"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 21 September 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Hit & Run 9.21.00


Jerry Haleva has portrayed Saddam Hussein in the films Hot Shots! and Hot Shots! Part Deux, The Big Lebowski and Mafia! (a.k.a. Jane Austen's Mafia!). He spoke with us from his office in Sacramento.
Are you a method actor? How did you prepare for the role of Saddam?

When I was getting ready to do my first audition, my wife said "You've got to start practicing." I said, "Practicing what? I'm not going to do the 15-hour version of the Strassberg school. The fact is either I'm gonna get this thing or I'm not." And that's exactly what happened. For Hot Shots! Part Deux I knew my lines and got the role. The scenes in the movie just involved me getting ready for bed and making lunch, with all these prop jokes. But in my career as a California lobbyist I have to be a bit of an actor and keep things entertaining, so both legislator and regulator will pay attention. So I have that skill set. Everybody thinks politics and Hollywood are very glamorous, but the actual arts are very dull, and "hurry up and wait." And they both have huge, inflated egos.

How did you get to be America's premier interpreter of Saddam?

In 1989 I was working as a staff person at the California state legislature. The chief sergeant at arms saw a picture in the LA Times of Saddam waving to his troops, and he made copies and distributed it on the floor of the state senate with the caption "Now we know what Haleva does on his weekends." As an activist in the Jewish community, I found it funny that my double was an Arab dictator. When the war broke out a number of people commented on the resemblance — "Enough with the hostages, Haleva," that kind of stuff — and I knew a guy named Ron Smith in the lookalike business, so I got in contact with him. I got a whole lot of publicity from People magazine, The New York Times and others; Advertising Age did a "Separated At Birth" feature. So I called Ron back, because since I am a Jewish person I was wondering where the profit was. He got me a bit part in a feature film called Hot Shots! And it turns out they used this bit for the trailer; it's a scene where Saddam's in a chaise lounge and a bomb drops on his lap. They promo'd it as "The mother of all comedies." The movie came out in 1991, and that one scene became one of the most heavily promoted scenes in the history of trailers.

About a year and a half later, I ran into Lloyd Bridges at a fundraising event. Much to the chagrin of my girlfriend at the time I walked up to him and said "You don't know me but we co-starred in a picture together," although of course I had appeared for about ten seconds. He looked at at me like I was an idiot for a minute, and then said, "Wait a second — you were Saddam. You were great! You've got a big part in the sequel." I said, "There's a sequel?"

Were you the producers' first choice for the expanded role in the sequel?

It was a speaking part, so I had to read for it. I auditioned for Jim Abrahams and Pat Proft, the co-writers. After I read, they said "You told us you weren't an actor. You read as well as anybody who's ever tried out." I told them, "I'm in politics. I'm a bullshitter. It's the same deal."

So it was all gravy from there?

At that point I had to get rid of my agent, because Ron Smith was a lookalike agent.

Isn't firing your agent more of a mid-career move?

The problem was that as a lookalike agent, he could take more than the standard ten percent. He told me the first job paid a couple hundred dollars. But when I did the job they told me it paid $2,000. When I asked Ron why I was working for 10 percent he said "I'm working for the other ninety." So since the second job was an acting part I figured I'd better use a different agent. The funny thing is that I had to retain an attorney to convince Mr. Smith that I shouldn't be his client anymore. When that attorney ran for office he had to disclose his client list. So I ended up in the San Francisco Chronicle because that attorney was ... Willie Lewis Brown.

Always hire the best. How did it go on the set?

My part was scripted at six minutes, and they figured they'd have to piece it together because I wasn't a professional. When I got on the set they saw that I was a natural ham, and they started writing more material for me. By the time we finished my part was 18 minutes long.

