Schiller's Twist : O.J. Collaborator Lawrence Schiller Has a Knack for Insinuating Himself Into History

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The O.J.-O-Rama infotainment extravaganza was rolling. Western civilization wobbled in its moorings.

So when author Josh Greenfeld heard that the world's most prominent criminal defendant was publishing a book, and that Lawrence Schiller made it happen, he had to smile.

"To me the literary surprise of the year is not that Larry emerged in connection to O.J," says Greenfeld, "but that he had nothing to do with the Pope's book."

Greenfeld calls him "Forrest Schiller," not for any resemblance to the sweet and simple Gump, but rather for his tendency to turn up in the vortex of any hyperbolized historic moment.

If, before his arrest, O.J. was this era's quintessential celebrity icon--a lite and cheerful message from your sponsors that everything's dandy--Schiller's recurring role in mass culture has been more complex, more disturbing. He is a dervish who swirls into the center of a media storm, upending conventional wisdom about the boundaries between art and journalism, commerce and history, sleaze and sanctimony, right and wrong.

In a city where professional hyphenates are de rigueur, Schiller, 58, demands semicolons, ellipses and parenthesis. The award-winning director-producer-photographer is also an author ( collaborator may be the better term), interviewer, packager and deal-maker.

Often when Schiller has charged in buying life-story rights, conducting interviews, concocting deals in connection with Jack Ruby or Lenny Bruce, the Manson family or Lee Harvey Oswald, the respectable media have tried to drive him off with invective. "Hearse chaser" and "a carrion bird," they've called him, and most recently, in a New York Magazine headline: "O.J. Simpson's Newest Sleazy Friend."

But often, respectable journalists come away with a reluctant respect for him.

Last Thursday, the day before Simpson's "I Want to Tell You--My Response to Your Letters, Your Messages, Your Questions" appeared, Schiller sat in the living room of his leased North Hollywood home, chain-eating Gelson's pastries and repeating a spiel that he also fed to Barbara Walters and Larry King.

Twenty-five years ago, Schiller and his first wife, Judy, had lived near Simpson in an area called Bel-Air Skycrest, he says. His children (he has a total of five from his first two marriages) played touch football in the street with the Juice. His daughter, Suzanne, baby-sat Simpson's older children, Arnelle and Jason.

Schiller had also once directed O.J. in a music video as a favor to their mutual friend Robert Kardashian. Those facts gave Schiller entree into the jail as a material witness, and 30 hours with the man every reporter in America wanted to interview.

Can Schiller say with a straight face that he qualifies as a bona fide material witness?

His brown eyes remain absolutely neutral behind bifocals; the musculature beneath his well-trimmed beard doesn't move. " . . . I think there are things I could testify to if they were relevant to the trial . . . "

Schiller acknowledges that after the first visit, the next 15 were solely for the purpose of writing the book--Simpson's taped and edited responses to thousands of letters. He also says with a faint smile, he's thought about it and he figures he may well have landed those interviews even without the Kardashian connection.

Says Greenfeld: "Who else do you know who can break into a jail?"

On a coffee table in the living room of this house where O.J.'s book was secretly built, are the galleys of "Oswald's Tale, An American Mystery," the upcoming Norman Mailer book to which Schiller again contributed.

A bookcase behind him displays a Jill Krementz photograph of Schiller and the author. Mailer has signed it: "To Larry, You Faloogaling Genius."

But the inscription Mailer put in his first project with Schiller--the big photo book "Marilyn"--better reflects the typical reaction to the man:

"To Larry, a true collaborator, genius, kid brother, maniac, monologuist, (expletive) and general factotum, cheers."

The Los Angeles Times first deemed Schiller newsworthy in 1956, announcing in April that the photographer had won a set of Encyclopedia Britannica in a press photographers' competition. An August story noted the Pepperdine College student's engagement to America's 7th-ranked women's tennis star. That union never materialized, but the line of ascent had been set.

Schiller figures he probably began learning his dedication and salesmanship watching his father woo customers at the family's camera, appliance and sporting goods store in San Diego's Pacific Beach. His scrappiness may have come earlier, though.

He was born in Brooklyn, and at age 5 he poked his head into a dumbwaiter just as someone dropped an umbrella. He was permanently blinded in one eye, a disadvantage for someone who would try to interpret the world with a camera.

When Schiller was 7, the family moved to Chula Vista. Schiller recalls neighborhood bullies taking him and his brother into a cemetery after school and stripping them naked "for being Jewish." The family found garden hoses stuck through their home's windows.

Pacific Beach proved more tolerant. At 12, Schiller placed a piece of glass under a porcelain Bambi, creating the illusion that the fawn was surrounded by water. That first photograph inspired a hobby. The hobby led to scholarships, which led to an early career shooting landmark photos of Madame Nhu, Richard Nixon and the Pope for Life, Look and Paris Match.

Schiller quickly picked up such a rep that today people who have crossed his zigzagging career path hear his name and, before a single question has been asked, blurt: "It's all true."

