The Muck Stops Here
California Lawyer

The Muck Stops Here

Celebrities call on Marty Singer when they need to make a story disappear

July 2012

photo by Stephanie Diani

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Marty Singer's biggest successes may well be the ones you never hear about.

Sometimes they begin with a panicked call from a publicist or manager for a movie star, politician, or professional athlete. Typically, a tabloid story is slated to run about their client-and these stories rarely present heroic or exemplary behavior. Rather, they involve the client allegedly doing something he shouldn't have done, in a place he shouldn't have gone, with a person he shouldn't have been with. Sometimes there are photos.

When Singer receives one of these calls, he springs into action like a paramedic - but instead of trying to save a life, he does everything in his power to kill the story. Depending on the circumstances - including the tawdry tale's perceived veracity - Singer contacts the media outlet and employs intimidation (his go-to response), reason, appeals to humanity, horse-trading, or a cocktail mix of the above. If he can't get the story squelched, postponed, excised, played down, rebutted, or otherwise buried, Singer goes into damage-control mode. Often this involves at least the threat of legal action.

It's safe to say that Marty Singer's clients don't believe the adage that there's no such thing as bad publicity. Singer's phone number is programmed on so many Hollywood A-list speed dials precisely because he's willing to go to extreme lengths to make embarrassing (or worse) stories disappear.

His letters demanding cessation or retraction are legendary for their intimidating tone. Critics say he goes too far - and at least one judge agreed, ruling that Singer's "demand" letter crossed into extortion.

But before Singer confronts the offending media outlet, he will surmise whether the impending story is true. In the event it is (Singer estimates that 80 percent of celebrity "scandal" stories are BS, and he says almost all contain falsehoods), he will probe for weak spots - perhaps planting doubts about the source's credibility or motives, or about the legality of how the information was obtained. If that doesn't work, he might offer incentives - future exclusive interviews or photo shoots with the star, or something else - in exchange for 86-ing the story now.

Many of his clients are one-namers: Travolta, Stallone, Denzel, Angelina, Schwarzenegger, Gandolfini, Carrey, Roseanne, Tarantino, Johannson. Part of Singer's job is to keep names like theirs from being linked in the public's mind with a pejorative adjective - such as his own nickname, "Mad Dog." (Singer says he actually prefers "Pit Bull to the Stars.")

With his brushed-back hair, stocky six-foot frame, and matter-of-fact New York City inflection, Singer, 60, cuts an imposing figure. But despite his frothing-at-the-mouth nickname, in person he is mild-mannered, cordial, even genteel. He claims to work "insane" hours, and it's apparently true: When I marvel at the exquisite panoramic vista from his 24th-floor Century City office, Singer looks up from some papers, as if surprised. "Huh," he utters, looking out the window. "I never notice it. I'm on the phone all day."

Spend a little time with Singer, and you soon find yourself playing "Name the Brouhaha." It works like this: He mentions a client, and a juicy incident pops into your mind that Singer handled - John Travolta (male masseurs), Eddie Murphy (transvestite hooker), Jeremy Piven (dropping out of Speed-the-Plow with mercury poisoning), Charlie Sheen (being Charlie Sheen). But most of his cases involving celebrities don't rise to the "scandal" level: There are pregnancy murmurs, illegally obtained nude photos, and "relapse" rumors that must be dealt with. Singer also handles more conventional legal matters: contract disputes, product participation claims, and right-of-publicity issues. In one such dust-up, actor Jesse Eisenberg sued Lionsgate and Grindstone Entertainment over a low-budget horror flick in which Eisenberg, as his pre-Social Network self, took a small cameo part as a favor to friends, only to find his post-Social Network self advertised as the star of the flick when it was released on DVD.

Lincoln Bandlow of Lathrop & Gage in Los Angeles describes Singer as having a "New York style of litigation - very in-your-face." According to Bandlow, who opposed Singer in a defamation case involving actor Ryan O'Neal and a documentary producer, Singer is the first attorney he's aware of to include a line in demand letters stating that the contents are copyrighted, and on that basis can't be leaked to the media.

