A P.I. is asked to investigate the reigning box office champ for an endorsement deal. 2,412 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
McNulty didn’t look anything like what he was. And what he was was one of the best private eyes in Hollywood. Sure, others in the profession preferred confidential investigator, but McNulty liked the slangy old school designation. It had a nice earthy ring to it.
McNulty gave Musso & Frank’s the once over. It was still the same: comfortable, discrete and out-of-the-way. Which is why McNulty always chose it whenever a prospective client wished to retain his services. As always, McNulty arrived thirty minutes early to secure the back corner booth before regulars and tourists streamed in for lunch amid the dark hardwood paneling, white linen tablecloths, worn red leather booths and polished mahogany bar where many of the town’s biggest celebs, current and long gone, were known to knock back a few.
“The usual,” McNulty told the red-jacketed waiter who looked as old as the Hollywood sign.
“Glen Livet, neat,” the waiter said with a slight bow. “Coming right up.”
McNulty leaned back and closed his eyes. For a few moments, he imagined Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, elbows on the bar and shot glasses in their fists, swapping lies about their latest investigations. Funny thing, though: in his mind’s eye, they both looked like Humphrey Bogart because he’d played their characters in classic films.
“Mister McNulty? I’m—“
“Doyle Ogilthorpe, I know,” McNulty said, beckoning him to sit down. “You’re a Partner and the Executive Creative Director at Platinum Partners Media Group. You’re 42 years old, married with two kids – both in high school – and your wife is a business manager with Topper-Sterling financial advisors.”
“You’ve done your homework.”.
“I also know where you were born, where you went to school, what religious you are, how much you pay in taxes and what you and your wife like to do in bed.”
“Oh?” Ogilthorpe said, somewhat startled.
“Sleep,” McNulty laughed.
Ogilthorpe managed an uneasy smile, realizing he’d been had.
“Relax. Just breaking the ice,” said McNulty. “So what can I do for you?”
“I’m surprised you don’t already know,” Ogilthorpe replied flippantly.
“I’m a P.I.,” McNulty cracked. “Not a clairvoyant.”
The waiter appeared with McNulty’s scotch. Ogilthorpe ordered one of Manny the bartender’s famous vodka martinis.
“Our agency is currently negotiating with an actor we’re considering to star in a major ad campaign. We’d like you to run a deep background check on Reed Saticoy.”
McNulty very nearly did a spit take. Reed Saticoy was America’s favorite movie star and Hollywood’s reigning box office champ. Right up there with Damon, Downey, Pratt and DiCaprio.
“You have my attention,” McNulty said. “That’s a big ‘get.’”
Over lunch, Ogilthorpe revealed how his biggest client’s newly installed marketing director was insisting on using a top tier celebrity who was cool, high-profile and exuded a sexy and sincere aura. To the client’s disappointment, Damon, Downey, Pratt and DiCaprio all had passed.
“How come?” McNulty asked. “They’ve done commercials before.”
“Mostly for foreign markets,” Ogilthorpe acknowledged. “This time it’ll be a major ad blitz across all the major U.S. media platforms — TV, cable, internet and mobile devices.”
“Saticoy agreed to this?”
“In principal. Now we have to do our due diligence. To make sure Instagram doesn’t show him snorting crack off a hooker’s ass.”
“Yeah, you can’t be too careful,” McNulty chuckled.
“On the upside, celebs can increase brand awareness and make an immediate impact when a new product is launched. The downside is something in their past, present or future can instantly derail a multimillion dollar ad campaign. They can jeopardize a company’s bottom line and reputation and turn it into a punchline on Kimmel.”
McNulty could see that Ogilthorpe wasn’t a fan of using celebrities to endorse a client’s products or services. The ad man firmly believed that the only celebs worth hiring were on the Oscars’ ‘In Memoriam’ list. “In my experience the downside always outweighs the upside. And then, just like that, it all goes sideways.”
Over lunch, Ogilthorpe ticked off a laundry list of celebrities who, for one reason or another, torpedoed their endorsement deals with scandalous or criminal behavior. Sure, these days clients and agencies could buy what the industry calls “disgrace insurance.” McNulty had done background checks for a few of the major studios for whom such a policy was just another line budget item.
“Ever work with a celeb who didn’t screw up?” McNulty asked.
“A few,” Ogilthorpe conceded. “One in particular. None other than the former heavyweight champion of the world.”