You stole the show. The Internet Movie Database has one of your lines — "Now I will kill you until you die from it!" — in its Memorable Quotes entry for Hot Shots! Part Deux, and one of IMDb's users even claims that "several of the funniest moments are turned in by Jerry Haleva as Saddam Hussein." Many big-name actors have never received honors like that. Were the other actors supportive as your role turned into a breakthrough?

Charlie Sheen was a little unhappy about how much more material they were writing for me. Because this was his vehicle, of course. It was the second Hot Shots! characterization he had done, and they kept focusing on stuff that made the Saddam character look good. Or not look good, but look funny. There was one scene that ended up on the cutting room floor, a Jerry Colonna moustache-stretching-type scene, where Charlie comes over, says "I gotta do this," and grabs my moustache; and of course there's a fake moustache that keeps stretching and stretching. It ended up not really working. But at the time Charlie really didn't want to do it. He said, "No, I want to haul off and deck him. The audience will cheer." And Jim Abrahams said, "We don't want them to cheer; we want them to laugh." But what Charlie didn't like was that that angle was from the back of his head to the front of my face doing the Jerry Colonna thing.

Did it get tense between you and Charlie?

Well at the end of the movie he said, "What, are we going to change the poster next?" Because, you know, he was the star of the movie and the poster had a big picture of him as Rambo. And so what am I gonna say? I'm a first-time actor, and we've just worked together for six weeks. So, since I knew he was going to Vienna right after that to do The Three Musketeers, I said "Does that mean I'm not going to Vienna with you?" And he couldn't do anything but laugh, so that kind of broke the ice.

That must have been a pretty uncomfortable for a first-time actor.

We had a lot of fun with the fact that I was a first-time actor. They would tip me to do things like say "Wait, wait, what lens are we using here?" just before we started shooting. But at one point, the prop master was showing the director a bunch of light switch plates, and they were trying to decide which one would look most like it should be in Saddam's bedroom. So I turned to Jim Abrahams and said "I know I'm just a first-time actor and I'm supposed to keep my mouth shut until I'm told what to do, but can I make a suggestion?" He said, "Sure, what?" And I said "You've made Saddam to be so silly already. Don't have him use a lightswitch. Have him clap his hands." He said "Oh my God, it's Jerry Haleva the writer!" And that was one of the big laughs of the movie.

Charlie Sheen must have been doing a real slow burn by that point.

Well it was clear that I was having a lot of fun with the experience. But the coup de grâce was at the end, when they were going to take the movie to Europe. Now Hot Shots! Part Deux was written up by Army Archerd and a lot of other people as better than the first movie. But because they released it two weeks before kids got out of school, it really died at the box office. But in terms of Pay Per View and the European release it was huge. It was like number one in Japan or something. So they were planning a European junket. And Charlie basically put down the edict "If Saddam goes, I'm not going." Because the movie had become such a focal point for Saddam as opposed to Charlie. So I got bumped off the junket. And when the press conference started in London, most of the questions were about Saddam. So Charlie then saw that we were right. If you go to the London Times review of Hot Shots! Part Deux, the opening paragraph is about me. So that just reinforced it for Charlie that this idiot playing Saddam was going to steal his thunder.

Why was Charlie so protective of this particular project, as opposed to, say, Terminal Velocity or Major League II?

Well I should say that Charlie Sheen now is a different guy than he was then. I've been told by a lot of people that he's a changed guy. But he was having a lot of problems then, and this was his star vehicle. For him, it was like making a Die Hard without Bruce Willis.

But Die Hards always have a good villain.

Exactly. But in that particular movie Saddam ended up getting so many of the laugh lines that I think it really did bother him. And he's a smart guy. I think he knew that if Saddam went on the junket, that would be the story. The unique thing wasn't Charlie Sheen playing Rambo, it was Saddam Hussein.

It seems like you were at the start of a big career in 1993, but then it was another five years before you got The Big Lebowski. Do you think the problems with Charlie may have hurt your career?