In one of the more famous incidents of his early career, Schiller and photographer William Woodfield responded to a tip that Marilyn Monroe might shed her clothes during shooting of the film "Something's Got to Give."

Schiller knew the pictures would be far more valuable if only one set circulated among bidding parties. So he and Woodfield agreed to combine their shots into a single package. The shots made magazine covers worldwide.

Schiller's ambition was already overflowing the printed page as photojournalism's golden age went into decline. "No story can be expressed in one medium" he said back in 1967.

As if to prove that point, he bought rights from and conducted interviews with people who had known comedian Lenny Bruce, then parlayed them into a spoken-word album and the book "Ladies and Gentlemen Lenny Bruce!!" The book jacket bore the unusual credit: "By Albert Goldman from the journalism of Lawrence Schiller." A Broadway play and the film "Lenny" followed.

As often as not, controversy flared around Schiller's projects. In 1969, for instance, he used a legal connection to obtain interviews with incarcerated Manson family member Susan Atkins. Schiller sold the interviews' contents, undermining Atkins' credibility as a witness.

District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi mentioned Schiller in "Helter Skelter," his nonfiction account of the murders, and Schiller has been turning up in contemporary nonfiction ever since.

The book that most fully fleshes out Schiller, however, is "The Executioner's Song," Mailer's 1,056-page examination of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore's death by firing squad in Utah.

In 1976, with a number of documentary film successes on his resume--including the Oscar-winning "The Man Who Skied Down Everest"--Schiller showed up in the midst of the morbid media circus surrounding Gilmore. Moving fast, he worked the phones, fired off telegrams and knocked on doors to tie up life-story rights and exclusive interviews.

In a move that resonates with the most celebrated case of the moment, Schiller also managed to land an exclusive tete-a-tete with Gilmore on Death Row--by presenting himself to prison officials as a "consultant" to Gilmore's attorneys.

Howard Kaminsky, president of Warner Books when "The Executioner's Song" was published, recalls that Schiller "was like a car with nine gears all forward . . . a force of nature.

"I almost killed the guy several times," he says, not without a certain fondness. "He was just (expletive) infuriating. . . . It's a miracle he survived the years when he was in the schoolyard. He absolutely drove me crazy. . . . He just keeps coming at you."

Reviewers, however, practically yodeled their praise for the "true life novel" that Schiller's rights agreements and extensive interviews made possible: "enthralling . . . phenomenal . . . stupendous . . . a literary landmark . . . a masterpiece."

The book won Mailer a Pulitzer prize, and the television movie, which Schiller produced and directed, earned critical acclaim and an Emmy for actor Tommy Lee Jones.

Authors John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion call "The Executioner's Song" "probably the best American book of the past 30 years."

Although neither knows Schiller well, there is something like delight in their voices when they discuss him.

Even Didion, a master of verbal portraiture, admits: "I can't describe him in real clear terms." As Dunne speaks of Schiller's prowess as a director; his ability to get things done, "his very sharp elbows," she interjects: "Like all really first-rate hustlers, he has a streak of the spiritual."

Josh Greenfeld got to know Schiller after selling him the movie rights to his book "A Place for Noah." "To me," Greenfeld says, "there's something totally honest about Larry, in that he's never going to surprise you."

When Greenfeld discovered that his own crackerjack attorneys had missed a few clauses in his option agreement with Schiller, he shrugged.

"Larry out-shrewded them," he says. "Why hold that against him? . . . We always forget that the most intelligent species of animals are the predatory ones."

Not everyone is so willing to forgive and forget. Like many show-biz types, Schiller apparently tithes to Southern California's legal community. His personal and professional wakes are strewn with litigation, arbitration and embittered adversaries.

In June of 1991, Schiller's second wife, Stephanie, filed for divorce after almost 14 years of marriage. Two months later, Schiller filed for bankruptcy. The divorce became a battle marked by shouting matches, late-night phone fights and vituperative exchanges between attorneys, court files show. Some creditors remain rankled.

Schiller attributes his financial woes to the fact that he, like many producers, was heavily leveraged. When two companies that owed him money went belly up, he says, the reverberations hammered him.

Meanwhile, in January, 1993, Schiller married Ludmilla Peresvetova, whom he had met while doing research in the Soviet Union. In July of 1994, he filed to dissolve that marriage, stating his occupation as film director, unemployed, and his net disposable monthly income as $138.

The court declared that marriage over on Jan. 17. Ten days later, the first truckloads of "I Want to Tell You" (Little, Brown and Co.) passed through scanners at bookstores, music stores and supermarkets nationwide, fueling what some publishing sources say is among the most lucrative book launches ever. The first release of 500,000 copies is being followed by a second print run, and the book has hit the top of most bestseller lists.

Schiller declines to specify how much money he stands to make on his collaboration with Simpson. He says the deal calls for higher-than-standard royalties rather than the biggest possible advance.

