Michael Lohan at Rothmann’s Steakhouse in midtown. (Photo credit: Edward Keating)
On a Thursday in November last year, Michael Lohan strode into the midtown offices of private investigator Bo Dietl to tape a television pilot. Lohan is the father of the teen actress Lindsay Lohan, and he was feeling pretty good about his own showbiz prospects. The show he was about to tape was called The Lowdown; its aim was to investigate the falsehoods perpetrated by gossip columns, territory Lohan is very familiar with. Lohan and his daughter are estranged, and because he has not taken the estrangement well, he’s found himself the subject of many unsavory items. Nevertheless, at Dietl’s office he was making the most of his notoriety, pointing out stacked copies of a New York Post gossip column that declared, “Another Lohan Is Joining Star Roster.” Cindy Adams had written that Lohan, “very creative in terms of creating headlines, is very creative, period,” and expended several inches on the television show he just happened to be shopping around.
“People are going to stop and think before they say things in the future, because The Lowdown is on your ass,” said Lohan, as the crew set up for the shoot. Co-host Dietl, a former New York cop who still keeps a gun holstered at his hip, stepped over the camera equipment strewn throughout his office, looking about as thrilled as if Lohan were emptying trash cans onto the floor. In today’s scene, Dietl would fingerprint and deputize the “Gossip Scene Investigators,” a posse of telegenic women serving as Charlie’s Angels to Lohan’s Bosley. Impatient to get started, he looked around for Lohan, who had disappeared. “Where’s the lunatic?” he shouted.
Mark Arzoomanian, a Lowdown producer who at the time ran the vending-machine business for Red Bull Energy Drink, found Lohan in another room, prepping the GSIs and guzzling his product: “I told him, ‘The last thing on the planet you need is Red Bull.’ ” Dietl shook his head at Lohan’s choice of beverage. “You know what’s going to happen,” he said to Arzoomanian. “He’s going to take another collar and it’s all going to be over.”
As the tape rolled, Lohan and Dietl pitched The Lowdown as a necessary correction to unchecked profiteering on the backs of easy targets like Bill O’Reilly and Liza Minnelli and, presumably, Michael Lohan. “We’re going to investigate allegations against famous people and stars,” said Dietl. “Each allegation that we have, we’re either going to prove it or not prove it.” And then they’ll turn the tables on the purveyors of gossip—an on-camera vigilante squad. As the would-be TV personalities stepped into the elevator, they agreed that the taping had gone well. The chemistry seemed to work. Perhaps it was the feeling that they were onto something potentially big and probably fragile that made Dietl tell Lohan, “You better stay the fuck outta trouble.” “I didn’t get in trouble!”“Stay the fuck outta trouble.”
In New York, a motorist’s physical altercation with a sanitation worker does not normally rise to the level of news. Nor does a story about a man passing out in a strip club and getting ejected by the bouncers. Someone didn’t pay a hotel bill? You don’t say. Even an in-law-versus-in-law brawl at a First Communion party, however unseemly, is ordinarily discussed in hushed tones rather than headlines. But Michael Lohan finds himself so illuminated by his glowing daughter that he can’t shove a garbage man, pass out at Scores, forget about a hotel bill, or attack his brother-in-law in front of the entire family without winding up in the news.
Then again, Lohan was getting into trouble long before his daughter became a teen queen. Three prison stints rendered him a sporadic presence in his family’s home in Laurel Hollow, on the North Shore of Long Island. In 1990, when Lindsay was 5 years old, he went away for four years in a stock-fraud case: “My real charge,” he says, “was criminal contempt for not talking,” which in his view is an honorable reason for serving time. Then he violated his probation by leaving the state to visit 10-year-old Lindsay on the set of The Parent Trap. In 2000, he was again “violated,” as he puts it, for his role in a domestic dispute he says was blown out of proportion, but which impressed authorities enough to jail him for more than a year.
His recurring absence left his wife, Dina, in control as sole stage-parent of the family. All four Lohan children are actors, but it’s Lindsay whom Dina has turned into a superstar. With three box-office hits under her belt (Parent Trap, Freaky Friday, and Mean Girls), another half a dozen movies set to come out in the next two years, and a debut album that has her making regular appearances on MTV, Lindsay has an oxygen-like presence, and a stratospheric income to match.
“All my life, I supportedthem. Then, when Lindsayfinally hit, I could see it coming.”
