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Hangin’ With ‘Shorty’ : A Comic Hollywood Crime Novel Has Brought Out the Tough-Guy Stars--Including John Travolta

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“I hear what you’re tellin’ me and you’re wrong,” John Travolta is saying, lounging in a barber’s chair, halfheartedly reading the Miami Herald. “It was ‘Rio Bravo.’ ”

“We’re talking John Wayne and Dean Martin and the blond chick, what’s her name,” replies his buddy in the other chair. “Played a lady cop on TV.”

“Angie Dickinson,” mutters Travolta.

“It was ‘El Dorado,’ ” says his companion.

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Travolta sighs. “Five bucks says you don’t know what the [expletive] you’re talking about.” Would a megawatt movie star like John Travolta talk this way in real life? Not by a long shot. This is the way you shoot the breeze when you’re Chili Palmer, a slick Miami loan shark who arrives in Hollywood to collect on a gambling debt and--who says America isn’t the land of opportunity?--ends up as a movie producer.

It’s the enticing premise behind “Get Shorty,” Elmore Leonard’s comic Hollywood crime novel that is being made into a $30-million MGM film for release this fall. The movie’s star-studded cast includes Travolta as Palmer, Gene Hackman as B-movie producer Harry Zimm, Danny DeVito as Hollywood star Martin Weir, Rene Russo as a former B-movie screamer and Dennis Farina as a nasty Miami hood named Ray Bones.

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (who did both “Addams Family” movies), “Get Shorty” recently wrapped after shooting for 14 weeks around Los Angeles at such in-crowd spots as the Ivy and Abiquiu. Today the setting is a scruffy Venice barber shop, which doubles for a similar Miami setting. It’s here we find Sonnenfeld directing a scene between Farina and Travolta, portraying two hoods from competing mob clans who suddenly find themselves responsible for collecting the same bad debt.

Perched in an aging barber chair, Travolta is gabbing with Sonnenfeld, a former cinematographer who has the quirky charm of a high-strung character actor suddenly cast in a leading role. Their dialogue is as lively as anything in the script, but being Hollywood Guys, the repartee is about restaurants, not movies. Dressed in loan-shark lounge apparel--purple Banlon, alligator shoes--Travolta is ribbing Sonnenfeld about how slow shooting is going.

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“I know what you’re trying to do,” says Sonnenfeld. “You want to get all your shots out of the way early so you can go off to a fancy dinner at Ca’ Brea.”

“I’m committed to 10:30 tonight,” Travolta responds, his eyes sparkling with mischief. “Not a minute earlier.”

“I’ve moved my 8:30 at La Cucina back to 9:15,” Sonnenfeld retorts. “And the smart people around here have already canceled their Saturday brunch reservations at the Ivy.”

Relaxed and in high spirits, Travolta is still riding a wave of Hollywood acclaim for his loose-limbed Oscar-nominated performance in “Pulp Fiction.” Everywhere he goes, he’s mobbed for his autograph. When the actor orders a fruit plate at a chic Venice eatery a week after the Oscars, it shows up with an inscription scrawled around the edge of the plate in chocolate sauce: “You Should Of [sic] Won.”

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When the cameras finally roll, the debate over “Rio Bravo” resumes. Dennis Farina appears in the doorway, wearing a bandage on his scalp. He surveys the clip joint, sneering: “You cut straight hair in this place or just [gays’]?”

When Travolta responds, a roar of street traffic drowns out his dialogue. Frustrated, Sonnenfeld sticks his head outside and squawks: “Quiet!” Travolta giggles. “Geez, Barry, you know how to pick these locations. Where are we shooting tomorrow--LAX?”

A second take--and a third--is interrupted by even more noise. Travolta cackles with delight. “Too bad about La Cucina, Barry,” he says, making a big show of checking his watch. “Guess you’ll be having a pizza break around 9:15.”

*

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“It’s 1:35 a.m. and still nobody’s done anything for my birthday,” says Travolta, sitting in a B-movie producer’s office adorned with such accouterments as a blood-spattered severed arm, Las Vegas casino coffee mugs and a stack of year-old trade papers. “I’m underwhelmed.”

It’s the actor’s 41st birthday and he’s on a set in Culver City pouting--being an actor, actually he’s pretending to be pouting--about everyone having forgotten his birthday. After he does a second take of tonight’s scene, he turns to Sonnenfeld. “Come on,” he groans. “Where’s my cake?”