Even then, early rumors put that advance as high as $4 million.

Schiller dismisses that with a wave of his hand. "It's not $4 million; it's not $3 million; it's not $2 million; it's not there!"

How about $1 million?

"I'm not going to comment" he says.

He is more forthcoming in discussing how he conducted the interviews with Simpson. At the suggestion of Kardashian, Schiller entered the jail last Halloween, and the two had an introductory conversation. That night, he and Kardashian agreed to proceed with the as-yet-ill-defined project.

Schiller was back in the jail the next day. His first question: "Was Nicole a good mother?"

"I've gotta tell you," Schiller says, "what came out was like water washing through a barrel, bursting through. . . . I was just amazed. He had so much he had to start talking about. The range of it. It was not organized at all. It wasn't clear. It was fragmented. In one sentence he'd swing to different subjects."

In "The Executioner's Song," Mailer offers what seems a brief glimpse of Schiller's soul. After selling the rights to his interviews with Atkins, Schiller told Newsweek: "Look, I published what Susan said. I don't know whether it's true."

In Mailer's portrayal, Schiller breaks out in a sweat over that and comes to this realization: "The secret of people who had class was that they remained accurate to the facts. . . . You recorded history. If you did the work that way, you could end up a man of substance."

Author Wilfred Sheed says of Schiller, with whom he once worked on a book about Muhammad Ali: "He has this paparazzi side--'get the story at any cost'--and also an artistic side. And he doesn't seem to see a difference."

"If you work with him you're aware of it," Sheed says. "You're working with two guys." As Schiller talks about Simpson, he occasionally dips into his bookcase to refer to past projects. At one point, he pulls out "Minamata," a photographic expose of mercury poisoning--a book some observers have called as important as Rachael Carson's "Silent Storm."

Speaking in a voice still tinged with Brooklyn, popping off lots of "OKs?" and "You knows?" Schiller explains that he published "Minamata" himself, that he lost money, that he had to battle Smith to put the most famous and devastating photograph--of a mother holding her genetically deformed child--deep inside where Schiller says he felt it would hit readers hardest.

But that, he says, was his vision. "When I have a vision, I am very loyal to that vision."

With "I Want to Tell You," Schiller says, "The rush was when I saw the first bound copy of the book--because my vision was really there."

Is he proud of the book?

"I'm not unproud of it . . .," he says. "These are not my words. It's not my voice in the book. But I am proud of what I did on the book. Genuinely proud. No question."

Where, though, is the art in such a book?

"Maybe," he says, "making it happen is a form of art."

Attorney Gloria Allred, who represents the Brown family, takes a different view. Echoing the sentiments of many, she calls the book "offensive . . . an appalling exploitation of these tragic murders . . . a cynical attempt to manipulate public opinion in support of Mr. Simpson."

And once again, Schiller is confronted with the charge that his "checkbook journalism" has undermined the public's right to know.

"If O.J. Simpson felt his voice was better served by a Barbara Walters or Ted Koppel," Schiller says, "he would have done that. . . . I think if O.J. Simpson decided he wanted to express himself, and every book publisher had said no, I think he would have found a way to express himself."

Mikal Gilmore, Gary Gilmore's brother, has moved from contempt for Schiller to admiration.

Years after his brother's execution, Gilmore set out to do research for what became "A Shot in the Heart" last year's award-winning book on his family. To his surprise, Schiller offered him his interviews.

"Apart from everything else I got from those tapes," Gilmore says, "was a real grudging and belated respect for Larry Schiller's meticulous integrity as a journalist."

Gilmore gradually adjusts his observation: "I think Larry is a man with a very deep integrity of his own. I think that sometimes the nature of that integrity will vary from project to project."

Schiller says that he knew from the start that there were "unspoken parameters" in what he and Simpson should discuss.

"This book is not a biography. It's not an autobiography. To me this is an emotional portrait of a man at a moment in his life."

So far, Schiller says, Simpson has not revealed to him much layering of personality, much depth of character. But again, it wasn't Schiller's mission to do that kind of soul search, he says. Not this time, anyway. And he has not ruled out the possibility that he'll give it another try.

So, does Schiller think Simpson did it?

"If O.J. did it," he says, "it no longer exists in his mind. I have interviewed a lot of people who have committed antisocial acts, and I've never found one of these people who could hide it. . . . I believe that he didn't do it--based on the time I spent with him, not based on the evidence."

Schiller continues, his gaze steady, his voice firm: "If something in the evidence were to turn another way, then I would look at all my stuff, and maybe I will have a more unusual portrait than I have ever had before. . . . Maybe I will have the first true portrait of denial."

* Times Staff Writer Tracy Johnson and researcher Peter Johnson contributed to this story.

For the Record Los Angeles Times Monday February 6, 1995 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 2 Column 1 View Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction Schiller Profile--Author Rachel Carson and her landmark study of the environmental dangers of pesticides, "Silent Spring," were misidentified in Friday's Life & Style.
Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
67°