Oh, I've been very blessed to have a good career in the lobbying world. And I guess I'm also very blessed that I have been able to have a lark in the film business, and have fun with it strictly as a lark. And I feel guilty that there are people out there who work day in and day out at their craft and never get the chance that I got. Politics and Hollywood have a lot in common, because they're both very fickle. But I guess I do mind the junket deal, because this is a much bigger deal in Europe than I realized. When Three Kings came out, everybody was asking "Where's the guy from Hot Shots?" A reporter from Film magazine told me a couple months ago, "You're huge over here. You could do a Saddam tour over here and it would be huge, because everybody remembers that." In fact, I just did a commercial for Nintendo this summer. I had always hoped there'd be a funny Saddam commercial out there. I think it would be much funnier in Europe than over here.

Do Europeans have more of a sense of humor about Saddam?

I think Europeans in general have a better sense of humor than we do. When it comes to commercials, they're not as uptight. I know one of the reasons people were reluctant to do Saddam commercials some time ago was fear that they might offend somebody. But there's a larger Muslim population in Europe than there is here; they just don't worry about offending people. They're not as PC as we are.

Did you get star-struck on the Hot Shots! sets?

Lloyd Bridges was one of the most fabulous human beings I've ever met in my entire life, and he really showed me the what they mean when they say "The show must go on." We had to shoot on his 80th birthday, and he had his whole family there, he had people coming to visit from all over the world, but he shot and did a bunch of stunts. It was a really amazing experience working with Lloyd Bridges.

You've worked with two generations of Bridges.

When it came down to The Big Lebowski, I got a call from the Coen brothers. They said, "We're making a movie with Jeff Bridges, and there's a small part for Saddam Hussein in it. Are you available?" I said, "Am I available? To work with the Coen brothers? I'll walk to where you are." So that was a real thrill.

Do you have any good anecdotes about working with the Coen brothers?

That was just a one-day shoot. The funny thing is I was going from Hot Shots! Part Deux, where I had my own trailer, and it was a much smaller job. But I ended up with some great memorabilia from that movie. I have the bowling shirt with the Saddam embroidery, I have the script signed by the Coen brothers, I have a picture with the Coen brothers and me as well as Jeff. It's real good.

That was a great memorabilia movie anyway, because there were so many good props and it had a great trailer.

Oh yeah, I think it will line up with Harold and Maude as one of the great classics of all time.

Has the market for Saddam roles been drying up since The Big Lebowski?

Well, I couldn't understand why they didn't go for Saddam in Three Kings. And other than Three Kings there have been no Desert Storm movies, and I don't know why. Governor Pete Wilson told me about a book called Honor Among Thieves — it's truly a great book, about Saddam stealing the Declaration of Independence. Governor Wilson told me "I have read this book. You should make this movie." I said, "Well I guess besides the fact that I don't have a screenplay or anybody willing to make it, that's a great idea."

Have you considered branching out into Vicente Fox parts, or other roles where the moustache look might be useful?

Well I've been told that my acting skills in Hot Shots! Part Deux do come out. I do all my own stunts and I have what it takes. The problem is, it requires being in Los Angeles and chasing auditions, and I already have a successful career in the political arena, so I can't commit that kind of time. But here's a funny story: I was in Washington, D.C. on a project one time; and when I'm there I always like to visit the Lincoln Memorial at night, because it's a really beautiful experience. The Russian immigrant cabby who took me over there was laughing with another cabby when I got back. And when I got in the cab, he said, "I'm very sorry for laughing, sir, but my friend and I both agree you look like someone not very nice." And I laughed, and then —

I already know the punchline — he was thinking of Stalin.

How did you know that?

Come on, how many worldwide supervillains are there who have The Look?

Well you're the first one who guessed it. After that I told my wife "I have some good news and some bad news...

Robert Duvall has played Stalin with makeup, and some of the best Hitlers have been people like Alec Guinness and Anthony Hopkins, who don't look anything like him. What is it about Saddam that makes The Look so important?

