Cussler aims to avoid being cast as a ‘bad guy’

Times Staff Writer

As novelist Clive Cussler takes the witness stand today in a Hollywood breach-of-contract trial, his lawyers say they want to prevent the author from being portrayed as “an unstable, racist crackpot,” a “befuddled alcoholic” and an “overall bad guy.”

Entertainment lawyer Bertram Fields said that attorneys for Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz were trying to use such allegations, all of which are denied by Cussler, to divert the jury’s attention from the facts.

“For weeks, you are going to hear personal stuff about Mr. Cussler,” Fields warned jurors during opening arguments last week. “Hold your ears. You’ll hear them claim that he was difficult and cantankerous and grumpy and even rude.”


Anschutz’s attorneys conceded that they would fully explore Cussler’s conduct -- particularly accusations that he made racist and anti-Semitic slurs -- to demonstrate that the 75-year-old author acted unreasonably during development of the movie “Sahara.” But they said they had no plans to exploit additional evidence that could prove damaging to Cussler’s reputation.

The attorneys said they never intended, for example, to disclose to the jury that Cussler believed the moon landing was a government hoax or that he was intolerant of his fans, calling one loyal reader “a loathsome toad.”

“The idea that we are trying to get away with something is nonsense,” said Alan Rader, Anschutz’s attorney from O’Melveny & Myers. “Cussler breached a contract by acting in bad faith. That is our focus.”

Cussler initially sued Anschutz’s Crusader Entertainment for allegedly reneging on a written agreement that gave him extraordinary approval rights over the adaptation of “Sahara,” one in a series of his bestselling Dirk Pitt adventure novels. Anschutz countersued, claiming that Cussler deliberately undermined the adventure film, which has lost about $105 million.

Each side has spent three years and millions of dollars preparing for the trial, which is expected to last about two months.

When he initiated litigation in January 2004, Cussler said in an interview, he had no idea that he would be subjected to an assault on his character.

“I was hurt because it’s not true,” he said of allegations that he used racial and religious epithets and engaged in “erratic” behavior. “I think you can figure out why they are doing it.”

The allegations are contained in sworn depositions taken from dozens of witnesses, including producers, directors and screenwriters. They include testimony that Cussler tossed over his shoulder a script he called “a piece of crap,” engaged in a telephone “screaming match” for 2 1/2 hours with actor Matthew McConaughey and launched a “tirade” against actor Tom Cruise for failing to meet with him to discuss playing Pitt.

Cussler’s attorneys filed nearly two dozen motions seeking to preclude unflattering information about Cussler from the trial. “The only purpose for introducing such evidence would be to publicly embarrass Mr. Cussler,” they wrote.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge John P. Shook rejected many of the motions, ruling that much of the material was relevant to the case and should be heard by the jury. On the allegation that Cussler exercised his approval rights based on racial prejudice and anti-Semitism, Shook wrote that jurors were entitled to hear “whether or not Cussler’s decisions were affected by bigotry.”

But the judge ordered that other evidence was inadmissible, including allegations that Cussler abused alcohol after the death of his wife and his views on the moon landing.

Shook also barred testimony about a “doodle” made by Cussler depicting Anschutz’s partner, Crusader executive Howard Baldwin, kissing the derriere of then-Paramount Pictures Chairwoman Sherry Lansing. Cussler sent the drawing to his agent to show Baldwin “brown-nosing” the head of Paramount. It was drawn on a copy of a June 17, 2002, news release announcing that Paramount had signed a three-year motion picture deal to distribute Crusader films.

“It’s a joke,” Cussler testified during a deposition. “I don’t know what else to say.”

Perhaps the most damaging testimony came from Carole Bartholomeaux, Cussler’s former public relations consultant of 18 years. She said Cussler made disparaging remarks about blacks, Jews and women during the screenwriting process. At least four other witnesses also stated that Cussler used racial and anti-Semitic slurs.

The jury of eight women and four men includes four African Americans.

Bartholomeaux also testified that Cussler began drinking excessively after his wife of 47 years died of cancer in January 2003. In court papers, Cussler’s lawyers said that Anschutz’s attorneys hoped “this so-called evidence will cause the jurors to view Mr. Cussler as an out-of-control or befuddled alcoholic and overall ‘bad guy’ once it is time for them to decide the issues.”

Anschutz’s lawyers said they had no intention of raising Cussler’s use of alcohol.

Bartholomeaux is depicted by Cussler’s lawyers in court documents as a “vengeful” former publicist who allegedly was fired “for financial improprieties.” They wrote that Bartholomeaux was exacting revenge by providing Anschutz’s lawyers with “tall tales” and “pernicious ammunition to hurt and embarrass Mr. Cussler.”

Bartholomeaux, who is expected to testify in the trial, has declined to comment on the case.

During opening arguments, Fields sought to paint a sympathetic picture of Cussler.

“Mr. Cussler is 75 years old. Very recently, he had open heart surgery,” Fields told the jury. “He is far from a professional witness.... He also uses colorful phrases. He is a character. He says what he means and he means what he says.”