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A Player in Every Sense?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even by Hollywood’s inflated standards, the gala benefiting the Natural Resources Defense Council in May was a glittering event. Tom Hanks emceed. Steve Martin performed. And the Wadsworth Theater crowd, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Dustin Hoffman, roared appreciatively.

The evening, which raised $1.6 million for one of Hollywood’s pet environmental causes, was capped by a keynote speech by former President Clinton. Sitting next to Clinton all evening was a rangy figure, seldom seen at charity events but crucial in the council’s effort to get the former president to attend. During his remarks, Clinton made sure to thank the man--Steve Bing--for playing host to him in Los Angeles.

Steve Bing?

Until eight months ago, few in the audience, save for friends like director Rob Reiner or Warner Bros. President Alan Horn, would have recognized Bing’s name. Now, almost everyone in Hollywood knows him.

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Bing, an heir to an estimated $600-million real estate fortune, had become involved in two highly publicized paternity cases. In one, he sued British actress Elizabeth Hurley to force a DNA test after she said he was the father of her baby. In the other, he sued Kirk Kerkorian for invasion of privacy after the billionaire’s private eye took Bing’s dental floss out of his trash can. Kerkorian, embroiled in a child support lawsuit with his ex-wife, wanted to collect DNA to prove that Bing was the father of his wife’s daughter.

Bing has not welcomed the attention. In addition to suing Hurley and Kerkorian, his attorneys have filed libel actions against tabloids in England and the U.S., attempting to beat back the paparazzi who tail him.

But the press-shy 37-year-old scion is fast acquiring a Gatsby-esque allure and notoriety. He is putting the finishing touches on a deal with Warner Bros. that would in effect make him a one-man mini-studio under the Warner umbrella, giving him a distribution system for eight films he will personally finance.

And although his gift was not publicized, Bing is the largest donor in Natural Resources Defense Council history, having pledged a year ago more than $10 million over four years to build a climate center to focus attention in the United States on global warming.

Now unmistakably on the map as a high-profile Hollywood libertine, he is a man dedicated apparently in equal measures to philanthropy, politics and women. Which makes him an object of envy and of controversy.

Bing declined to comment. But two dozen of his friends and colleagues who agreed to talk describe an affable, 6-foot-4 former jock who tools around town in a ’97 Lincoln, wearing jeans and ratty T-shirts, or occasionally a garish Hawaiian shirt. A determined bachelor, he lives in a small two-bedroom home in Bel-Air but has bought the seven adjoining houses with the intention of knocking them down and creating palatial grounds. He’s a fan of strip clubs, has been a high roller in Las Vegas for years, and yet he can discuss the dense Robert Caro biography of Lyndon Johnson.

Twice a week, he rents a Beverly Hills screening room and projects old films for his range of pals, who include Dominic “Donny Shacks” Montemarano, a felon and onetime capo in the Mafia; shopping mall magnate Ron Burkle; such Hollywood fixtures as Reiner, Warren Beatty and William Goldman; and Dodger Chairman Bob Daly. He has an almost filial relationship with actor James Caan.

He dates prodigiously. Playboy playmates. Movie stars. “He’s an equal-opportunity employer,” one friend says with a laugh. “Girls are all over him.”

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His lifestyle makes him almost a caricature of what critics of Hollywood excess imagine goes on here. But to his admirers, there is much to covet. Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg, a friend and former writing partner, says, “My buddies back in Boston have the right attitude--this guy’s awesome.”

Befriending His Idols

Bing’s ability to enchant older men seems to have facilitated his entree into Hollywood. On the tennis court of one of his Beverly Hills neighbors, he made his first contacts, including Castle Rock partner Andy Scheinman, director Garry Marshall and Caan. Caan enlisted the athletic teenager to help him coach his son’s T-ball team and introduced him to the Playboy mansion.

“Steve’s gotten to meet all his heroes growing up--Mick Jagger, Warren Beatty, William Goldman, Hugh Hefner, James Caan. They all call him their friend now. Who among us gets to meet our childhood idols and get them to befriend us?” Rosenberg says.

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Bing’s money comes from his grandfather Leo, who built luxury apartment houses in New York 80 years ago. His father, Dr. Peter Bing, worked on public health issues for the Johnson White House before relocating to Los Angeles, where he attends to the family business.

The family has appeared on the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans. Although the Bing name is not as well-known as Chandler or Broad, California is dotted with evidence of the family’s generosity, from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Leo S. Bing Theater to an array of programs at Stanford University, where Peter Bing used to be chairman of the board of trustees.

Before he finished high school at the Harvard-Westlake School, Bing had already co-written his first screenplay, “Missing in Action,” with veteran sitcom writer Arthur Silver. It was made into a Chuck Norris film and spawned a sequel.

Bing, who inherited his fortune on his 18th birthday, dropped out of Stanford in his junior year to pursue filmmaking. He directed an erotic thriller titled “Every Breath,” starring Judd Nelson, which went straight to video. Over the next decade, Bing sold a number of pitches to studios, almost all of which wound up in development hell.

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One, however, did well. The script, called “Down and Under,” was inspired by a story Bing heard as a teenager. It’s about a pair of childhood friends who are charged with taking mob money to Australia but lose it to a kangaroo. The pitch sparked a major bidding war, and it garnered Bing and co-screenwriter Rosenberg a $1.4-million payday from Disney and producer Jerry Bruckheimer. The film debuts from Warner Bros. early next year.

Bruckheimer, like many who have met Bing socially, initially had no idea how wealthy Bing was. “He never talks about his money,” Bruckheimer said. “Unless someone told you, you’d never know who the Bing family was. He tries everything to hide that.”

