Jerry Haleva used to get a kick out of being known here as the lobbyist who moonlights as Saddam Hussein.
He’d kid about his 12 years as the go-to guy for Hollywood casting agents in need of a mustachioed Iraqi strongman. He’d pose in his dictator costume for gag grip-and-grins with politicians. He’d tell people he was going to write a memoir -- “Looking Like Saddam and Other Lucky Breaks,” he’d call it. He’d send clients marketing brochures with a shot of himself in his beret, shaking hands with former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. “If we can do this,” joked the caption, “how tough can your issue be?”
They all laughed. Then the war started in Iraq, and people began dying. This week -- holed up in his office in a red tie, white and blue shirt and American flag cufflinks -- the staunch Republican said he’s not much in the mood for discussing his secondary career.
TV news crews call, he doesn’t call back. He’s updating his marketing literature to downplay the Hussein thing. At a trade association banquet the other night, he said, Gov. Gray Davis told him, jokingly, “You know, my chief of staff had to dump that picture of herself with you.” An old political hand, Haleva understood completely.
“What I do has always been in good fun,” he said, “but some things are no longer funny. My physical resemblance to Saddam may well be one of them.”
As the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq grinds on, the old adage about comedy being hard gets truer by the day. Four years ago, the creators of the animated feature “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” left audiences in stitches with their depiction of Hussein turning Satan into his sex toy. Last week found Steve Martin excising a Hussein joke from his Oscar routine on Sunday. Late-night monologues on Letterman and Leno haven’t trod such a fine line since Sept. 11. At the Second City, Chicago’s temple of improvisation and satire, players say the audience now boos bits that brought down the house as recently as last week.
Ensemble member David Pompeii said he was confronted outside the theater the other night by audience members who resented the troupe’s revue (though they might have known what was in store for them by the new show’s title, “No, Seriously, We’re All Gonna Die”).
“One woman was just, ‘We’re at war! You should be supporting our president! How can you say these things?’ ” reported Pompeii, who tried in vain to tell the woman that his own cousin is even now on the front lines.
The moral: “You can’t take the audience to any place that might make them feel bad.” But Americans are, yet again, discovering that the feel-good zone can shrink dramatically in wartime.
Haleva -- who has played the Iraqi dictator in a half-dozen movies, from “Hot Shots!” to “The Big Lebowski” -- said that as a political operative he knew that American tolerance for Hussein jokes would disintegrate the moment U.S. troops suffered casualties.
“We have a lot of brave people in harm’s way over there, many of whom have already made the ultimate sacrifice,” he said. “Making fun of Saddam Hussein in a situation like that is the least of our priorities.”
That wasn’t the case before the war started. Only a couple of years ago, for example, the Capitol Steps, the political satire troupe, brought Haleva onstage to help sing “Bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iraq” to the tune of “Barbara Ann.” As recently as the anniversary week of Sept. 11 -- six months ago -- he was asked to do his shtick at a political fund-raiser in Orange County for U.S. Rep. Chris Cox (R-Newport Beach).
“I very rarely do live performances,” Haleva said. “I have a real job, after all, and don’t want to find myself on the bar mitzvah circuit. But Chris is a friend, and he called and said, ‘My speaker is [former Secretary of State] George Shultz, speaking about the threat of Saddam, and I think it would be a hoot if you came in and interrupted.’ ”
Cox, who has since been named chairman of the House panel overseeing the new Department of Homeland Security, assured him that Shultz, now a fellow at the Hoover Institution, would play along with it. “So as Shultz is delivering this stemwinder,” Haleva said, “I come in in my uniform yelling, ‘What do you know, George Shultz? You went from secretary of State to working for the Hoover vacuum company!’ ”
“It got a big laugh then,” he said.
But by last Monday night -- amid reports of unspeakable carnage and U.S. troops killed and fragged and taken prisoner -- even the ordinarily jovial Haleva was unable to smile. At a politician-filled gala for the influential California Manufacturers & Technology Assn., he said, the Capitol Steps, that night’s entertainment, reprised the “Barbara Ann” parody. Sitting with a corporate client who had heard Haleva’s own Capitol Steps story, he winced as the room full of executives fell silent at the now almost grotesque “bomb-bomb-bomb” chorus.
“The audience was very uncomfortable, myself included. I couldn’t believe they hadn’t cut that material,” he said.
It’s an awkward time, though, says Haleva, 56, for whom the Hussein act has never been more than a fun break from the more prosaic needs of his client institutions and companies. Most of his time, he says, has been spent representing such entities as the glass manufacturer OI California Containers Inc., for example, or the city of Stockton or Pepperdine University.
A dark-haired Sephardic Jew, he stumbled almost by chance into his gig as a Muslim tyrant. He was a high-ranking staffer in the state Legislature in 1989 when, he says, the chief sergeant-at-arms opened The Times one day and saw a photo of the then-obscure Hussein, waving to the Iraqi army.
“He made copies of the picture and distributed it with the caption, ‘Now we know what Haleva does on his weekends,’ ” he said.
When Desert Storm was launched in 1991, a friend in law enforcement suggested he shave his big, black mustache, just to be on the safe side. Haleva took the advice, but not before contacting an agency that placed look-alikes in advertisements and movies. His contact there got him a bit part in the goofball comedy “Hot Shots!” and Haleva was paid a couple hundred dollars to lampoon the dictator (in a fake mustache).
When the movie was released, only months after the Gulf War had ended, the scene of a bomb dropping in Hussein’s lap while he sits in a chaise lounge ran in the trailer. Audiences roared. A year and a half later, Haleva was back in his Iraqi epaulets, with an expanded role in “Hot Shots! Part Deux,” the sequel, wowing the critics with such daffy despot one-liners as, “Now I will kill you until you die from it!”
He went on to appear in the Coen brothers’ comedy “The Big Lebowski,” the HBO docudrama “Live From Baghdad” and a couple of less-successful films. He didn’t get rich, but he had fun, and the exposure was an unparalleled marketing gimmick for his lobbying business. And for schmoozing with politicians: “Jerry,” wrote former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson on a framed photo of himself with Haleva, “some damn fool in Iraq is running around masquerading as you! I think he’s trying to break into the movies. I’ll send him to Bob Dole.”
“I milked it shamelessly,” Haleva said, and he was still milking it earlier this month, when Entertainment Weekly and Reuters checked in on him and he agreed to be interviewed by The Times. “As an actor, I hope [Hussein] goes into exile, but as an American, I hope I get to do his epitaph,” he joked then. One violent week later, all that was old news.
“I’ve had many opportunities, but none have left me this conflicted,” he said with a sigh.