De Luca's Behavior Has Town Buzzing, Some Worried

"Titanic" sweeping Monday night's Oscars wasn't the only talk of Hollywood this week.

Mike De Luca was.

The president of production at New Line Cinema--no stranger to outrageous public behavior--created one of the more embarrassing spectacles Hollywood has seen in some time by committing a very public indiscretion at an A-list pre-Oscar party Friday night.

Industry insiders--some of whom are De Luca's closest allies--are concerned that the rebellious 32-year-old--who's been widely touted as one of New Hollywood's best and brightest young executives--is self-destructing and needs to be reined in.

The Brooklyn native is known almost as much for his brash conduct and impulsive, don't-give-a-damn attitude as for his keen creative instincts in picking such popular films as "The Mask," "Dumb and Dumber," "Seven," "Boogie Nights," "Wag the Dog" and "The Wedding Singer."

But he clearly crossed the line last weekend, when, at a party attended by some of Hollywood's top stars, agents, producers and executives, he dropped his pants and engaged in oral sex with a young woman as several guests looked on. The incident, which took place in the backyard of William Morris Agency President Arnold Rifkin's Pacific Palisades home, elicited tittering as well as outrage from some guests and the host, who had security guards escort De Luca from the property.

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Occurring on the weekend leading up to Hollywood's biggest annual event, De Luca's actions made the East Coast tabloids in a New York minute and adds up to a public embarrassment for New Line. The former independent is now owned by publicly traded media giant Time Warner Inc.

De Luca's behavior also suggests a cautionary tale in the making. His friends hope this latest episode will serve as a wake-up call to a man with a history that includes public fistfights and drunken driving. So far, De Luca seems only to savor his image as a street-smart tough guy who favors denim and leather over suits and ties and enjoys riding a Harley.

"He needs to get help," said a concerned associate at New Line, who contacted The Times after hearing that an article was in the works. The source recounted recent incidents of reckless behavior on De Luca's part. Anybody who knows him will tell you that the most recent spectacle was signature De Luca.

Neither De Luca nor the company would comment on the matter.

Sources said De Luca will not be fired over Friday night's events but he received a stern reprimand from his bosses, Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne, and apologies were made to Rifkin and others.

The incident raises the question of when an executive's antics in private life become a business issue.

It also begs the question of whether Hollywood holds its executives to a different standard than other major industries. There are some Fortune 500 companies that would have swiftly fired an executive who exhibited that kind of behavior at a major industry function.

Even among movie companies, New Line tends to have a nonconformist working environment, where executives are given a lot of latitude and quirky behavior is often accepted.

In the past, Hollywood generally has tolerated unconventional behavior, particularly if the perpetrator is successful. One glaring example is producer Don Simpson, who dropped dead of a drug overdose in 1996 after a troubled life. As documented in Charles Fleming's just-published book, "High Concept," Simpson's wild lifestyle personified excess in Hollywood during the 1980s.

De Luca's penchant for partying, chasing women and outrageous personal conduct may be something of an aberration today; sober lifestyles have become much more common among younger as well as veteran executives working in Hollywood.

Many of those in the industry believe Hollywood has changed dramatically from the days when executives snorted cocaine openly in their offices and excess was considered cool. A few years ago, golden-boy agent and brash "young Turk" Jay Moloney--a Michael Ovitz protege considered one of the industry's hottest young players--was forced to leave powerhouse Creative Artists Agency after he tried to get his drug problem under control, but failed.

According to various accounts, De Luca's personal antics don't seem to be adversely affecting his job performance.

His allies are quick to defend him. "It's like with Clinton. I overlook his personal behavior because he's doing a great job as president," said one.

But, by and large, De Luca's friends and colleagues are concerned that the young executive's personal life is spinning out of control. Various descriptions of him include "an accident waiting to happen," "self-destructive," "his own worst enemy" and "haunted."

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Friends say De Luca has flaunted his problems by courting the media and relishing the publicity.

A 1996 profile in GQ magazine described how, after an evening of drinking, De Luca punched a customer seated behind him who he thought was blocking his way back to his table. The incident occurred in front of the journalist writing the profile--Lucy Kaylin, who reported: "In a boozy fit of pique, De Luca throws a punch." He had to be escorted out of the restaurant by police, though no arrest was made.

De Luca has a long history of driver's-license suspensions, including one in 1996 for driving with an excessive blood-alcohol level and another as recently as Feb. 21 because of an insurance cancellation, according to Department of Motor Vehicles records.

In the 1996 case, De Luca received two years' probation and had to pay a $500 fine, according to the Los Angeles city attorney's office. According to court records, De Luca was driving "under the influence of an alcoholic beverage and a drug."

De Luca, through a New Line spokesman, declined to comment on that case. "He doesn't feel he needs to explain it," New Line's Steve Elzer said.

De Luca had two other brief license suspensions that year, one because of insurance cancellation and the other for failure to appear in court, DMV records show.

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A native of the Canarsie area of Brooklyn, De Luca has worked at New Line all his professional life, dropping out as a senior at New York University and starting there as an intern at age 19. A film and comic book buff known for his offbeat, edgy creative sensibilities, he moved up the ranks quickly from gofer to story editor to vice president to head of production.

New Line, founded by Shaye 31 years ago, has changed radically during De Luca's 12 years at the company, being transformed from a small, scrappy independent specializing in low-budget niche fare, including the "Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle" series, to a greatly expanded operation capable of competing, in some cases, with Hollywood's majors.

De Luca has played a huge role in helping establish New Line as a player. The company was acquired by Ted Turner in 1993 for $550 million and subsequently became an autonomous subsidiary of Time Warner when Turner merged his various companies into the entertainment conglomerate two years ago.

Like production executives at other studios, De Luca develops scripts and ideas and perhaps has more influence than most in what is produced. Unlike his counterparts at major studios, De Luca sometimes gets producer credits on New Line movies. He earns more than $300,000 a year.

He's had his share of big misses--including the expensive box-office flops "Last Man Standing" and "The Long Kiss Goodnight," for which De Luca persuaded New Line to pay a record $4 million for Shane Black's script--but is respected in the industry for taking creative risks that have paid off.

Writers and directors are said to love working with him and many have gone on record over the years attesting to his great instincts, directness and creative support. De Luca himself has written two New Line movies, one the sixth installment of the "Nightmare" series, the other the John Carpenter-directed "In the Mouth of Madness."

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Prominent Hollywood screenwriter Gary Ross ("Dave," "Big"), who makes his feature directorial debut this fall in New Line's "Pleasantville," said of De Luca: "In a business that's filled with second-guessing, Mike has the courage of his convictions and that's why so many filmmakers want to work with him." Ross, who's worked closely with De Luca for the last two years, added, "Almost anyone I know would give his right arm for his track record."

Former New Line marketing president Chris Pula called De Luca "one of the smartest, funniest, nicest people I know in the business." He referred to his former colleague as "the backbone of New Line."

De Luca has always been well-protected by his mentor-boss Shaye, with whom he has almost a father-son relationship, sources say. De Luca is known to be very chummy with his colleagues and has dated at least three female executives who have worked for him, including a current employee, Lynn Harris, whom he married on an impulse only to have the marriage annulled five months later.

De Luca's underlings at New Line are said to idolize him, which may explain why they are protective of him even while expressing their concerns about his well-being.

Perhaps his latest antic will give him reason to pause and rethink what he told GQ in November: "My crime is I'm probably less discreet than anyone else, 'cause I don't give a. . . . People are just jealous that I get away with it."

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