Dreams of Hollywood Disappear Along With Fake ‘Real Rome’
There are two reasons that Jeff Barr, an aspiring screenwriter, won’t be able to bring himself to watch Sunday’s debut of the HBO series “Rome.”
The first reason is that Barr is among 18 writers, art and costume designers, researchers and a producer who allege that they were victims of a con involving a docudrama project called “Real Rome,” which they mistakenly believed also was backed by HBO.
The second reason is that Barr, 24, who moved from Columbus, Ohio, for the “Real Rome” job, can’t afford premium cable these days. Having never been paid for his work, he can barely make his rent.
Since discovering that “Real Rome” wasn’t real, Barr said, “I feel like my dreams have been destroyed.”
The person who destroyed those dreams, Barr and others alleged in interviews and in formal complaints to the state labor commissioner, is Wayne Heyman-Hanks, a 43-year-old self-proclaimed producer who also goes by the name Dewey Wayne Hanks Jr.
They said Hanks fabricated an elaborate deception that lured not just hopeful novices but also accomplished professionals.
“It seemed like a big deal,” said John Vaughan, the former director of production for MCA Television, recalling how Hanks persuaded him to come aboard. Later, when Vaughan learned he’d been fooled, he said, “I couldn’t believe it. I was staggering around in a daze.”
“Real Rome” looked legit. Hanks housed his enterprise in a Studio City bungalow across from the CBS Studio Center soundstages on Radford Avenue. But it turns out that he never paid the rent. “Real Rome” employees were hired at competitive rates that seemed to imply Hanks had both cash and credibility. But not a single paycheck ever materialized.
Hanks denied that he presided over a hoax. In an interview, he also disputed the claim, made by several people, that he repeatedly told them that HBO planned to use “Real Rome” as an “appetite whetter” to drum up interest in its “Rome” series.
“This is a muddy, convoluted thing that’s full of misinformation, gossip and character assassination,” he said.
Hanks blamed the disintegration of “Real Rome” on a Danish screenwriter named Jesper Kodahl Andersen, who Hanks said had agreed to finance the project.
Andersen, who was supposed to direct “Real Rome,” called that “a total fabrication.” He said he too was Hanks’ victim, having spent $60,000 of his savings to help pay expenses on “Real Rome” and two other projects.
Court records show that Hanks has been in trouble before. Over the last decade, Hanks and companies he ran have been sued at least a dozen times by creditors seeking payment.
“We’re still waiting for our money,” said Mitch Russell, executive vice president of Chelsea Studios, a Los Angeles company that won a $5,000 judgment against Hanks in 2001 after he leased offices to conduct auditions for another project, but did not pay his bill.
This April, as he was assembling the “Real Rome” staff, Hanks was arrested and charged with lewd conduct and indecent exposure after he allegedly exposed himself to a Los Angeles police officer, who was undercover. He has pleaded not guilty.
When The Times called Hanks to schedule a prearranged follow-up interview, Hanks’ telephone number had been disconnected. He has vacated the Studio City apartment where he used to live.
The story of how Hanks persuaded 18 people to embark on “Real Rome” says as much about the culture of Hollywood as it does about any one man’s wiles. In a town where appearances can be as important as reality, Hanks talked the talk.
In the entertainment industry, where relationships are the mortar with which deals are cemented, Hanks also claimed to have friends in high places -- people with impressive credits who could get projects on the air. Then, as each new person joined his project, Hanks built upon his or her connections and reputation to lure others.
Anna Waterhouse was one of the first hired. A 50-year-old professor at Orange Coast College who has worked as a script doctor, she learned of the project when a friend saw an ad that billed “Real Rome” as a “premium cable-network series.”
She’d never heard of Hanks’ LightForce Productions, but she agreed to meet him for coffee. He and screenwriter Andersen arrived wearing faded T-shirts and jeans, looking more like “aging college students” than major players, Waterhouse thought. Hanks, a heavyset man with a courtly Alabama accent, drove a pickup truck, not a BMW.
But when Waterhouse vetted him on the Internet, she liked what she found: several articles in Alabama newspapers that called Hanks a successful Hollywood producer who planned to use his film profits to buy fire equipment to donate to various cities in his home state.
Hanks offered Waterhouse $6,480 a week -- more than her usual rate -- and offered to make her head writer. When he presented her with a 13-week contract, she signed.
On April 18, Waterhouse reported for duty, presiding over a five-member writing staff that included both veterans, such as a former staff writer for the Sci Fi Channel, and first-timers such as Barr, a freelance writer who got the job online. Then there was Don Philbricht, who quit his job as an assistant manager at Cost Plus World Market in Sherman Oaks.
“This was supposed to be my big break,” said Philbricht, 34.