Although he eschewed de rigueur L.A. status symbols like BMWs, in the early ‘90s Bing moved into the Hotel Bel-Air one night ... and stayed for nine years.

Known as a sugar daddy, Bing apparently takes pleasure in generous gestures that go far beyond dinner and shows.

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When Montemarano, a pal Bing had cast in his independent film “Night at the Golden Eagle,” was accused of domestic violence, a situation that threatened his parole, the multimillionaire not only paid for his defense but also the lawyer for the woman who accused him. When Hurley got in trouble with the Screen Actors Guild for working during last year’s commercial strike, Bing paid her six-figure legal bill. She ultimately got off with a small fine.

Late last year, Hurley announced that she was pregnant and that Bing was the father. He issued a news release saying that they had not been in an exclusive relationship and that it was “her choice to be a single mother.” Tabloids in Britain, where Hurley lives, variously labeled him “Bing Laden” and a “spermicidal maniac.”

According to a knowledgeable source in the Bing camp, the multimillionaire had asked Hurley to terminate the pregnancy and she refused. He then asked her to go to counseling with him to discuss how to proceed, and again she refused. When she went public with the story, he stopped talking to her, except when she called him with condolences about the Kerkorian dispute.

Hurley, through her representative, declined to comment. But Bing’s family remains outraged by how he’s been depicted in the media.

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“There’s some sort of hysterical vilifying of the man. It’s like ‘Disclosure,’ ” says his sister Mary Bing, a 35-year-old social worker in New York City, referring to the Michael Crichton book in which a woman falsely accuses a man of sexual harassment. “No one is holding the women accountable for their behavior. The only way he can really defend himself is to say bad things about the women, and he doesn’t want to do that.”

Political Contributions

Director-activist Rob Reiner, another childhood friend, initiated Bing into politics, inviting him to the first fund-raiser for Proposition 10, held five years ago at the home of Ron Burkle. According to public records, Bing contributed $3.5 million to support and defend the 1998 initiative that imposed a 50-cent-per-pack tax on cigarettes to fund child-care and anti-tobacco programs for preschoolers.

Bing last week agreed to a $25,000 settlement with the Fair Political Practices Commission for filing his required contribution report late; he now has a professional attending to these affairs.

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In the last election cycle he gave more than $700,000 to Democratic candidates, according to data kept by the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.

On the night of the 2000 general election, Reiner called Bing from Al Gore’s Nashville headquarters when it became apparent the Democrats would call for a recount. Bing immediately committed $200,000 to the recount effort.

Reiner and Warner Bros. President Alan Horn also introduced Bing to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“He first got involved with us during the Clinton years,” says council spokesman Alan Metrick. “He was frustrated that not enough attention was paid to the issue of global warming. Stephen Bing gets it, and he’s about to do something about it.”

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Bing also pledged $25 million to Stanford University in the last year, a Stanford spokesman said.

One casualty of his recent unwanted publicity has been the UCLA school of medicine, the former recipient of millions in Bing largess. He quit giving after UCLA honored Rupert Murdoch, who owns some of the tabloids following Bing’s story.

Bing and Burkle, a well-connected Clinton supporter, are particularly close. According to several sources, the pair are contributing $1 million to a project called Democracy Corps, in which Democratic pollsters provide sensitive polling and message crafting for Democratic congressmen free of charge. Reiner, Horn and Burkle all declined to comment, citing Bing’s privacy concerns.

Until his recent appearance in the tabloids, Bing’s donations were made anonymously and kept private.

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The notable exception has been his growing relationship with the Democratic Party, which was heralded in newspapers this spring when Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe announced that Bing had agreed to contribute $5 million to help update voter outreach programs. It was the second-biggest gift ever to the Democratic Party.

Politics have had indirect dividends also. Horn, Bing’s partner in liberal causes, helped craft the deal that made Bing part of Warner Bros. Bing will personally finance eight films, and Warner Bros. will distribute them. It’s part of Warner Bros.’ corporate strategy to make its vast distribution network generate extra cash, and it has several similar “rent-a-studio” deals.

Bing, whose producing credits include the unreleased independent film “Without Charlie” and the Sylvester Stallone picture “Get Carter,” has told associates that he isn’t interested in art films but rather in mainstream fare with budgets of at least $20 million.

As foreign sources of financing dry up, Hollywood seems eager to embrace a cash-rich producer.

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“Does he want to finance my company?” jokes studio chief-turned-producer Mark Canton, who in the past has bought several of Bing’s projects.

In the last two weeks, the two paternity cases that put Bing in the public eye finally appeared to be heading toward resolution. An English court revealed that Bing indeed was the father of Hurley’s baby, and Bing and Kerkorian’s lawyers announced that the two men had resolved their differences.

In both cases, he vowed to be a responsible parent if found to be the father. Now, according to the Bing camp, he is distraught that he might have only limited access to his son with Hurley, particularly if she continues to live in England. If the Kerkorian child proves to be his, Bing will have no access to her--unless Kerkorian and Kerkorian’s ex-wife Lisa Bonder permit it.

“Just because he hasn’t found the woman he wants to spend the rest of his life with doesn’t mean he’s a deadbeat dad,” his sister says.

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Still, even his friends don’t expect to hear Bing wedding bells any time soon. “Obviously, he has a little trouble with commitment,” Rosenberg says with a laugh. “There’s nothing more spectacularly noncommittal than living in a hotel.”

Indeed, what appears to be a prime importance to Bing these days is his script for “Why Men Shouldn’t Marry.” The philanthropist-political activist-writer-producer plans to direct this tale about a man who’s been through a horrible divorce and becomes an anti-marriage guru. Unlike real life, it has a happy Hollywood ending. It becomes a postcard to love and marriage.


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