“You worked with Muhammed Ali?”
“Hands down the best celebrity experience of my career,” Ogilthorpe said and then launched into a story. Ali had arrived on the set and begun performing simple magic tricks, then proudly showed everyone how they were done.
“Like a little kid, huh?” McNulty asked.
“But that was nothing compared to his prankster side,” Ogilthorpe continued. Known for his quickness, Ali liked to sneak up behind cast and crew members and flick their ear lobe with his finger. In the half second it took them to turn around, Ali was yards away.
“What Ali didn’t know,” Ogilthorpe said with a sly smile, “was that I had been watching him do this all day long. And I figured he’d get to me sooner or later.” When the sting of Ali’s finger nipped Ogilthorpe’s ear, the ad man instantly spun around and caught the champ in mid-retreat.
“Do you know who you’re messing with?” Ogilthorpe snarled.
“Yeah,” Ali shot back. “The great white hope!”
The story never failed to provoke laughter from those who heard it. McNulty was no different. The P.I. was still chuckling when he and Ogilthorpe went out to collect their cars from the valet in the restaurant’s rear parking lot. While they waited, Ogilthorpe told another story about a celebrity endorsement deal that had affected one of his partners, Stu Bernbach, then a junior account executive at a big New York ad agency. The client was a large toy company about to unveil a new line for the Christmas season. The agency creatives had come up with a clever series of TV, radio and print ads, all built around a popular British comedian. The budget was well over a million dollars, a massive amount at the time. Two months later, everything was ready for his boss’s presentation to the client.
“On the day, Stu was on his way into the office when he hears on the radio that the comedian has died suddenly of a massive heart attack. Stu went into a complete panic and caught his boss on his way to the conference room and spewed out the bad news in one long babble. The boss just stood there very calmly, absorbing the shock, for what must’ve been a full minute. Then the boss looked Stu in the eye and told him to suppress the news for a year.”
“It turned out the report of the comedian’s death was erroneous so the campaign went forward as planned. But it served as a lesson: control the things you can, and screw the ones you can’t,” Ogilthorpe concluded. “How soon will you have a report on Saticoy?”
“Three or four weeks,” McNulty said. “I’ll be in touch.”
The two men shook hands and headed off to their respective offices. McNulty called and told his people they had some digging to do. During the course of the investigation over the next days and weeks, McNulty’s team scoured news archives, social networks, court and public records, DMV files and military documents to uncover any moral, legal or criminal transgressions. They also visited and interviewed Saticoy’s former and current colleagues, neighbors, girlfriends, teachers and relatives. They even sifted through his garbage for medical records, credit card statements and telephone bills. And despite it being illegal, McNulty planted listening devices in Saticoy’s bedrooms, trailer, cars, and the offices of his manager and publicist. All to expose anything shocking in Saticoy’s past.
Two weeks later, McNulty turned in his confidential and comprehensive report on the actor’s viability as a celebrity endorser. And six weeks since their first meeting, Ogilthorpe steered his Jaguar convertible past the old Warner Hollywood Studio lot and turned into the Formosa Café. It was a relic from the golden age of Hollywood and nearly as old. Built around a converted railroad car, the Formosa was a well-known watering hole. Ogilthorpe wondered what was it with McNulty and his affinity for these vintage showbiz haunts?
When his eyes adjusted to the dim lighting inside, Ogilthorpe spotted McNulty tucked into a booth at the far end. The wall behind the long polished bar was adorned with kitschy bric-a-brac, while the opposite wall was papered with dozens of signed celebrity headshots. The faces of Sinatra, Gable, Monroe, Presley, Brando and Bogart mingled with the new generation of Depp, DiCaprio and Downey.
“I feel like I just stepped into a Raymond Chandler novel,” Ogilthorpe said, sliding in across from McNulty. A freshly shaken vodka martini was waiting for Ogilthorpe on the table.
“Chandler was a regular,” McNulty said, sipping from a tumbler of Glen Livet. “Puked more than a few times on the bar.”
“How’s your head?” Ogilthorpe asked, gesturing to the bandage over McNulty’s left eye.
“Swelling’s gone down,” the P.I. said, touching it gingerly. “For a while there, AirBnB was asking if I wanted to list it as a duplex.”
Now anyone who’s familiar with detective work knows that, at some point, the private eye will undoubtedly confront a couple of Central Casting goons to be told in no uncertain terms to drop whatever case he may be investigating. That said, and this being Hollywood, McNulty was on the Reed Saticoy probe when the P.I. was reminded that this overused cliché could be painfully real.