Though "celebrity" stories constitute only 20 percent of Singer's business, they generate the most press for him. The other 80 percent of his time is spent representing more run-of-the-mill clients (a jean manufacturing rep or a Korean importer, for instance), and handling real-estate, labor, and employment-related disputes, including sexual harassment charges. You may have heard about him repping Charlie Sheen and Kim Kardashian. But the photocopier manufacturer? Not so much.

Still, Singer insists he finds the business cases just as interesting as the A-list ones. "The only difference is the amount of media attention," he shrugs.

The photocopier kind pay better, too: If Singer makes a phone call that succeeds in getting a celebrity story spiked, the whole megillah is over in short order and he simply collects his $750 hourly rate.

Singer clearly relishes the street-fighting aspects of his job, which is why he doesn't consider himself an entertainment lawyer.

"Absolutely not," he says. "I'm a litigation lawyer."

Singer grew up in a lower middle-class Jewish household in Canarsie, Brooklyn. His father, Gyula, was an Austrian immigrant who started a silk-screen printing business. Sari, his mother, survived the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz; today she lives in Florida.

Singer attended City College of New York, at the same time helping out with Gyula's printing business because his father was very ill. After graduating he met and married his wife, Deena, and earned a law degree from Brooklyn Law School while running the family business on the side.

Turned off by New York's grime and crime (it was the summer of the "Son of Sam" murders), the couple moved to Southern California. While awaiting his bar exam results, Singer received a job offer - of sorts. The letter from Schiff, Hirsch & Schreiber put it this way: "If you are interested in a position as a law clerk with NO chance of full-time employment, call us." If that wasn't discouraging enough, the pay was ten dollars an hour. Singer seized the opportunity. The firm later reversed itself and in 1977 made him an associate, doing litigation research. But three years later the firm suddenly closed its doors. With a new mortgage, one young child, and another on the way, Singer immediately began searching for work. But then his supervising attorney at the firm, Jay Lavely, asked him, "Why don't we strike out on our own?" Singer replied, "Because you don't have any business, Jay." Lavely persisted, and when Singer came around the duo celebrated at a Chinese restaurant. Singer's fortune cookie read, "Your intuitions in business are good." On Lavely & Singer's first anniversary they returned to the restaurant - and Singer received the same fortune. (More than three decades later, both prognostications remain in his wallet.)

If any of Charlie Sheen's fortune cookies credited him with "good intuitions" last year, they clearly were mistaken. Yet when asked about "Mr. Tiger Blood," Singer doesn't hesitate for a second. "Very nice guy. Nev-er should've been fired from that show. Never."

Singer offers an impassioned, if somewhat unconventional defense of the former Two and a Half Men star, essentially that Sheen had been way crazier the year before, when he allegedly took drugs, attacked his wife with a knife, entered rehab, and faced felony charges. Yet the show's producers renewed his contract and almost tripled his salary. If they didn't fire him then ...

According to Singer, when Sheen returned, head writer/show runner Chuck Lorre told the actor he would have to wait a few weeks, and then appear in only four of the eight contracted episodes. As his lawyer tells it, that's when Sheen went haywire, bad-mouthing his bosses. But the only relevant point, Singer insists, is that the actor was "absolutely clean" at the time.

A couple days after Singer told me this, Lorre broke his long silence regarding Sheen, telling TV Guide: "You can't do that much cocaine and work. ... I didn't want to be writing a sitcom while my friend died. Or worse, hurt someone else." It's a poignant counterpoint to Singer's narrative.

Early in his career, Singer realized that being from New York gave him an advantage on the West Coast. "I'm very competitive. The attitude of the California lawyers was 'Let's go surfing. Hey, it's a nice day: Let's hit the beach!' "

And that competitiveness has not diminished. Singer has plenty of money, but he still works at least six days a week. "You know the difference between me and most lawyers of 35 years?" he asks, rhetorically. "I do the front-line things. I try my cases, I do the depositions. I tried five arbitrations last year." But he takes great pains to shower credit on the other attorneys and staff in his office. "I could never do this without them," he admits.

"This," of course, includes writing those notorious "demand" letters. "My letters are tough and aggressive, but factual and legal," he says. Singer uses the word "aggressive" a lot. As in, "In court, I'm very aggressive" and "I'm aggressive on behalf of my clients." (He claims he's less aggressive on the phone, where the other party is apt to just hang up.)

