December 6, 2023

Guard Dog to the Stars (Legally Speaking)

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 Jr. to start their law firm, Lavely Singer. It reads: “Your intuitions in business decisions are good.”

On the firm’s first anniversary, Mr. Singer recalls, he and Mr. 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, Mr. Singer and his firm of 15 lawyers have emerged as Hollywood’s 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 Mr. 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.

“He’s 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 Mr. Singer for help with contracts gone wrong, business relationships gone bad or most any other sort of problem.

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

Lately, Mr. 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 Mr. Sheen off the hit television show “Two and a Half Men.”

“I really believe Charlie Sheen is a victim,” says Mr. 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.

When Jeremy Piven dropped out of a Broadway production of “Speed-the-Plow” in 2008, Mr. Singer was there — to argue that Mr. Piven had been forced out by mercury poisoning from eating too much fish.

(In a union arbitration with producers, Mr. Piven prevailed.)

Mr. Singer helped save Arnold Schwarzenegger, while he was California’s 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 Mr. Schwarzenegger fathered a child outside his marriage.

In 2006, Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada and the majority leader, hired Mr. Singer to deal with a news report that criticized a land transaction. (Mr. Singer says he doesn’t recall what he did for his reported fee of $25,000, and a spokesman for the senator did not respond to queries.)

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

“That’s been resolved,” Mr. Singer says. Mr. Tarantino has since finished his latest screenplay.

“Some people said it’s the best script he’s ever written, because he had the peace and quiet,” Mr. Singer says.

IT is a Monday afternoon in early May. Just outside the door of Mr. Singer’s 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.

“Let’s demand a retraction,” comes the low, throaty command.

Mr. Singer is remarkable for transformations that turn what Mr. 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, you’re in for a fight,” says Mr. Stallone, who has had Mr. Singer go to bat for him in court.

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