Oh, what a tangled web he wove

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Special to The Times

Tobey Maguire is about as sorry as a movie star can be.

In a few short weeks this spring, he got himself dismissed from the next installment of “Spider-Man,” had part of Hollywood’s power elite work toward his reinstatement, won back his job, fired his agent and then was assiduously courted by the head of every major agency in town. He’s back crawling the wall again, chastened by the whole experience.

“I feel like I learned a lesson,” he says. “The movie is the most important thing.”

The tale of how Maguire went from out-of-work webslinger to repentant star is a brief but engrossing saga of modern-day Hollywood. It takes place in a world where an actor’s power can easily be miscalculated amid the multimillion-dollar paydays that accompany the big franchise movies driving the industry.

The first movie grossed more than $820 million worldwide, and in March, as filming on the inevitable sequel was underway, Maguire went astray. He had a notion that Columbia Pictures would arrange the shooting schedule for this costly and crucial project on his terms, to allow him to deal with a recurring problem: a bad back. “I was going ... ‘They’re going to have to make some accommodation for me,’ ” he says. Wrong. He was promptly dropped. He and Columbia Chairman Amy Pascal contend it was solely because of the concerns about his condition and poor communication on that subject. Even though he has an array of representatives that sounds like the setup for a Hollywood joke -- an agent, a manager and a lawyer -- Maguire takes full responsibility, saying his attitude going into the sequel was “inappropriate.”


Whether he was let go simply because of a painful herniated disc or for more complicated reasons, Maguire had a narrow escape. He was saved, in part, by a highly unusual circumstance: He is dating the daughter of Universal chief Ron Meyer. Meyer not only convinced Maguire that he was making the mistake of his life to let the role go without a fight, but he was also willing to lobby on Maguire’s behalf. Although Pascal minimizes Meyer’s role, sources with firsthand knowledge of these events make it plain that Meyer used a career’s worth of experience and good relationships to help get Maguire back into a film that is a major franchise for a rival studio.

For Maguire, the stakes were extremely high. In the past, rising stars have seen their fortunes change when they did not reprise their roles in major action franchises. It happened to Alec Baldwin after he balked at continuing as Jack Ryan in the Paramount Pictures films based on Tom Clancy’s bestsellers. And it happened to Val Kilmer after a troublesome turn as Batman.

Maguire was seen as vulnerable in this case because, unlike his close friend Leonardo DiCaprio, he’s not a conventional leading man. “You can be a really great actor without being a movie star,” says a leading agent not directly involved in the situation. Had he not returned to “Spider-Man,” that agent continues, “Tobey Maguire the actor would have survived. But Tobey Maguire the multimillion-dollar movie star? I don’t know.” Many also believe Maguire, 27, was especially replaceable in the “Spider-Man” sequel because, for a film of this nature, the concept overshadows the actor. After all, a number of actors have played James Bond -- and he works without a mask.

Maguire’s career has had an enviable trajectory in the past few years. He cemented his claim to legitimacy with roles in such films as “The Ice Storm,” “The Cider House Rules” and “Wonder Boys” before winning the role of “Spider-Man.” Many doubted that he was right for the part. He is so small that “Cider House Rules” was shot to minimize the height difference between him and co-star Charlize Theron. He also follows a meatless diet -- his contract requires that his chef travel with him -- and that made it harder for him to bulk up in a manner befitting a superhero.

The skeptics were silenced when “Spider-Man” opened to $115 million and went on to become one of the biggest blockbusters of all time.

Before starting on “The Amazing Spider-Man,” the sequel, he worked on “Seabiscuit,” the highly anticipated film about the legendary racehorse. (Universal will release the movie in July.) Maguire plays jockey Red Pollard, and he says the filmmakers did what they could to keep his back from bothering him while that film was in production. But as he prepared to move on to the second “Spider-Man,” he got nervous. “I was getting frustrated out of pain,” he says. “I came out of ‘Seabiscuit’ going, ‘Wow, I hope I don’t have to do this movie and be in a lot of pain.’ ”


At this point, Maguire says, he made some mistakes. Although he felt obligated to disclose his back pain, he says, he failed to discuss the situation appropriately with “Spider-Man” producer Laura Ziskin or director Sam Raimi. “A lot of this problem comes from me not having gone to them personally and trying to resolve it,” he says in his first public comments on the dust-up.