“I can’t believe that still goes on,” Ogilthorpe said, shaking his head.
“In Hollywood, clichés are as inevitable as blow jobs at a casting session,” McNulty chuckled. He had interviewed the manager of an Echo Park apartment building Saticoy had once stayed when he first blew into Tinseltown as a struggling young actor. On the drive home, McNulty impulsively decided to stop by a movie theatre where two classic private eye flicks, Murder, My Sweet and Out Of The Past were showing as a double feature. He sat through both films and decided to make a pit stop before heading home. He was washing his hands at the bathroom sink when the two heavies stood menacingly behind him. McNulty called them Mazurskies after Mike Mazursky, an old time character actor who was often typecast as a bruiser. The P.I. knew immediately what they wanted. He also knew it would be punctuated with a few well-placed physical blows.
“Be outta here in a sec, boys,” McNulty said amiably, eyeing them in the mirror and pumping liquid soap into his hands. “You can fist each other until then.” The Mazurskies were not amused.
“We hear you’re investigating Reed Saticoy,” the first Mazursky said, cracking his knuckles. “It’d be smart if you stopped.”
McNulty turned to face the pair who were dressed incongruously like conventioneers in bad suits and ugly ties with "Hello, I’m…" nametags stuck to their lapels. “Tell you what: if you two lovebirds leave now, I won’t have to kick your asses.”
McNulty hoped that would provoke them, and it did. As they lunged, McNulty pushed both his hands into their faces and rubbed the liquid soap into their eyes. Blinded, the Mazurskies instinctively backed away, giving McNulty enough room to kick the first man squarely in the nuts and drop him to his knees. McNulty punched the second man’s midsection, then kneed him hard in the face, driving him backwards into the wall where he slowly slid to the floor.
Feeling very pleased with himself, McNulty smugly moved to escape through the bathroom door when… WHAM! It suddenly flew open as a curious usher entered. The edge cracked hard against McNulty’s forehead and opened a bloody gash that took ten stitches to close.
“Nailed me good,” McNulty recalled, tracing his thumb over the bandage. “I bled like the last act of a Quentin Tarantino movie.”
“Ever find out who the men were?” Ogilthorpe asked.
“A couple of stuntmen still in costume looking to make a few extra bucks.”
“Any idea who hired them?”
“Traced them back to Saticoy’s manager and publicist. Hollywood’s a small town. Once they heard we were digging into his background, they didn’t want what I discovered getting out.”
“Can’t blame them,” Ogilthorpe said. “It’s a career killer for sure.”
McNulty clinked his tumbler against Ogilthorpe’s martini glass. “To be honest, I didn’t see it coming.”
What McNulty discovered proved the pivotal factor in determining Saticoy’s unsuitability as a celebrity spokesman for Ogilthorpe’s firm. It was all there, neatly typed out in McNulty’s confidential and comprehensive 100-page report. The one secret America’s favorite movie star and Hollywood’s reigning box office champion had been, and still was, so desperate to keep hidden. A secret that, if it ever got out, no one in Hollywood could forgive.
McNulty slugged down the last of his scotch. “So your big ‘get’ turned out to be a big bust,” he declared to the ad man,
Ogilthorpe nodded. “Once the client found out, he immediately killed the deal. I still can’t get my head around it. Reed Saticoy – a registered Republican!”
“And an evangelical!” McNulty added.
Ogilthorpe downed his martini, removed an envelope from his jacket and slid it across the table toward McNulty. “Ten grand. A bonus for keeping us from stepping on our dicks.”
“It’s what I do,” McNulty shrugged, pocketing the envelope. “I’m guessing your client won’t insist on using another celebrity any time soon.”
“Actually, we’re talking to one right now,” Ogilthorpe confessed. “And no, we won’t need you to run a background check on him.”
“Mind if I ask who it is?”
“Don’t want to jinx it.But I will say he’s the best celebrity I ever worked with.”
It took a moment for McNulty to catch on.
“Son of bitch! You’re going after Ali!”
Ogilthorpe nodded. “The idea is to use a CGI likeness of him in his prime.”
“Fucking brilliant!” McNulty gushed. “And if he does die, you know exactly what to do.”
McNulty and Ogilthorpe choked out the words together.
“Suppress the news for a year!”