Several people said they didn’t doubt Hanks in part because they couldn’t imagine what he stood to gain by hiring people he couldn’t pay. They also were won over by his frequent mentions of what he described as a close association with TV producer Glen A. Larson, the man behind hits such as “McCloud,” “Magnum, P.I.” and “Battlestar Galactica.”
Larson said in an interview that he remembered meeting Hanks, who had once pitched him some ideas. Although he found Hanks “very charming,” he said the relationship ended there because Hanks never followed up.
Hanks was more persistent with Bobbie Mannix, a costume designer who has worked on feature films such as “National Treasure.” Mannix came aboard after he tracked her down and offered her “top dollar,” she said. She got right to work, spending $3,000 of her own money on books and supplies.
Mannix also sent a crew to Western Costume, which immediately ordered $8,000 of sample centurion outfits from Pakistan as well as swords and other equipment. Eddie Marks, Western Costume’s president, said it was typical for such work to begin before contracts were finalized. After all, he said, Western had an account with HBO and a long-standing relationship with Mannix.
By May, the “Real Rome” writers were working 12-hour days plotting out what Hanks described to them as a gritty, raunchy look at Rome in the vein of HBO’s “Real Sex.” Hanks seemed particularly interested in the sexual life of ancient Romans, they said.
As Hanks turned his attention to casting, a parade of muscular young men trooped through the bungalow to audition. But no one from HBO ever stopped by, a fact that was beginning to make “Real Rome” employees suspicious.
At one point, Hanks “announced that the show had been picked up by HBO for three more episodes,” Howie Davidson, a researcher, wrote in a complaint filed with the state labor commissioner. But why then had no one ever met an HBO executive?
That’s when Hanks introduced everyone to Vaughan, the producer who several people said Hanks described as “HBO’s guy, but he’s cool.”
Vaughan had worked on an upcoming HBO miniseries, but he wasn’t employed by HBO. He said he never represented himself as such.
Vaughan said Hanks called him up out of the blue and said he was dissatisfied with the producers HBO had recommended for “Real Rome.” He said he wanted Vaughan instead. When they met, Vaughan said, Hanks showed him the bungalow, which he called temporary quarters.
Then, Hanks took him across the street to the CBS Radford lot, where two CBS executives took them on a tour of what Hanks said would be “Real Rome’s” new home.
“This is where your office is going to be,” Vaughan said Hanks told him.
A CBS spokesman confirmed that Hanks was shown around and that his company had a pending application to rent space. But the application later expired, the spokesman said, because Hanks didn’t submit a required credit application.
As weeks passed and no paychecks were distributed, the “Real Rome” staff began to get antsy. Hanks tried to calm them by blaming a paperwork glitch, several people said.
He also announced that the production was moving -- not to the CBS Radford lot, but to a bigger space. Unbeknownst to the “Real Rome” staff, Hanks was actually being evicted by the landlord, Radford Venture, for failing to deliver more than $5,000 in rent, said property manager Serena Elliott.
Vaughan, meanwhile, was beginning to wonder why he hadn’t received any payments from HBO. Already, he was out more than $3,000 in expenses. He called someone he knew at HBO who said the cable network had never heard of “Real Rome” or Hanks -- a fact that an HBO spokeswoman reiterated to The Times.
On May 27, almost six weeks after the project had gotten underway, Vaughan informed the staff that, to his dismay, “Real Rome” was fake.
Now, three months later, the staff of “Real Rome” remains baffled by what motivated Hanks to create such a doomed enterprise. Some think he was living out a fantasy of being a Hollywood mogul. Others aren’t so sure.
“I’m not sure he was delusional,” said Waterhouse, the head writer. Perhaps, she said, “he was thinking that he was going to generate heat and have these scripts and even if HBO didn’t buy them, someone else would.”
That’s scant comfort to those he allegedly fooled. Barr told the labor commission he was owed $45,201 for the 13 weeks on his contract. So did Philbricht, who said he was now collecting unemployment after Cost Plus declined to take him back.
Jeffrey Knight, a 43-year-old writer, is also out the same amount, he said. “Real Rome” caused a financial tailspin, Knight said, that caused him to move his wife and two young children back to their native Canada.
For his part, Andersen says he knows that many people who hear the story behind “Real Rome” will wonder how so many people could be so gullible.
“If you’re not in Wayne’s world, it looks so ridiculous and obvious,” he said. “But when you’re inside the bubble, it kind of makes sense.”
Just this week, Hanks surfaced again, putting in a call to one of the Alabama fire stations for which he’d promised to buy equipment.
According to Hartselle, Ala., Fire and Rescue Chief Steve Shelton, Hanks missed a meeting several weeks ago to discuss donating two new “Hollywood edition” firetrucks: top-of-the-line pumpers used by firefighters in Los Angeles.
But then, a few days ago, Shelton said, Hanks called to say he still intended to donate the pumpers.
“I want to say he’s still good for what he says,” Shelton said. “But until I see the trucks roll into the station, it’s going to be hard for me to believe.”