Brushes with the law can destroy careers


Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was at the height of his silent film career in 1921 when his association with a drunken party and the death of a struggling actress with a playgirl reputation brought it all crashing down.

The woman, Virginia Rappe, suffered a ruptured abdomen during a Labor Day melee in San Francisco and died four days later. Arbuckle, a 250-pound man known for partying hard, was charged three days later with her rape and murder, despite little evidence against him.

Arbuckle, who had previously signed a three-year contract with Paramount Pictures for $1 million per year, was eventually cleared of the crime, but his star turn as a comic was finished.

Long before Michael Jackson's acquittal in a Santa Maria, Calif., court yesterday on a variety of counts, careers in entertainment had been destroyed or diminished by criminal charges.

Former football legend O.J. Simpson's career in movies and television and product endorsements was never the same even after he was found innocent of killing his former wife and her lover in 1995, as the nation remained split over the verdict.

A generation earlier, director Roman Polanski, whose films included A Knife in the Water and Rosemary's Baby, fled the United States for France because he feared being convicted for the rape of a 13-year-old girl.

Even charges of lesser crime can dampen a career, from singer George Michael, charged with lewd conduct in a Los Angeles public restroom in 1998, to children's television comedian Pee Wee Herman, who was arrested at an adult movie theater in 1991 for indecent exposure.

Numerous celebrities have endured brushes with the law or the lewd and seen minor impact on their careers - or even greater celebrity because of it. Witness hotel heiress Paris Hilton, whose "Q rating" and opportunities skyrocketed after a sex tape featuring her circulated on the Internet two years ago.

Actor Hugh Grant continued as a popular movie star after being arrested for soliciting a prostitute in 1995 and then appearing on the Tonight show to discuss it with Jay Leno.

Marv Albert resumed his sportscasting career with several networks, including NBC, not long after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of assault and battery in 1997. In a sordid case, he was revealed as a cross-dresser, and a woman alleged he had bitten her back.

"A touch of scandal does seem to help celebrity much more than it used to," said Mario Almonte, vice president of the PR Group for Herman Associates, a marketing firm in New York. "Before, it could sidetrack a career in a very serious way."

Despite predictions a year ago that a five-month sentence in a business scandal would end Martha Stewart's polished image, she rebounded out of prison, signing deals for her own channel on satellite radio and for her version of Donald Trump's TV reality show The Apprentice. Although the Internet can amplify scandal, Stewart spun the Web to her advantage, using her company site to communicate with fans during her trial.

"Nowadays everybody feels like an insider because of the nature of the Internet and celebrity shows that didn't exist 10 or 15 years ago," said Patrick Carone, entertainment editor for Stuff Magazine, a men's publication. "Everybody feels like an insider and that they can draw their own opinions."

Public fascination with media stars and criminal allegations long predates the electronic age, however.

In the 1920s, Arbuckle's girth made him easy fodder for sensationalized news reports. There were reports that he crushed the woman with his body and violated her with a champagne bottle and ice pick. Voluntary and state bans were imposed on his movies. He was forced to change his name to William Goodrich, the first and middle names of his father, to get work.

Arbuckle was declared not guilty after three trials, including two mistrials, but the stigma persisted. He somewhat revived his career in movies in 1932 but died of a heart attack a year later at age 46 before he had recovered his reputation.

In 1977, Polanski's career was frozen for years after he was accused of raping aspiring actress and model Samantha Geimer, 13. The director, under the guise that he was taking photos of the girl for the French edition of Vogue, took Geimer to Jack Nicholson's house in Bel Air while the actor was away. After a dip in a hot tub, Polanski gave the girl champagne and Quaaludes before having sex with her. He fled the United States and did not return to claim the Academy Award he had won for best director for the film The Pianist in 2002.

In the late 1950s, the singer Jerry Lee Lewis almost watched his career vanish after he married his 13-year-old second cousin, Myra Gale Brown, an act not accepted well by his fans. In England, he was forced to cancel his concert tour because of bad press. Record stores in the United States removed his music, and a movie in which he starred also slumped. The early rock-and-roll star eventually divorced Brown, but his career was greatly tarnished.

Perhaps a favorable sign for Jackson's eventual rehabilitation in the public eye is that TV ratings for the 15-week trial were far lower then expected.

Predictions of certain demise might be premature, judging from another case that revolted the public: Woody Allen's marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his longtime lover, Mia Farrow, exposed the actor-director to great ridicule, but his personal life didn't prevent him from continuing to produce acclaimed movies.

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