Within minutes, the crew brings in a huge cake with three candles on top, which Travolta blows out. While the cake is being cut, Sonnenfeld pulls out a Bolivar Robusto and lights up. “Everybody is smoking cigars these days,” he says, exhaling a cloud of noxious smoke. “They have to be Cuban cigars. Everyone has these secret connections to get ahold of them, because if they’re not Cuban--well, it’s like driving a Buick.”

Secrecy seems to be a big part of the Hollywood cigar mystique. “I was at a party when this agent came up to [director] Marty Brest and said, ‘I’m packing. Are you packing?’ ” Sonnenfeld says. “It took me a minute to realize he was asking, ‘Did you bring your cigars?’ ”

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It’s hard to hang onto mystique in Hollywood--even the most stylish clubs and eateries often lose their allure overnight. But gangsters never seem to go out of fashion. Some of the most delicious moments in “Get Shorty” come from the way its eager Hollywood players get a shiver of hipster cool from rubbing elbows with a real Shylock like Chili Palmer. Mixing with tough guys offers a vicarious thrill--like smoking cigars.

“It’s a way for these timid, middle-class Jewish guys to do something illegal,” Sonnenfeld says. “So of course, I’m totally caught up in it. On night exteriors, I’m smoking a lot. You really get a buzz. If I was drinking martinis on the set, everyone would be worried about me. But if I’m smoking a cigar, nobody notices a thing.”

One of Sonnenfeld’s cigar-smoking cronies is Danny DeVito, who worked with the cinematographer on “Throw Mama From a Train.” When Sonnenfeld read a paperback of “Get Shorty” on a Club Med cruise with his wife, he instantly envisioned DeVito as Chili Palmer. “The book is all about self-confidence and the power it gives people,” Sonnenfeld explains. “And Danny DeVito has more self-confidence than anybody I know.”

As soon as he returned from his cruise, Sonnenfeld called DeVito. It being Hollywood, he reached him in his car. “Barry kept going on and on about the book, saying, ‘You gotta do this! You gotta be Chili!’ ” DeVito recalls. “So after I bought the book, I called him back and told him that I hadn’t finished reading it, but that I got it. And he goes, ‘Whattya mean, you got it? You bought a copy at Crown or something?’ And I said, ‘No, I bought it. I bought the rights!’ ”

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Screenwriter Scott Frank, who wrote “Little Man Tate,” was hired to write the screenplay adaptation. But dark clouds closed in. DeVito got involved with a film he’d long wanted to direct and dropped out of the lead role. Without him on the bill, TriStar Pictures, which had agreed to make the picture with DeVito’s company, Jersey Films, bailed out, too.

At the last minute, MGM agreed to finance the picture, but only if the filmmakers found an A-list actor to play Chili Palmer--and if DeVito agreed to take a secondary role. “The meeting went great,” Sonnenfeld recalls. “It was easy--everyone was smoking cigars.”

In search of a marquee name, Sonnenfeld first met with Dustin Hoffman. “We had breakfast at this little dump in Brentwood, and the first thing he said to me as he got out of his car was, ‘I hope my agent told you that I don’t want to do this movie,’ ” the director recalls. “He thought we should cast Joe Pesci. But by the end of the meeting, he’d made me promise not to talk to anybody else until we’d made him an offer.”

Sonnenfeld tugs on his tie, which today is dotted with pink tropical palm trees. “It’s like being in high school. The good-looking girls would never date me, but they still wanted me to flirt with them.”

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Soon after, Sonnenfeld had lunch with Warren Beatty at the Bel-Air Hotel. The actor had read the script and liked it, but having played a gangster thoroughbred in “Bugsy,” he seemed reluctant to drop down in class. “He said, ‘My problem with Chili is this--why would a guy as good-looking as me be such a low-level Shylock?’ ”

Finally, Jersey Films president Stacey Sher suggested that Sonnenfeld see a rough cut of “Pulp Fiction.” Impressed by Travolta’s performance, Sonnenfeld and Jersey persuaded MGM to approve “Get Shorty” with Travolta in the starring role--even before “Pulp Fiction” became a box-office phenomenon.

There was only one tiny little problem--Travolta didn’t want to do the movie. “It’s true,” the actor admits. “I said no to ‘Get Shorty.’ Not once, but twice.”

