Media Circus: The Freudian flack

Deeply psychotherapized publicist Michael Levine is one of Hollywood's grand eccentrics -- and his media dinners are the hottest ticket in town.

Published December 19, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Not that I like to pigeonhole people, but these days the vast bulk of Hollywood publicists do seem to fall into the following categories:

1. Snarling Micromanagers -- the legendary Pat Kingsley of PMK is queen of the pack here -- who now orchestrate pretty much every aspect of magazine cover stories, and who have managed to make "access" one of the more hideous journalism buzzwords of the '90s.

2. Grumpy Old Machers, like press agentry veterans Lee Solters and Warren Cowan, whose favorite phrases (at least when I've talked to them) are "No!" and "I'm going to call your boss!"

3. Clueless Young Things, easily identified by their favorite phrase, the lilting "... and where can I get a copy of your magazine?"

Then there's Michael Levine. I've never been able to categorize Michael Levine, even though in the '80s he was for a while needled monthly in the old Spy magazine as the quintessential Hollywood flack. In the past couple of years, however, he's managed to make his monthly Los Angeles Media Roundtable dinners a prized invitation among journalists, who are normally dismissive of invitations from press agents. And it's not just the free food either, although of course with the press you should never underestimate the importance of that.

Tall, with silvery blond hair, the stepson of gossip columnist Marilyn Beck, Levine cultivates the slick demeanor of a Hollywood man-about-town. He's generally seen at social events with a different babelike young actress. Once one of these girls got a little overexcited and started prattling loudly in my direction about "Generation X articles" and how "we should have coffee some time!"

"I must apologize for my date," Levine said later. "I was going for the visual."

But all that aside, Michael Levine is more than a publicist -- more than even, as he's sometimes described in the press, a "superpublicist." He's one of Hollywood's grand eccentrics.

A while ago, he decided we should have lunch. Although we had exchanged few words prior to that meeting, he dispensed with the small talk and began right away with a line of intense questioning:

"If a man calls you up for a date on a Sunday evening," Levine asked, "is it a big deal for you to get a baby sitter? And should the man pay for the baby sitter?"

"Uh ..." I said.

"Because I don't think a woman should make it a big deal," he said. "And don't you agree," he added, leaning forward intently, "that the biggest favor you could do for your daughter would be to find her another father?"

"Well, uh ..."

We also talked about his idea for raising money for a Statue of Responsibility, a sort of Los Angeles bookend to New York's Statue of Liberty. And about how he was thinking of volunteering to be a Jewish Big Brother.

"That's really nice!" I said.

"But the thing is," he added, "I'd rather be a Big Brother to a girl."

Levine Communications Office of Beverly Hills is known for its high-volume, regularly changing roster of up-and-coming personalities, anchored by the loyal, rocklike presence of Charlton Heston, a client for 15 years. Thus it occupies a unique niche in the world of Hollywood press agentry, which tends to focus on cultivating a few high-profile cash cows.

But unlike many of his fellows, Levine is not known for being nasty. His method of dealing with calls from the press could perhaps best be described as deeply psychotherapized. It's a tone that's echoed in a little book of aphorisms he published three years ago when he turned 40, called "Lessons at the Halfway Point: Wisdom for Midlife."

Some of the lessons: "Truth is like ammonia on a dirty windshield"; "The weirdest dream I ever had involved being stuck in an elevator with Shari Lewis and Lambchop"; and "One night, to relieve some tension, I drew up a list of people I'd kill if they weren't already dead."

He makes a point of returning all calls the same day. "Mr. Solters, in his wisdom, decided that being belligerent to the media was the way to go," Levine says. "I don't happen to feel there's ever any reason for being impolite. I feel the tunnel between the publicist and the media should be clean, well-lit and well-traveled."

Which brings us back to his Los Angeles Media Roundtable. Two years ago, Levine was thinking about a line that had always irritated him in his favorite movie, "Annie Hall," the one about how the only cultural advantage to Los Angeles is the ability to make a right turn on a red light. The dinners, says Levine, "grew out of my constant annoyance at Los Angeles being crapped on as an intellectual desert."

At these dinners, journalists (mixed with a smattering of lawyers, politicians, business leaders and, for some reason, the odd plastic surgeon or dermatologist) get together and, off the record, complain loudly to each other about the state of things in general. A big attraction is the four-course meal at Campanile, probably the best restaurant in town.

Still, in the beginning, "No one wanted to come -- not even my own staff," says Levine. Now there are three or four people hoping to be invited for every seat that's available. Of course, the popularity of any given dinner depends on the guest of honor. Sometimes it's just an editor from a local publication, which can be a tough sell.

But in the past two years, guests of honor have included movie producer Robert Evans, Variety editor in chief Peter Bart, Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti, ousted Los Angeles Police Chief Willie Williams, good old Charlton Heston and -- at last week's dinner -- O.J. Simpson prosecutor Christopher Darden.

I can't tell you what's said at these events, because they're off the record. But based on my experience (which is to say, two dinners) someone will always deliver an uplifting monologue about volunteering with inner-city children. And someone else (OK, that would be me) will deliver a rather tactless opinion -- like how watching TV news rots your brain, even though the table might include (OK, did include) several TV news people.

But Michael Levine says he welcomes such outspoken opinion. "I like the way you participated," he told me later. Then he leaned forward and said, with quiet intensity, "So ... are you plantable?" Match me, Sidney, what a "Sweet Smell of Success" moment! But, to get back to my publicist categories, maybe that's what kind of a publicist Michael Levine is: a Sidney Falco for the '90s.

By Catherine Seipp

Catherine Seipp is a regular contributor to Salon.

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