I don't know. I'm taller and younger than he is. And hopefully I weigh a little bit less. But I have the ability to convey the look. I have pictures where I look exactly like Saddam. In fact, a few years back there was a JAG episode concerning a trial of an American captured in Iraq. And to convey the atmosphere of the interiors, they had these huge, huge blowup pictures of Saddam. Only they weren't of Saddam, they were of me. I had my lawyer contact Paramount, but they claimed they weren't sure it was me, and even if it was me, they weren't responsible because their prop department did it, and they had disclaimers or whatever. My lawyer advised me we could keep chasing them and spend $30,000 in legal fees, or just forget it. So I forgot it.

Has your career as Saddam been helpful in your career as a lobbyist?

Well, those pictures I mentioned have been very helpful in my political career. They're all over Capitol Hill and Washington. The other day Governor Gray Davis told me, "Now there's a picture of you in my chief of staff's office. You're shameless." I said, "I'm a lobbyist, what do you want from me?" Senator Fred Thomson said, "All we need to have the same career, Haleva, is for you to run for office. Because I was an actor and a lobbyist, and then I ran for Senate. What's your excuse?" I said "I've faked it in both the other careers."

But it definitely helps to have people all over Washington know who you are. I had a friend in Congress, who introduced me to Bill Richardson. You remember Bill Richardson negotiated the release of our pilots, and he actually met Saddam. He said "Oh my God, you look exactly like him." So we went back to his office and had a picture taken, and he now has two sets of pictures that look exactly alike. So he's a friend. When Norm Mineta, who is now the secretary of commerce, was still in the Congress, I went to his office, and he only had two pictures: one of himself and his wife with Bill and Hillary Clinton, and a framed picture of me in uniform. I couldn't believe it. There was an inscription: "Why do I always have trouble with guys named Norman?" George Bush the father had one of my photos, and he sent me a nice picture back with a note: "Jerry, Tell Saddam I want to go fishing with him. Well, not really."

Isn't that a little weird, that all these people in Washington want pictures of Saddam Hussein? What do you make of that?

I think Americans — especially Americans — like to find humor in all things. And that's particularly true with things that are horrific. If you look at tragedies that occur, we try to move quickly to jokes about them. The same is true with Saddam. Saddam is truly an evil force on the earth. So making fun of him, and having a nice guy who's active in the Jewish community be the guy who's profiting from this resemblance — it's as good as it gets. I tell people, only in America could you have a nice Jewish guy make money making fun of an Arab dictator.

Do you have any qualms about being a Jewish American playing an Arab leader?

When Desert Storm broke out, the sheriff of Sacramento county, who's a good friend, advised me to shave the moustache. I said, "Are you serious?" and he said, "Yeah, somebody's going to take a shot at you because you're the guy playing Saddam." So I shaved my moustache during Desert Storm. I did the chaise lounge thing for Hot Shots! with a fake moustache. Then after Desert Storm was over I grew the moustache back, and the sherriff said, "What, you think it's safe just because the war's over?" I said, "No, I calculated the odds, and the chances of getting shot because I'm Jerry Haleva are just as high as because I'm Saddam Hussein."

Saddam is rumored to have lookalikes placed all over Iraq to foil assassination attempts. Have you ever been offered a job with the regime?

More than a rumor. He has about a dozen guys who dress up exactly like him and head off for different parts of Baghdad every day. It's a real deal. But I've never been offered the job, and my guess is they couldn't afford the insurance policy. I think jumping bungee cords would be safer than that.

How about the CIA's harebrained efforts to bump Saddam off: Have you ever been requested to participate in one of those?

I've never been offered anything by the CIA, but I was with General Ariel Sharon one time, and he said, "Why didn't we use pictures of you during the Gulf War? We could have dropped videotapes and half the Republcian Guard would have given up."

