers

In those days the public wanted us to live like kings and queens. So we did--and why not? We were in love with life. We were making more money than we ever dreamed existed and there was no reason to believe it would ever stop. --Actress Gloria Swanson

In Hollywood, private film parties have been a tradition since the earliest days of the business, but seldom have people gathered to watch anything as fuzzy as the images of the “Rob Lowe tapes” currently in wide circulation on the bar and party circuit.

The “Lowe tapes” are the two sex videos--one of two men and one woman, the other of two women and one man--that allegedly were made by Lowe during an encounter with a 16-year-old girl and a young woman in Atlanta during last summer’s Democratic National Convention.

One of the tapes is evidence in a civil suit recently filed in Georgia’s Fulton County by the mother of the 16-year-old, and Lowe’s attorneys have since countered with an answer charging the woman with extortion. Fulton County authorities say they are still investigating the events and that they may file criminal charges.


Meanwhile, copies of the tapes have slipped out of Atlanta and are in wide circulation around the country. More so since porn magazine editor Al Goldstein aired a portion of one tape on his “Midnight Blue” program that airs on Manhattan’s Channel J cable station.

The question, as the tapes and inevitable jokes make the rounds, is what effect the issue will have on the actor’s career.

“What kind of a career does he really have (to harm)?” said an executive of a Hollywood publicity firm. “He is not a major star. . . . I would think the fact that he is getting this attention will probably just make him better known to people. If it had been a gay film, it would have been a (career) killer.”

“Rob Lowe is the victim of a lot of cheap shots,” said veteran Hollywood press agent Lee Solters. “My own gut feeling is that I wouldn’t want to be in (Lowe’s publicist’s) shoes.”

One of the charter members of Hollywood’s Brat Pack, Lowe has worked steadily in recent years (“Oxford Blues,” “. . . About Last Night,” “St. Elmo’s Fire,” “Hotel New Hampshire”), for fees that industry insiders put at $1 million to $1.5 million per picture. But he has not been in the kind of runaway hit that elevated him to mega-star status, and critics continue to focus their reviews on his looks rather than his acting.

In a review in the New Yorker of Lowe’s last movie “Masquerade,” critic Pauline Kael said, “Rob Lowe hasn’t learned to use anything: his acting is mush.”

Lowe received his best notices (and a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor) for his role as a mentally retarded youth in the 1987 “Square Dance.” Despite the presence of acclaimed actors Jason Robards and Jane Alexander, the New York Times’ Vincent Canby said “the most arresting performance is Mr. Lowe’s.”

Still, when people think of Lowe, who has been romantically linked with Fawn Hall, Melissa Gilbert and Princess Stephanie, among others, it is his attractiveness more than his acting ability that invites envy. And that, says his attorney Dale Kinsella, is what made him vulnerable to the current charges.

“He is an extraordinarily good-looking kid,” said Kinsella. “He’s personable, warm and nice. You can just see how this person could attract every good and bad aspect of society. . . . Rob’s 25 and has no need to become a recluse and shouldn’t.”

Kinsella was outraged, as were many others, at the airing of the tape on “Midnight Blue” and Goldstein’s blatant promotion of $29.95 copies of the video.

“I think Rob’s privacy has been invaded enough by this scheme that has been perpetrated on him,” Kinsella said. “It’s amazing that third, fourth or fifth parties have entered into this to exploit him.”

According to the public records, the taped events occurred last August when Lowe, a Michael Dukakis supporter there for the convention, brought the girl and the woman to his hotel room and recorded their sexual activities on a videotape that included footage Lowe had taken at the convention and at a baseball game.

It is unclear what happened to the tape that night, but soon after, the mother’s attorney contacted Kinsella demanding fluctuating sums that ranged from $300,000 to half of Lowe’s net worth, Lowe’s attorney said in the interview. An affidavit from a friend of the 16-year-old’s said the girl bragged about the film and said “that she was going to use the film to blackmail Rob Lowe for $2 million.”

Kinsella said he refused to make any settlement. Attorneys for Wilson did not return repeated calls from The Times.

“I think Rob has been the subject of a bungled, yet nonetheless deplorable, attempt to extort money,” Kinsella said. “Here’s a young actor who has a very promising career ahead of him and is a bright, reasonable, articulate young man who really found himself at the wrong place at the wrong time with some definitely wrong people. I suppose it could happen to almost anybody.”

