May 3, 1999

Is Judd Nelson going the way of Andre Agassi? Before the suicide of cast mate David Strickland last month, sources say, the producers of Suddenly Susan planned to off the Brat Packer at the end of the third season of Brooke Shields’s sitcom. Nelson’s character, Jack, was going to do a Richard Branson, circling the globe in a balloon that would crash. But when Nelson got wind of the story line, he demanded a sit-down with the show’s honchos. The moody thespian had been difficult on the set, reports one set insider, who says Nelson refused to cut his hair and once kept the studio audience waiting for twenty minutes. To plead for his job, Nelson brought along his manager and his dad, lawyer Leonard Nelson. According to the insider: “Judd said, ‘If you want me to cut my hair, I’ll cut it the way you want it.’ His father was saying, ‘Judd’s totally committed to this show.’ ” The plot line was shelved once Strickland hanged himself in Las Vegas, and a special tribute episode was hurriedly ordered up. The show’s producers even shelled out for the rights to Strickland’s favorite song, Fatboy Slim’s Praise You. But while an insider says that Nelson and a few others might still be sidelined next season, a spokesman for the show insists no decisions have been made.

Are the bad boys at Maxim as creative with their circulation figures as they are with their headlines? Competitors have long suspected that a little surgical enhancement has helped pump up the upstart’s well-endowed circulation – which reached an ABC-audited 733,000 by the end of 1998. Those same competitors are now crowing because Maxim publisher Lance Ford had to stop sending out a reader survey done by the industry group MRI. Ford had distributed the survey numbers to give his sales force a boost, but when it was discovered that Maxim’s numbers diverged from reality, he obligingly agreed to stop sending out the report, says a well-informed industry source. MRI refused to comment. Maxim spokesman Drew Kerr admits that there were some discrepancies but says that the magazine has a new readership study coming out in a few weeks. “It was a clerical error on the scale of one or two points,” explains Kerr, “like whether it was married widows in our audience versus single people.” Who’d guess that “married widows” even factor into Maxim’s macho audience?

He might be able to bench press more than 300 pounds, but the burden of making so many people “Look Better Naked” has left David Barton physically, not financially, drained. The exhausted Barton is strenuously denying rumors that financial problems are forcing him to sell one or more of the trendy gyms that bear his name. In recent weeks, the widget-size weightlifter has fielded “a few offers,” including a serious bid from rival Crunch, to purchase the David Barton Gym at Broadway and Houston. Although Crunch owner Doug Levine declines to comment, sources within the company insist that he’s interested in the location. Barton says: “You know, I am sort of a one-man band here, and I am feeling overextended. Sure, for the right price, I would sell. But I have not made any decisions.” As for the persistent gossip – both inside and outside the locker rooms – that he has problems with his creditors, Barton explains, “What can I say? People have been saying those things since I opened my uptown gym. For the record, I had my best year last year.”

The Guggenheim is facing its own Asian crisis. The museum’s SoHo branch was preparing to open the Samsung Center for Art and Technology, thanks to a $10 million grant from the Korean electronics giant. But after declining attendance caused the SoHo museum to cut back almost a third of its space, landlord Peter Brant leased it to Prada, and the Samsung Center found itself on life support. Now Guggenheim chief Thomas Krens is negotiating with the Koreans to figure out what to do next. “We’ve had discussions,” admits a museum source, who says that the Samsung Center will probably stay in SoHo “on a different scale.” If that’s so, the Koreans may demand a substantial rebate on their million-dollar donation, insists one art-world insider. But Krens has already been scouting sites for a new Frank Gehry-designed museum in Manhattan; Gehry is also building the Samsung Museum of Modern Art in Seoul. “Instead of giving everything back, I’m sure they’ll work out something else,” muses a source close to the Koreans. “Wouldn’t you?”