There's a tradition of people blaming the weather man when it rains. Have you gotten flak when, for example, that Iraqi plane flew into Saudi airspace recently?

Not that one, but a couple years ago when Saddam was doing some saber-rattling, people asked me, "What, are you trying to get another movie?" I said, "Sure, I have to keep this career going."

If you lobbied on behalf of a petroleum company would it be a conflict of interest?

I think it would be quite funny to have Saddam be the lobbyist for the petroleum industry. I'm also a volunteer lobbyist with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. One of my key issues in Washington is to lobby for a strong partnership or relationship between America and Israel.

Do heads turn when you show up on behalf of AIPAC?

People don't notice the resemblance very quickly unless I'm in uniform. There's a funny story, though: I attended a conference in Stockton about a year and a half ago. The Capitol Steps were one of the groups performing there, and they asked me to fill in as Saddam for a bit where they sing "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iraq" to the tune of "Barbara Ann." After the Capitol Steps, the keynote speaker was Shimon Peres, and a friend of mine brought me over to say hello to him. So I did a picture with Shimon Peres, and sent that out as a greeting card for our lobbying firm, with a note: "If we can make this happen we can make anything happen."

So Saddam is a friend of both Labor and Likud.

Absolutely. Sharon and Peres, that's both. Although Peres was willing to have his picture taken with me. Sharon was a little too wiley.

During the Gulf War, CNN was always bragging "We know Saddam watches CNN." Do you know if he watches your movies?

I don't have any independent verification of that. If he did watch the movies, right after getting over how angry he would be, I think he would probably then say, "Offer this guy a job as one of the doubles; he does better than any of you guys." But I have no idea whether he's seen the movies. I do know the movies played in Israel.

Has playing Saddam given you any special insight into the man?

No, I have not studied him, because if I studied him too closely I probably wouldn't even agree to make fun of him.

What are your thoughts on the UN sanctions against Iraq?

Like everybody else, I'm probably troubled about the way he's been able to thumb his nose at us. We still don't have inspectors in there. It's frustrating that we won Desert Storm but can't seem to get him to comply. The sad thing is that he's using his people as a shield for his own agenda.

After a couple of tough weeks of high-profile gaffes and poll numbers that were going down faster than Christina Aguilera in Eminem's fantasies, things were finally looking up for GOP presidential hopeful George W. Bush. Well, at least they were for one, brief, shining moment.

This Sunday, the Associated Press reported that actor and Democratic Party apparatchik Alec Baldwin was in fact hard-core about his pledge to leave the country in the event of a Bush victory in November. To quote the AP copy: "Kim Basinger said her husband, actor and Democratic party activist Alec Baldwin, was serious when he said he would leave the United States if the Republican wins." The report quoted Basinger as saying, "He stands completely behind what he says." The rageaholic star of Thomas and the Magic Railroad and The Shadow thus joined movie director Robert (O.C. & Stiggs) Altman and convicted-felon cum celebrity-sperm-donor David Crosby in providing at least three good reasons to put Dubya in the White House. Indeed, such promises were briefly highlighted on Bush's list of "real reforms for real people." Given the fact that Basinger had pledged to exile herself alongside her husband and that the Baldwin brothers — Billy, Stephen, Daniel, and Zeppo — would almost certainly have been forced to follow their familial meal ticket to lands elsewhere, we can only imagine that the Bush campaign was breaking out the bubbly in anticipation of not simply a victory, but a Reagan-tops-Mondale electoral landslide.

But some things — like George H. Bush's second term or his son's first — may not be in the cards. Sensing the huge advantage his statement delivered to the GOP, Baldwin quickly recanted, emphatically stating on Monday, "My wife and I will not 'leave the country,' regardless of the outcome of the coming election." That's not to say that Baldwin is going soft. Ever the man of principle, he reportedly maintains his devotion to stoning GOP Rep. Henry Hyde and the lawmaker's family.

