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Times Staff Writer

A few hours after dawn, a group of extras suited up to play members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. and assembled on a tennis court at a Beverly Hills mansion -- the location for Episode 8 of HBO’s industry insider “Entourage.” “Just remember,” instructed the second second assistant director, “They want everyone to know what Hollywood is like ... on TV.” The cast chuckled knowingly.

While other shows about Hollywood (“The Comeback,” “Unscripted”) have come and gone, “Entourage” starts its third season tonight with the first of 20 episodes, up from 14 last year, which was up from just eight the first season. The stock reason for its success, widely cited by the show’s creators and actors, is that “Entourage” isn’t really about Hollywood. The series, they say, is about something almost everyone can relate to: the friendship of four young men trying to make it in a world without rules.

Still. What has agents, actors, producers and publicists hooked on the series, despite moderate viewership, is that it also is really about Hollywood -- the real traffic snarls on PCH, real restaurants on Melrose, real Laker games and real relationships among agents, managers, publicists and actors. “Everyone in Hollywood watches that show,” said Brent Bolthouse, the town’s premier party promoter. “Everyone in Hollywood can relate. It’s all in there.”


More than the Urth Caffe, Playboy Mansion or the nightclub Prey, the locals can’t wait to see the sly, often mortifying details of their own lives on the screen -- the high-stakes deals hanging on a lunch or a rumor, the short attention spans, the neuroses, the petty humiliations and faux reconciliations. Over the past two seasons, “Let’s hug it out, bitch,” the peace offering of the tightly coiled yet almost likable agent Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven), has worked its way into the local culture. “A lot of people use it, as a joke,” said producer Ben Silverman (“The Office”), admitting he says it himself with colleagues.

“Entourage” adroitly blends fact and fiction in this brutish, sunny industry town, Silverman said. “Battles for supremacy go on all day long across Hollywood every day,” he said. Who the actual gatekeeper is for a hot young actor like “Entourage’s” Vincent Chase “is a real-life struggle playing out every day over lunch,” he said.

The archetypes are so strong, some have even had trouble separating art from life. Director James Cameron, who played a megalomaniacal director named James Cameron working on a fictional movie called “Aquaman,” said he was surprised that acquaintances believed the project was real. When he jokingly remarked that he was making “Aquaman,” they replied, “Yeah, I heard that. How’s it going?”

“The funniest thing for me,” Cameron said, “is I could have made ‘Aquaman’ with just two phone calls. It shows you how warped our perspective is. It spawned real momentum.”

The only false note in the show, Cameron believes, comes from the characters that are not underhanded or manipulative enough. Chase (Adrian Grenier), the show’s central figure who employs his brother and two childhood friends from New York, is “just such a nice guy,” Cameron said. “He has his friends’ back.”


Saddling up a posse

IN the beginning, there was an idea -- a show about an actor’s posse based on Mark Wahlberg and his friends: Vincent’s brother Johnny Drama (played by Kevin Dillon) has the same nickname as a cousin and member of Wahlberg’s entourage; and Chase’s film, “Queens Boulevard,” is a reference to Wahlberg’s “Boogie Nights.”


But “Entourage” head writer Doug Ellin didn’t like it. “I said, ‘I don’t get it.’ It was about hangers-on. I don’t want to watch a show about people who live off somebody else.”

Eventually, Ellin said, “I had to figure out how to make the guys relatable to me.” A New Yorker and former stand-up comedian who moved to Hollywood in 1990, Ellin had lived the life himself, worked in a production company mail room, made the club scene, got some films made (“Kissing a Fool”), hung out at Sundance.

He moved the characters’ hometown from Boston to New York. And he made sure each member of the entourage had a purpose: Drama cooks for the household while seeking acting jobs; Eric (Kevin Connolly) was asked to help Vince run his career. “There’s only one hanger-on,” Ellin said. “Turtle. And he gets paid. He’s a gofer.”

Now, he said, “The majority of stuff comes out of my head. It’s all loosely based on a bunch of people.” Ari Gold’s wife (Perrey Reeves), the real boss at home, is based on Ellin’s wife; Ellin’s own agent, Ari Emanuel informs, among others, the contentious Gold. Instead of a Wahlberg-like rough-and-tumble Vince, which was difficult to cast, Ellin based Chase on the more artistic Leonardo DiCaprio. “What would Leo do?” tends to be the watchwords on set.

Even as HBO is seeing audiences for “The Sopranos” dip and its highly touted “Big Love” attract only middling numbers, the network is encouraged by “Entourage.” By the end of the first season, Nielsen Media Research had counted 1.9 million viewers and word about how close to the bone the show was hitting had spread around town. Piven, especially, had struck a nerve, and captured two Golden Globe nominations and an Emmy nomination, as Gold.

Though numbers dipped in Season 2, as the new season proceeds HBO’s President of Entertainment Carolyn Strauss said, “There’s a lot of creative momentum for the show....The show is really in its full creative flower.”


Of the 20 episodes now in production, 12 will air this summer with the rest scheduled to follow the final eight episodes of “The Sopranos” in 2007, she said.

Even so, Ellin said, there’s no particular plan for the season other than developing the characters and their relationships as Vince edges closer to stardom. Obviously, Ellin said, “We know with Leo, he became the biggest movie star in the world. He can’t go that way, it would be boring. There have to be some complications.”