It has happened dozens of times throughout Hollywood’s storied past--recently with Sylvester Stallone, whose pre-”Rocky” performance in a soft porn movie came back to haunt him and to director Roman Polanski, who fled the country after his conviction on charges stemming from his seduction of a 13-year-old girl.

Stallone was not hurt by the notoriety over the renamed soft porn video, “The Italian Stallion.” Polanski has made three movies since his trial, but has clearly been hurt by the event.

Earlier career testing scandals in Hollywood involved Robert Mitchum, who was convicted of marijuana use in 1948, and Charlie Chaplin, who was 35 when he was forced into a shotgun wedding with the 16-year-old star of “The Gold Rush.”

Fatty Arbuckle, Mack Sennett’s chubby comedy hero, was tried three times for the murder of a young woman found in his San Francisco hotel room following a well-detailed three-day party. An autopsy showed that the woman had died from peritonitis caused by the rupture of her sexual organs.

The actor was acquitted by the third jury, one of whom publicly condemned the entire thing as a farce, but the lurid details brought out in the trial shocked the nation and led to the formation of the Hays Code, which set up strict moral guidelines for movies, and by implication, for its stars.

The 1922 event destroyed Arbuckle’s career and he died a few years later from alcohol abuse.

In Lowe’s case, the jury is still out.

Henry Bollinger, a long-time Hollywood publicist, said such scandals will only harm an actor’s career if it dramatically contrasts with his image, or if the crime is so heinous the public won’t forget it regardless of guilt or innocence.

Bollinger said he represented actor Tab Hunter in 1960 when he was charged with beating his dog. He was acquitted, but the accusation stuck “and his career came to a grinding halt.”

The Lowe tapes are provoking different reactions from different people.

“I think a lot of people are disgusted and turned off, others are titillated and intrigued,” said one Hollywood agent, who asked not to be identified. “It gives him a whole different persona than that gentle pretty kind of guy to a perverse kind of sexual animal.”

The agent said she thinks Lowe will be hotter with film makers who will want to exploit his new sexual image, while serious film makers will stay away from him. She said that in the script for Lowe’s next movie, “Bad Influence,” he plays a psychopath who films a couple having sex.

When first asked about the effect the Lowe tapes would have on the movie, “Bad Influence” producer Steve Tisch was quoted as saying: “We plan to keep the title, we think it’s great.”

Sources close to the movie said the script was being retooled to utilize the controversy in the film, and that someone has already come up with the ad line: “Rob Lowe is a Bad Influence.”

The producers would not discuss the film with The Times for this story.

Teen-age girls make up a big part of Lowe’s audience. The star has been on the covers of innumerable youth magazines and would have been on the cover of August’s Back-to-School issue of 4-million circulation ‘Teen magazine if the news from Atlanta had broken a few days later. Lowe was pulled from the cover of the magazine last week and was replaced by a photo of River Phoenix.

The magazine sent out a press release announcing the makeover, citing “adverse publicity” surrounding Lowe. Editorial director and publisher Robert F. MacLeod said “we’re not condemning Mr. Lowe’s alleged misconduct, he is innocent until proven otherwise. However, it is inappropriate to publicize a public figure of Lowe’s stature when serious charges are challenging his reputation.”

Also last week, a line of women’s clothing bestowed upon the actor the “No Excuses” Award of the month. A full-page ad in Womens Wear Daily featured Lowe’s handsomely pouting face with the caption: “How Lowe can you go?”

Rumors about the Lowe tapes had been circulating in Fulton County for months before it made national news and officials in Atlanta admit being bemused by the fuss.

“I don’t want to say, ‘Much ado about nothing,’ ” said Fulton County District Attorney Lewis Slaton. “If I was gauging, I’d say the media grossly over-reacted.”

Slayton does not know whether he will file criminal charges, he said. He must take into account such factors as whether the underage girl looked older than 16, the circumstances surrounding the making of the videotape and the actions of the parents who have been fighting a very public divorce case.

“You can make arguments on both sides,” Slaton said. “If you’re in the type of movies that he’s in, as opposed to playing a Catholic priest or a Bing Crosby-type character, it wouldn’t help (a film career), I’m not sure about Mr. Lowe.”

He said he is “trying to handle the case as if he wasn’t a famous movie star.”

“And yet he is, he’s a kid,” he continued. “He’s not a whole lot older than she is. You don’t have the ‘dirty old man’ syndrome here.”