Aggressive, the letters surely are. Subtle, they are not.

A copy of a demand letter that Singer wrote to The Hollywood Reporter in July 2010 was posted online. In two-and-a-half single-spaced pages, some form of the word defamatory or defamation appears 10 times, malice or malicious (the standard for winning damages) 5, variations of false or blatantly false show up 13 times, and the rest of the missive is liberally strewn with provocative terms like smear campaign, character assassination, outrageous, slander/slanderous, and a warning that the recipients "will be exposed to significant liability" and "substantial damages." The cumulative effect is that of a bludgeon.

Nevertheless, Singer insists, "I'm always within the bounds, and ethical."

Recently, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mary Strobel begged to differ. Last summer Singer sent a demand letter on behalf of Shereen Arazm, who is, among other things, a judge on the TV show Top Chef Canada. The letter to VH1 Famous Food hosts Mike Malin and Lonnie Moore alleged that the two former business associates had embezzled money from Arazm. But along with threat to file a $1 million claim, Singer accused Malin of using company funds to "facilitate multiple sexual encounters" with older men. The letter omitted the identities of the purported sex partners, but it pointedly declared that "when the complaint is filed with the Los Angeles Superior Court, there will be no blanks in the pleading."

Malin responded by suing Singer for civil extortion, violation of his civil rights, and inflicting emotional distress. Singer moved to have the case dismissed under California's anti-SLAPP laws, but Judge Strobel ruled that Singer's demands were "conclusive evidence of extortion as a matter of law," by "imput[ing] to [Malin] some disgrace or crime or [to] expose some secret affecting him for purposes of obtaining money."

In response, Singer and his attorney, Jeremy B. Rosen of Horvitz & Levy, shot back the following, invoking "very broad privilege":

"Under the trial court's reasoning any lawyer's demand letter could likewise be found to constitute extortion because all demand letters provide that unless money (or other requested relief) is provided a lawsuit with unpleasant facts will be filed. Accordingly, we believe ... that the Court of Appeal will reverse the trial court's decision."

Though the anti-SLAPP ruling remains on appeal (Malin v. Singer, pending as No. B237804 (Cal. Ct. App., Second Dist.)), the case is set for trial next March. (Arazm v. Carri, Los Angeles Super. Ct. No. BC 466696.)

When asked what cases he's most proud of, Singer offers two. In the first, Paramount Pictures' lawyers told Singer that Tommy Lee Jones was "a fool" for following his advice to turn down a $1 million settlement offer. When the case subsequently went to arbitration, the actor was awarded $15 million. The second case was the legal equivalent of a High Noon showdown, defending N2K Inc. against a trio of lawyers for Ticketmaster - one each from Kaye, Scholer Fierman Hays & Handler; Katten, Muchin & Zavis; and Quinn, Emanuel, Urquhart & Oliver. Singer won a jury verdict of more than $1.5 million in damages via a cross complaint. (Ticketmaster Ticketing Co., Inc. v. N2K, Inc., No. BC 200194 (Los Angeles Super. Ct. jury verdict Nov. 13, 2000).)

As many hours as he puts in, Singer still manages to enjoy a little free time, which he devotes to Deena and their three grown children, playing golf, watching sports, and supporting charities.

But thoughts of retirement are out of the question since Singer loves what he's doing.

"I really believe that I am fighting for truth and justice for my clients," he says.

Stan Sinberg is a San Francisco-based writer who has worked as a columnist, satirist, and radio commentator.

Reader Comments

Frank B - July 6, 2012
Since when is it an accomplishment to bully or intimate to get your way? There is a file line between what is ethical and what simply is legalized harassment. Perhaps this type of behavior is more suited from the criminal defense industry than the entertainment arena. After showing your cards for someone that plays hard, how can any party opposing mister singer be expected to take his threats seriously? Sounds like bad practice and even worse marketing.
Anthony M. Amoscato - July 16, 2012
The article on Marty Singer, "The Muck Stops Here," was quite entertaining. Yes, he is aggressive with his use of the rules of Civil Procedure. However, if you retaliate as aggressively as he comes at you and conduct yourself courteously, he will respect your ability and deal with you professionally and cordially. I found him to be a worthy adversary whose bark is much worse than his bite.

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