Pre-production issue

In March, he had Ziskin and Raimi meet with his medical advisor, neurosurgeon Ian Armstrong. As Ziskin and Raimi looked on, the doctor went over the storyboards outlining the film’s action. He asked how many steps Maguire would have to climb in one scene, how much he would have to run in another. And he said Maguire might not be able to perform as specified in certain scenes. Maguire said his goal in having the three meet was to get his work schedule modified and go easier on his back. But instead, a few days later, the studio informed Maguire that he was being dropped, and the release date of the film was moved from May 2004 to July 2004.

Pascal says Raimi and Maguire were getting along fine up to this point. But sources with direct knowledge of the situation say Raimi already was dissatisfied by Maguire’s conduct in the pre-production phase. Maguire had neglected to undergo a computer scan needed to lay the groundwork for complicated effects shots in the film. Maguire says here, too, he made a mistake.

“Part of it was scheduling and part of it was that I had a beard [for ‘Seabiscuit’] and they needed me cleanly shaven,” he says. “I could have come in a little earlier, but I was exhausted and didn’t understand the importance of it.” When he was first asked to do the scan, he says, “I was working [on ‘Seabiscuit’] six days [a week], 14 or 15 hours a day, and then it was, ‘Do I want to go in on the seventh day for an eight-hour cyberscan?’ ... If I had understood the great importance of it for Sam, then I probably would have kicked myself ... and done it anyway.”

Raimi, for his part, denies friction with Maguire but acknowledges that he was concerned about the scan. He had the impression that the actor was not doing the scan because he didn’t want to be distracted from his other movie. “I wanted our movie to be the most important thing in his life,” Raimi says. “I felt he thought this would impact his work on ‘Seabiscuit.’ ... Any time the picture isn’t the best that it can be and the effects aren’t the best that they can be, I’m not happy at that point.... Yes, I really wanted that scan and yes, I was fighting to get it.”

It’s far from clear that the bad back and the missed scan were the only factors in what happened between Maguire and the studio. There have been reports that Maguire was upset that producer Ziskin made more money than he did for the first film. (Published reports said she was paid more than $30 million; the real number is said to be closer to $25 million.) But Maguire, who’s getting a package worth more than $17 million for the sequel, says he had no complaints about his compensation. “Money was never an issue at all,” he says. “That point is nothing.”


Maguire has many fans, such as “Seabiscuit” director Gary Ross who praises his skill as an actor and says he’s “a wonderful guy and a very generous spirit.” But even Ross says Maguire can be “strong-willed and opinionated.” During the making of “Cider House Rules,” three sources with firsthand knowledge of events say Maguire was so unpleasant to co-star Theron that Miramax warned him, as one put it, to “cool it.” Maguire says he likes Theron but adds, “Making a movie isn’t always completely harmonious.”

When it came to the “Spider-Man” sequel, some of those involved say Raimi was so prepared to go forward without Maguire that he met with Jake Gyllenhaal, who played Jennifer Aniston’s love interest in “The Good Girl.” According to Pascal, that meeting was about a future project at Fox, not “Spider-Man.” The fact that it took place on the “Spider-Man” set and that Gyllenhaal encountered producers Ziskin and Avi Arad was coincidence, she says. Ziskin says the same.

Raimi says Maguire’s presence is important to the movie. His main concern was that he got the impression -- he’s not sure where -- that Maguire could be injured for life if something went wrong during the filming. “I didn’t want to do something so irresponsible that I’d regret it for the rest of my life,” he says.

Within days, Columbia replaced Maguire with Gyllenhaal. Even those close to Maguire admit that Gyllenhaal made sense. He was another slender man-boy with large, soulful eyes and an air of innocence. “A year from now? The public wouldn’t know the difference,” a source close to Maguire concedes.

Friends in high places

Maguire says he was blindsided by this turn of events. “I never understood that we were at that point,” he says. Maguire was not inclined to fight at first. “There was a period where I didn’t know what I could do to work it out,” he says. “I felt a little bit at a loss.”