The golden-goose dynamics of families who pawn their children off as entertainers remain inscrutable to those of us who grew up awaiting allowances rather than sliding mom a percentage. And the volatile mixture of love, greed, parental pride, and vicarious fame rarely stays stable for long. Just as Lindsay’s career was going into overdrive, the chemical reaction between her success and her father’s need for attention combusted.
“All my life,” Lohan says, “I supported them, I took care of them. All of my life. And then, when Lindsay finally hit, I could see it coming: how Dina was starting to mold, get all her friends around her, have her family around her, and start siding with them.” Lohan reacted by misbehaving in such a loud and public manner that his name frequently made the papers, a situation he professes to abhor even though he clips and saves his press. His downward spiral brought him to the point of allegedly threatening his family, prompting Dina to obtain an order of protection against him last October, and file for divorce in January.
Lohan doesn’t get it. “It’s just a shame, honestly, that my wife is putting my kids through this by not letting them be with their father,” he says. “That’s the part I regret.”
Post–protection order and pre–divorce filing, I meet Michael Lohan at Rothmann’s, the midtown steakhouse where he regularly holds court with a rotating cast of friends and business partners who take the place of the family he can’t see. They greet him warmly, often with Gandolfini hugs, and are eager to vouch for his integrity. (Out of earshot, though, several ask not to be named in print, as if they fear being on record as his associates.)
Lohan is a charismatic pitchman for his vehicles of fame and riches: Big deals are in the works, each one worth “multi-multi-millions” and attracting interest from “major, major” companies. At 44, he is articulate, passionate, and indignant—a flashy dresser who wears a Long Island dose of cologne, and sometimes a cowboy hat and shit-kicker boots. His briefcase and wallet are Louis Vuitton. Tattooed on his arm is a Celtic cross surrounded by the names of his children.
He relishes the opportunity to defend himself before a friendly audience. For every report about this or that infraction against paternal good judgment or the law, he has an explanation: The garbageman hit him first; the hotel bill was sent to his wife’s house by mistake; and he didn’t pass out at Scores because he was drunk, but because of a bad interaction between his anxiety medication and a couple of innocent drinks. His family issues are murkier, as family issues often are, but it’s clear that there’s no love lost between him and Dina’s clan. Still, he denies threatening his wife and insists he would never harm his children.
“If all of it was so true,” he asks, “why would Dick Cook, the chairman of Disney, pick up my phone call? Or Sherry Lansing? Or Nina Jacobson? If I was a bad guy, why would they see me?” He blames the influence of Lindsay’s publicist, Leslie Sloane, one of “a handful of people feeding off Lindsay—like parasites,” for much of his bad rap. He is the victim of a “campaign,” he says, that twists statements and incidents in order to portray his relationship with his daughter as hopelessly tattered, and means eventually to make it so. (Sloane’s response to my inquiries seems to refute the allegation: She declined to comment.) If it’s true that Sloane and the rest of Lindsay’s entourage are systematically trying to smear him in the press, what’s their motivation? “I have made enemies with them, and now they all want me out, because if I’m back in the picture, they’re going to be gone. Bottom line. And they know it.”
Ranting like this, Lohan might be channeling any number of wise-guy movie characters; his posture and mannerisms are reminiscent of performances by James Caan. When he harnesses all that eye-popping energy in support of his projects, he travels about halfway toward success. When that energy gets the best of him, he winds up back at square one, or in the back of a police car, or both. The week before the Lowdown taping, Lohan called, sounding elated, to let me know—great news!—that after weeks of not being allowed to speak with Lindsay, he had just seen her at his son’s soccer game. The call was brief, short on details, but Lohan sounded so thrilled that I could only imagine a pleasant reunion.
Lohan had in fact “seen” Lindsay at the soccer game, but it was through the window of a black BMW, which immediately pulled away. Lohan told his driver to follow. They caught up at a light. Lindsay was inside—but, to Lohan’s improbable surprise, so was Dina. Technically speaking, Lohan had followed, or “chased,” his wife. Just two weeks later, he again violated the order of protection, this time by allegedly pulling into his estranged wife’s driveway in Merrick, Long Island. Fed up, the judge set bail at $1 million, required half to be paid in cash (which Lohan did not have), and expanded the order of protection to Lindsay and her three younger siblings.
Lohan was sentenced to 28 days at Conifer Park, an upstate treatment facility for alcohol and substance abuse. As he prepared to depart, he joked that he was in a straitjacket. The arrest, he said, far from being detrimental to his career, had in fact heightened the interest in his TV-production endeavors. He was even thinking about taping an episode of a reality show from within the rehab facility.