"Write what you know" can be dangerous advice in the age of niche community and no-research journalism. Offer a reporter the opportunity to hold court on what truly interests him and you're liable to end up with a Kleenex full of sticky goo.

Time magazine's Joel Stein knows himself and isn't bashful about sharing.The author of the world's most widely-distributed family newsletter keeps a breathless America up-to-date on all things Joel Stein, from the state of his career to the state of his libido. But how can he continue to meet his bi-monthly nut with a range of interests and expertise that drops precipitously once you get to the far end of his arm?

With flying colors, it turns it. Reduced to colorful charts, Stein doesn't look so much like a self-involved doofus as the future of content production, where "niche community" and "no research" are watchwords. Fans will be pleased to see that, following an August slump, the beacon for every narcissistic weblogger has returned to his first-person singular ways with a vengeance. It may be possible to build a drinking game around Stein's Tourette's-like self references, but all the beer in Bavaria wouldn't be enough to cover the spread. Still, it's a relief to see that somebody is finally quantifying the cult of the self that has made Stein an avatar for every lazy reporter and the herald of a future that's customized, personalized and one-to-one. In Joel Stein's world, newspapers will be replaced with mirrors. And we'll all be happier.

If the web has bettered human existence in one way, it's that we no longer have to depend on the Jeffrey Lyons and Joel Siegels of the world for movie guidance; dozens of great sites perform the same service this species of peevish, uppity milquetoasts once did, and better. But that's not good enough for Variety. Looking to uphold its fading status as a bastion of show business, the wheezy magazine recently launched a tirade from high atop its offices in Old Media Towers, contemptuously dismissing such "amateurish" sites as Ain't It Cool News and culturevulture.net. The motives of Variety's Phil Gallo are as unmistakeable as a whore's wink: Like any dying oligarch, he won't let go of his specious authority until it's pried from his cold, dead hands. But what makes the unprovoked attack especially vicious is that it's not just self-serving, but openly venal: The main problem with web critics, for Gallo, is that they haven't sold out fast enough to the studio marketing machine. "Web critics wax on," says Gallo, gesturing with his unlit cigar, "paying no heed to the thought that short and pithy would be their ticket to the big time." Leaving aside that web fans may write lengthy or even negative reviews because they're less interested in a ticket to the big time than in writing about something they like, we should note that Gallo doesn't seem all too familiar with his subject. Harry Knowles has the star critic's ability to gush moronically in five words or fewer, and his Dickinsonian compactness has been rewarded with countless blurbs on innumerable ads. The no-nonsense ladies of 3blackchicks.com are four times more economic and ten times more entertaining than the archons at Variety; and almost every not-for-profit movie site, from culturevulture to The Movie Shelf of Apartment 304, does better by its readers, the movies, and the world than the "real reviewers" who sold themselves and their bylines for a mess of pottage. Web critics may not have mastered the craft of non-stop sucking up to power that keeps their professional rivals from starvation, but they know this much: If there's one thing that incestuous, addled clique doesn't offer, it's variety.

Speaking of an incestuous, addled clique making non-stop self references, we've long wondered what became of the Suckster formerly known as Duke of URL. All those hurried, late-night phone calls offering assurances that he was out "building the Suck brand," coming as they did in tandem with Suck's steady and well-deserved slouch toward obscurity, had us wondering just what our co-founder was up to with all his stolen hours. Recently, we stumbled on evidence that Duke has been beaver-busy building up a world-class collection of rare artifacts. Folks who have done eBay business with our guy are giving him glowing reviews: 101 positive responses so far, two neutrals and zero negatives. So while his status at Suck remains "MIA," his reviews at eBay shout "A-OK." Some highlights from Duke's eBay User Feedback page:

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So if you've got something to buy or sell, rest assured of one thing: Suck has a triple-A businessman for you! And who knows: He may have a widely-despised website to put on the block any day now.


courtesy of The Sucksters