When Maguire’s girlfriend, Jennifer Meyer, told her father what had happened, the Universal chief was incredulous. He had more than one pony, so to speak, in this race. Not only was Maguire dating his daughter, he also was in Universal’s “Seabiscuit.”


Meyer got on the phone with Maguire and told him he’d be making a catastrophic mistake if he didn’t do everything in his power to get himself back into the movie. To drive home the point, Meyer reminded him of Michael Keaton, who walked away from a lucrative career mainstay when he refused to get back into the Batmobile.

Meyer -- who declined to comment for this article -- went to work. He called Pascal to urge her to reconsider. He called attorney Bert Fields, the weapon of choice in fights with studios. Ominously, Fields had already been retained by Columbia.

In an only-in-Hollywood twist, Meyer also called on a friend, “Matrix” producer Joel Silver, who has a friendly relationship with Maguire, though they’ve never worked together. Speaking to Maguire, Silver reiterated Meyer’s warnings about the magnitude of his blunder. And he didn’t stop there. During the making of the first “Matrix,” Keanu Reeves had a neck injury that could have cost him the role. Armstrong, Maguire’s doctor, had also treated Reeves in that situation. It was essential to make it clear -- with the doctor’s support -- that Maguire was fit to play Spider-Man. Silver spoke to one of the doctor’s colleagues and suggested that Armstrong revisit the storyboards.

According to Maguire, the doctor did exactly that with a stunt coordinator. Maguire says he had given up hope that his back would heal while he worked on the “Spider-Man” sequel and was now content to avoid further injury.

The studio did not yield easily. Maguire also had to undergo a physical exam, swing from the harness to prove his fitness and make his peace with Raimi. “I’m just glad it worked out,” Maguire says. “I’m glad I got to look these people in the face and say, ‘I’m really sorry. I’m going to do whatever it takes.’ ” A knowledgeable source says the studio also built in a number of provisions into Maguire’s contract under which he can be penalized financially if he fails to fulfill his obligations. Pascal and Ziskin declined to comment on those provisions, and Maguire says he’s not comfortable discussing them either. “I don’t want to get too specific, but it’s more about the health of my back,” he says. “I’m saying I’m OK to do it and I have to back that up on some level.”

Soon after Maguire was reinstated, he fired his agent, Leslie Siebert of the Gersh Agency -- a move widely viewed as a consequence of the near-debacle. He did not fire his manager, Eric Kranzler, or his attorney, Steve Warren. Siebert had been with Maguire for seven years and had seen him through his transformation into a star. Even those who competed to replace her think she was unfairly singled out. “I promise you, she wasn’t the one who should take the hit,” a rival representative says.


According to sources with knowledge of the situation, Kranzler called Siebert to break the news. Siebert refused to accept her dismissal without speaking directly to Maguire. She has told others that she met with him at his Hollywood Hills house in a small room that he filled with smoke as he puffed on a cigar. Siebert apparently came away feeling that she had been treated with cold indifference. She says she will not comment on the incident.

Maguire says he did not fire Siebert because of the contretemps with Columbia, although he worried it might appear that way. “It’s just a business decision and she’s not the scapegoat,” he says. As for the final meeting with her, he says, “I did not know how to handle that parting where anyone feels good about it. I was dreading it.... It’s a real bummer for both of us.”

After Siebert’s dismissal, the five biggest agencies began to court Maguire avidly, even though some felt sure he was predestined to end up at CAA -- the agency Meyer had co-founded. After an initial round of meetings in Los Angeles, the contenders later flew to New York for nighttime meetings with Maguire on the “Spider-Man” set.

Maguire says he considered all comers. Certainly they took their best shots. Endeavor’s Ari Emmanuel opened by inviting Maguire to enjoy the agency’s coveted floor seats at a Lakers game. UTA sent Jim Berkus and Nick Stevens; William Morris’ Jim Wiatt also made the trek to New York. But CAA partners Richard Lovett and Rick Nicita won out. The former represents Tom Hanks; the latter represents Tom Cruise. That alone may have made a statement to the young actor who had just saved his role, and possibly much more.

Kim Masters is a contributing editor for Esquire and, with Nancy Griffin, author of “Hit & Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood.”