It was then that Travolta received a call from Quentin Tarantino, his career-saving benefactor. Tarantino’s advice was simple. “ ‘John, this is not the one you say no to,’ ” Travolta recalls, gently mimicking Tarantino’s video-geek whine. “ ‘This is the one you say yes to.’ ”

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*

John Travolta is in a hurry to meet his fans. The day before, he bumped into a woman teaching at the elementary school across from the film set, who invited him to meet her class. So with five free minutes before his lunch interview, here he is, briskly striding through the school corridors, still wearing his makeup, looking for the right classroom.

“It’s room No. 21,” he says emphatically, eyeing the numbers on the doors. Scurrying along in his wake are his driver, a production assistant with a walkie-talkie and a school official who has been trying, without success, to steer Travolta back to a security check-in post. When you’ve been a movie star as long as Travolta has, you learn to manage your time. Once in the classroom, he says his hellos and poses for a few pictures.

The kids gawk at him, persuaded that he is a celebrity, but unsure of his claim to fame. “I can’t sign autographs for everyone,” Travolta says as he leaves. “But if you write down your names, I’ll send you an autographed picture.”

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Five minutes later, Travolta is seated in a nice restaurant down the street, explaining exactly why he turned down the lead role in “Splash,” the film that made Tom Hanks a movie star. “Michael Ovitz told me not to take the part,” he says as he studies his menu. “And I listened to him.”

The remark is made without sarcasm. When Travolta charts the ebb and flow of movie stardom, the analysis is done with detachment, as if it were someone else’s career under discussion. Having blown hot and cold over the years, Travolta has learned to protect his fragile actor’s psyche.

“I’m very pragmatic about business,” he acknowledges after ordering a low-cal pasta dish. “I like to have emotional connections with people, not business. When I have a business relationship, I like it to be more analytical, to have it go from A directly to B.”

His low-cal meal is an apt illustration. Before ordering, Travolta says he wants to lose some weight, having just been cast as an Air Force jet pilot in a new film, “Broken Arrow.” But if the movie starts so soon, why wait until today to start a new diet?

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“I just signed the contract,” he replies. “I’ve learned--never start the diet until you’re sure you’ve got the part.”

Travolta’s tumultuous career has been well chronicled in recent months, from his rise in “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease,” to his fall in such stinkers as “Two of a Kind,” “Perfect” and “Look Who’s Talking Now,” climaxing with his return to glory in “Pulp Fiction.” Travolta is not a man to linger on regrets, but you have to wonder how different things might have been if he’d had someone like Tarantino around to guide him through the shoals of stardom.

Since 1985, the actor has been with the same manager, Jonathan Krane, but he has bounced around to virtually every agency in town, beginning with CAA, then Triad, ICM and now William Morris. Along the way, he passed on such hit films as “Arthur,” “An Officer and a Gentleman” and “Prince of the City.”

He insists that even at his lowest ebb, he never lost his self-confidence, the very quality that made Travolta such a likely choice to play Chili Palmer in “Get Shorty.”

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“I’ve never doubted myself--that’s not part of my makeup,” he says. “I’m the same person, whether I was making ‘Chains of Gold’ or ‘Pulp Fiction.’ I was born into an acting family, where you learn at an early age that acting is what you do, whether you’re in a hit or a flop. An airplane crash is a disaster. A movie not doing well is not a disaster.”

Travolta now keeps a safe distance from Hollywood, preferring to fly his private jet between his homes in Maine and Florida. “I’m only a citizen of Hollywood in a figurative sense,” he says as we leave the restaurant. “It’s not the only part of my life. It’s like with the Oscar. I got my win from the nomination. To me, what counts are my friends. Like Ray Charles once said, ‘You better be nice to people on your way up, because you’re gonna meet ‘em on your way up again.’ ”

Back on the set, Sonnenfeld smokes a cigar as he talks on a cellular phone. Travolta says he smokes them too, though hardly for their hipster mystique. “I do it because my dad smokes them,” he says. “The smell of cigar smoke makes me feel very safe. It represents a certainty in my life.”

Travolta stops to sign an autograph out on the sidewalk. “It’s funny how these things that I’ve always enjoyed, like smoking cigars and flying planes, are suddenly in style again.”

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“Sort of like you,” he is told. “Yeah,” he says with a contented smile. “I guess you could say that, couldn’t you?”


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