But the one reality show he actually had in the works had just moved twelve steps further from fruition. “It looks like the fucking show ain’t gonna go,” said an exasperated Dietl just two weeks after the pilot taping. “I can’t be involved with this guy.”
When Michael Lohan calls me upon his release from rehab in January, he sounds almost mellow. “Paxil is amazing. It’s a wonder drug. If you don’t think I felt it inside me, how hyper I was …” He pauses. “You have to be inside someone’s head to feel that.”
We arrange to meet at his parents’ home in Huntington, Long Island, where he has been staying since his release. When I see him, he does seem less manic, but he wouldn’t be Michael Lohan if he didn’t seize an opportunity to set the record straight. In the computer room upstairs, he sketches out a map like a fifties movie prisoner plotting an escape: There’s his former home in Merrick, and there’s the straight line down the street to show he never pulled into the driveway. He had an arrangement, he says, to pick up some of his clothes with a police escort; he didn’t pull in because the escort had not yet arrived. “It’s all a setup,” he says, perpetrated by his brothers-in-law, who he claims were in cahoots with—actually in one of the patrol cars with—the police. When he’s finished making his case, he calls downstairs: “Mom!”
Since Lohan now has no driver’s license, his pleasant and, one imagines, long-suffering mother—she has not seen her grandchildren since the Communion fight in May 2004—has to drop us off in town as if we were a couple of teenagers. On the way, she worries: Perhaps Michael shouldn’t be giving interviews. “You’re not my lawyer, Mom,” he says. “I’m going to do what I want to do.”
Over burgers and Diet Cokes at JD’s Restaurant on Main Street, we discuss Lindsay’s first pop single, “Rumors,” the lyrics of which (“I’m tired of rumors starting / I’m sick of being followed / I’m tired of people lying”) could have been penned by her father. “It sounds like she wrote it for me and her,” he says. “I wonder if she did, and Dina just didn’t want to tell anyone.”
He speaks of Lindsay in almost the same way that reasonably intelligent people sometimes indulge in speculation about celebrities they don’t know. “Lindsay has a good head on her shoulders,” he says. “She was forced to grow up too quickly, but she uses the knowledge she’s gained to the best of her ability.”
Earlier that week, Lohan and his attorney, Dominic Barbara, had announced that, as part of the divorce battle, they would seek half the 15 percent fee Dina reportedly earns for managing Lindsay’s career. Lohan estimates that Lindsay makes as much as $40 million a year, which he believes entitles him to $3 million. Lohan explains that he is not going after Lindsay’s money, but his wife’s cut of Lindsay’s money—and he says he’s doing that only because he sees so many other people living off Lindsay’s career. He’s her father, after all.
But during our lunch it becomes clear that the alimony suit is not Lohan’s endgame. He slides a settlement proposal across the table, which goes something like this: Let’s forget the whole restraining- order thing and put the divorce on hold—just long enough to make a reality show called Living With the Lohans: Over, or Starting Over? The treatment reads, “Join the Lohans as they invite you into their home, their lives, at work, play and even through their personal trials, as they go through what could be one of this decade’s most high profile and controversial celebrity divorces.”
“We as a family have been offered a deal with one of the biggest production companies in reality TV,” Lohan says. “It’s a multi-multi-multi-million-dollar deal.” His “Term Sheet for Divorce Action As Per Living With the Lohans” boils down to an ultimatum: If Dina agrees to make the show, then at the end of shooting, she can have an uncontested divorce, assuming she still wants it, and will not pay Michael “one red cent”; Michael will keep the licensing rights for Living With the Lohans. Otherwise, prepare for a nasty court fight.
But seeping out between the lines of that document is Lohan’s realization of what his non-televised reality is shaping up to be: divorce from his wife, estrangement from his children, jail if he tries to see any of them, and obscurity if he leaves them alone. Friends have abandoned him. The Lowdown is on life support. The Post’s Cindy Adams, who once championed his creativity, dismissed him last week by reporting that he calls up columnists “crying on the phone.” It can’t be easy being Michael Lohan.
The conclusion of his proposition to Dina reads as half-plea, half-threat: “By the end of the day, she’ll be broke, broken, and in a nut house with a nervous breakdown. Doesn’t she understand that I am the ONLY SUCKER who forgives her?”