Kim Basinger should remember that elephants have a longer memory than she apparently does. The actress, a militant animal-rights activist who has crusaded to ban elephants and other trained animals from circuses, recently finished shooting a movie in South Africa that stars, among other trained animals … circus elephants. In I Dreamed of Africa, based on a true story, Basinger stars as wildlife conservationist Kuki Gallman. For three days while filming in South Africa, she was surrounded by trained elephants and lions from the local Brian’s Circus. “I did think that it was strange that an animal-rights activist, who feels so strongly about the use of trained animals, would agree to do this movie in the first place,” says Brian’s Circus animal trainer Jim Stockley. “I also thought it strange that she never even approached me to inquire about the treatment of our animals.” It gets worse. In one scene, Basinger appears with a dog that is supposed to be dead. Sources say a veterinarian was summoned to anesthetize the dog, in violation of use-of-animal guidelines drafted by the American Humane Association for the Screen Actors Guild. “If all this is true, then we are very concerned,” says AHA’s Gini Barrett. “There are a lot of films being shot in other countries that aren’t subject to the AHA’s guidelines. But we think that American actors and companies that operate here should meet the same standards everywhere.” A spokeswoman for Basinger referred the matter to the film’s producer, Stanley Jaffe, who said that no animals were mistreated either during filming or during training and claims that Brian’s is “not a circus” in the traditional American sense. “This is a movie about a woman whose whole life is about preservation of animals,” he said. But a spokesperson for Ringling Brothers, a frequent Basinger target, accuses the actress of “situational ethics” and claims the animals used in the movie were trained “using the same methods she attacks us for.”

Last September’s infamous face-off with Bill Clinton has apparently failed to humble Health and Human Services secretary Donna Shalala. At a recent gathering, the feisty bureaucrat boasted that she was the only Cabinet member with the cojones to stand up to the president. After the president admitted to his liasion with Monica Lewinsky last summer, Shalala reportedly tore into Clinton during a tense cabinet meeting for telling his team that his policies were more important than his moral character. It now seems she felt quite isolated – if not superior – taking that stand. “Donna said that everybody else was very polite to the president, deferential even. She mentioned Treasury secretary Bob Rubin by name,” recounts one witness, who quotes Shalala further on the president: ” ‘That’s the way you get his attention and respect, by yelling at him… . I have fired people for hitting on young girls, so I was really mad.’ ” But Shalala insists through a mouthpiece that reports of the encounter “are absolutely untrue.”

EDITED OUT: New York’s publishing world is buzzing over the sudden demotion of popular William Morrow editor-in-chief Betty Kelly, who is stepping down to become editor-at-large. An internal statement that announced Kelly’s return to book acquisitions and editing puzzled Morrow staff members, who don’t know why publisher Michael Murphy shoved her aside. The sudden move surprised company insiders because Kelly, who is married to former Doubleday publisher John Sargent, was responsible for such best-sellers as Chris Andersen’s The Day Diana Died, and When I Fall in Love, by Beaches author Iris Rainer Dart. The Fires, a first novel by René Steinke, was just bought by Madonna for a possible directorial debut. “The whole thing is mysterious,” said one Morrow staff person. “It hasn’t been handled well.” Both Kelly and Morrow declined to comment.
TRANS-NANCY: Nancy Reagan would probably like to “Just Say No” to playwright Larry Kramer, who is about to revive his 1988 black comedy with the same title. In May, Chicago’s Bailiwick Arts Center will restage Kramer’s play about the sex lives of characters starkly similar to Ronald Reagan, Ron Reagan Jr., Ed Koch, and Reagan crony Alfred Bloomingdale. The new production will feature transsexual Steppenwolf actress Alexandra Billings as the Adolfo-clad Mrs. Potentate, a dead ringer for the finicky former first lady. Former Olympian Greg Louganis will play her ballet-dancing son, Junior. Kramer hopes Just Say No will eventually find a venue in New York – more than ten years after critic Mel Gussow savaged it in the New York Times: “Imagine the worst possible taste, then take it several steps further.”
MEDIA MAGNET: Beleaguered Brill’s Content has just gotten a vote of confidence from, of all people, George Soros. The money-losing billionaire has committed $10 million to the meandering media magazine. Soros and a few other partners join the first round of investors, who include Barry Diller, real-estate mogul Howard Milstein, and Wall Street investor Lester Pollack.

Additional reporting by Ian Spiegelman.

May 3, 1999