Each character is taking on more personality as the series progresses, said Patty Jenkins, who has directed several episodes. “They’re all heading in their own directions, finding themselves in Los Angeles and in the success.”

And Vince too is being more fully explored. The character, Grenier said, is a mix of confidence and insecurity. “He’s on the up and up. It’s a long, difficult, vulnerable road. The larger the projects that come his way, the larger the risks. There’s the potential for loss.” Adding to the hall-of-mirrors effect of making a show about Hollywood in Hollywood: The cast members, now friends, are often seen together around town. “We’re tight,” Connolly said. “It’s crazy when we go out as a group. People can’t believe we would actually be friends.”

In fact, sightings can be almost surreal. “I’ve seen a dinner with Jeremy Piven, Ari Emanuel and Mark Wahlberg,” Silverman said. “Ari’s the agent for both and Jeremy Piven plays Ari. It’s so postmodern.”


Ari over the top

NOT everyone in Hollywood relates to “Entourage” in a positive way. “It’s like bathing in mud,” said John Burnham, executive vice president at the West Coast offices of International Creative Management. He finds the show funny but said Ari Gold’s behavior is exaggerated, “insanely self-preserving” and “shameless.” Citing a scene in which Gold made changes to his daughter’s bat mitzvah in an effort to gain a business advantage, Burnham said, “You feel like you need to take a shower after you’ve watched it.”


“Agents know this guy exists to a greater and lesser extent,” Piven said in defense of the character. “He exists with an attention deficit disorder that’s more advanced than I’m showing and with a heart bigger than what I’m showing at times as well. I hope to become more ruthless and more emotionally accessible. I want the highs to be higher and the lows to be lower. Bring it! I’ve trained my entire life for this moment.”

Still, even Piven sometimes had trouble with the dialogue. “There are times when it’s a little unsettling that I have to say these things regarding certain people or studios. But it’s part of the character, so I just have to constantly sit on that grenade.”

It’s that true-to-life tension that plays best to some insiders. Publicist Stan Rosenfield, whose clients include George Clooney, said he’s become an ardent fan. Rosenfield and an all-male network of friends discuss the shows the day after they air. “It’s guy TV,” he said.

Some of his favorite scenes: Ari Gold firing the mail-room guy, mistaking him for an agent; Vince getting his dream role, only to find out he’s being paired with an ex-flame. “Anybody can relate to that,” Rosenfield said. “Do you take the job if your ex-girlfriend is there?”

Unlike Hollywood shows that depict the wealthy and powerful, the fun of “Entourage” is that it dwells on the climb upward, he said. “A lot of times people live in big mansions -- what’s interesting is the process of how they get there,” he said. “I look at ‘Entourage’ as the journey, not the destination.”

Naturally, the actors would like it if the show led them somewhere.

“I was hoping playing Vince would launch my actual career,” Grenier said, adding he wasn’t sure if it had. After 14 years in L.A., Connolly said playing Eric has changed everything for his career. “This is the best gig you can have as an actor, being on a hit HBO series.”


Even those who play cameos have been surprised by the response of the exposure. Burnham, whose firm represents Malcolm McDowell (“A Clockwork Orange”), said the actor found himself more recognized in town from a few episodes playing an agent on “Entourage” than he had in a 30-year career in American and British cinema.

Cameron said he got a similar reaction for the few days work on the show as he did for the two years he spent making “Titanic.” “Who knew it was going to be a career high?” he said.

The cameos are still difficult to cast, Ellin said, because of scheduling conflicts. But some publicists say that in the wake of appearances by Scarlett Johansson, Brooke Shields, Larry David and Jessica Alba, among others, actors are now lining up for the guest spots.

As Wahlberg jokingly warns in an interview on the Season 2 DVD, “They know if you’re not involved, you’re going to be a victim on the show.”


Aiming to mix comedy, drama

“ENTOURAGE,” despite the freedoms of cable, doesn’t push as far as it could to show the dark side of the sex and drugs that pervade the Hollywood scene. But, Ellin pointed out, the show aims to be a mixture of comedy and drama. “I don’t want to watch Vince OD,” he said.

“What I love about the show is the tight little bond the guys have with one another. You don’t see that a lot with heterosexual males. You’re seeing the real group dynamics of conflict, jealousies and success without getting into the real darkness of drugs.”


Two of Ellin’s favorite scenes: Ari getting fired, thinking his life is over, and managing to persuade his gay Asian assistant Lloyd (Rex Lee) to come with him only after promising to apologize after insulting him. (“Even though I’m not an agent, I’ve been fired from everywhere I’ve ever been” -- including the New Line Cinema mail room for talking back,” he said.) And the Season 1 finale in which Vince and the guys almost leave Eric on the tarmac, until Vince decides to make Eric his manager.

The show, Ellin said, has consumed his life. He’s worked seven days a week since August. “I’m in the office at 7 a.m. every single day. I get home no earlier than 8, usually later. I have two young kids. I have to figure out a way to slow that down.” He better find it soon because he says there’s enough minutiae in Hollywood for 10 more years of material -- if he can last that long.

“The dynamic on the show is the dynamic behind the show,” he said. “I just hope it keeps going.”


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