Guard dog to Hollywood celebs fights brutal economics

Written by New York Times | Los Angeles | Updated: May 30 2011, 07:27am hrs
It started with a fortune cookie. Two of them, actually. Martin D Singer still carries in his wallet the slip he plucked from the first in 1980, on the day he decided to join John H Lavely to start their law firm, Lavely & Singer. It reads: Your intuitions in business decisions are good.

On the firms first anniversary, Singer recalls, he and Lavely went out for Chinese again. And he got the same fortune.

Somebody knew the stars were in the market for a pit bull.

Since then, Singer and his firm of 15 lawyers have emerged as Hollywoods foremost protectors of the unlikeliest of underdogs: celebrities who seem to have it all.

A growing tabloid culture, coupled with the brutal economics of a contracting entertainment industry, has left a surprising number of the glamour set feeling picked on and looking for someone to even the score. That is often Singer, a stocky, bespectacled 59-year-old litigator. More than 30 years ago, he began taking odd jobs that were beneath established firms, then built what might have been a niche practice shielding stars and their adjuncts from annoyance into a Hollywood mainstay.

Hes ferocious and fearless, he really is, says Sylvester Stallone, one of the first in an expanding list of entertainers, executives and even political figures who have turned to Singer for help with contracts gone wrong, business relationships gone bad or any other sort of problem.

I think I was having trouble with a dinosaur, thats how far back we go, jokes Stallone when asked how he initially connected with Singer. There was a dinosaur making some sexual innuendos.

Lately, Singer has taken up the cudgels for Charlie Sheen with a lawsuit in which Warner Brothers Television and the producer Chuck Lorre are said to have illegally thrown Sheen off the hit television show Two and a Half Men.

I really believe Charlie Sheen is a victim, says Singer, voicing what seems to a core conviction: that even the rich and famous can be abused. And when that happens, they are apt to call in a heavy.

Singer helped save Arnold Schwarzenegger, while he was Californias governor, from two lawsuits by women who contended that they were smeared by political aides one suit was settled, one dismissed and this week has been keeping tabs on new reports that Schwarzenegger fathered a child outside his marriage.

In 2006, senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada and the majority leader, hired Singer to deal with a news report that criticised a land transaction.

Less grandly, Singer in March filed suit for Quentin Tarantino against a neighbour and a fellow writer, Alan Ball, contending that Balls screeching macaws were keeping Tarantino from getting his work done.

Thats been resolved, Singer says. Tarantino has since finished his latest screenplay. Some people said its the best script hes ever written, because he had the peace and quiet, Singer says.

It is a Monday afternoon in early May. Just outside the door of Singers office, on the 24th floor of a Century City tower, he can be heard growling orders for corrective action against yet another journalist who, in his view, has done a client wrong. Lets demand a retraction, comes the throaty command.

Singer is remarkable for transformations that turn what Stallone describes as a warm and fuzzy friend his full face and jocular smile recall the comic singer Allan Sherman into a foam-flecked attack dog. If you rattle his cage, youre in for a fight, says Stallone, who has had Singer go to bat for him in court.

Nothing gets Singer going like a whiff of defamation. Since the previous Friday, he explains, five situations have cropped up, two of them involving new clients who are asking Singer to do what Hollywood thinks that he does best: kill, or at least maim, unflattering stories that have yet to surface. It is not a pretty business. Were one of the few firms that sue; we dont just send a letter, Singer says.

Neither is defamation very lucrative. Singer usually jumps in before the nastiness, true or otherwise, is published or posted. Win or lose, that typically means just a few hours of work. The billings, at $750 per hour, add up to less than 20% of his total, by his count. Despite his best efforts, though, Singer may not have even slowed an increasingly free-wheeling and Web-driven media culture.