GET OUT YOUR SCANDAL SCORECARDS, IT’S TIME TO play Name That Weasel. Can you identify the middle-aged mogul who split with his wife before a pricey prenup kicked in—and then bragged about his timing? (Yep, The Donald.) And who was that strayin’ sexagenarian who fooled around behind his wife’s back—but in front of America’s tackiest video? (Touchdown if you said Frank Gifford.) Was it Martin Lawrence or Charlie Sheen who allegedly went off the deep end once again? (Both of the above.) True or false: did Eddie Murphy go out for a magazine and wind up with a male prostitute dressed like a woman? (Strange, but true.) And finally: are the Kennedys back in the news for having problems with women? (Answer: true, but, alas, not strange.)
So far it has been a superb spring for azaleas and fly-fishing—and a phenomenally horrible one for male celebs. From the seriously criminal to the incorrigibly silly, men who should know better are making headlines for allegedly getting into fights with taxi drivers (Yankee pitcher Dwight Gooden) and being accused of assault (actor Billy Bob Thornton and—this still takes getting used to—sportscaster Marv Albert). No doubt about it, we’re being bombarded by nightly bulletins on the latest bad-boy crises, thanks in no small part to the scandal-tuned antennae of an ever-vigilant media. About the only good news is that Jay Leno’s monologue practically writes itself every night. To paraphrase Leno’s pointed question to Hugh Grant after his 1995 arrest with a hooker: what the hell are these guys thinking?
Of course loutish behavior is nothing new, and the roots of the problem haven’t changed since the invention of celebrity. Some famous men “really start thinking they’re godlike,” says Los Angeles marriage counselor Rhoda Marcovitch. “They’re put on a pedestal and start to think that their fame and charisma will get them through anything. They really believe they have that magic.”
A good example: Donald Trump. The New York City real estate and casino magnate seems not at all concerned that his public image might suffer for dumping the dazzling blonde woman for whom he dumped his dazzling blonde first wife, Ivana, seven years ago. He actually sought out the press in early May to gleefully announce his intention to file for divorce, comfortably beating a Dec. 20, 1998, deadline, he pointed out, that would have upped Maria’s settlement from the $l-to-$5 million range to an unknown but presumably higher percentage of his estimated $2.5 billion fortune. “I’m not at all upset” about the breakup, he said, noting that he would deal with the unpleasant business of the custody of their 3-year-old daughter, Tiffany, later. Some well-to-do men, says New York divorce lawyer Raoul Felder, who represented Robin Givens, reach a point “where power makes them moral imbeciles.”
It certainly wasn’t a quest for intellectual stimulation that brought 66-year-old Frank Gifford to New York City’s Regency Hotel for two rendezvous with TWA flight attendant Suzen Johnson, 46, the second on May 1, only hours after he lunched with his wife, Kathie Lee. Gifford met Johnson on a flight in 1993 and had kept up a telephone relationship for years before one of their afternoon trysts was caught on videotape, courtesy of the tabloid The Globe, which instigated the sleazefest by paying the married Johnson a reported $75,000 to arrange the visit. “They set him up with temptation,” says John Gray, author of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. “Unlike women, men get turned on physically first, then think later.”
When these guys do get to thinking, though, they often come up with some amazing excuses. Eddie Murphy told L.A. sheriff’s deputies that he had jumped into his Toyota Land Cruiser and headed down Santa Monica Boulevard at 4:45 on the morning of May 2 because he was looking for something to read. With his wife, Nicole, and their three children visiting her mother in Sacramento, the actor, in town to film Doctor Dolittle, said he had grown restless in his rented house and had gone out to pick up a couple of perfectly respectable magazines. But the deputies seemed more interested in the 20-year-old male preoperative transsexual prostitute named Atisone Seiuli sitting next to him. Murphy explained he was simply giving Seiuli a lift, and the actor was not charged with any illegal activity. “My wife knows that I didn’t do anything,” he told PEOPLE, before adding, “Sometimes I go out and do nice things for people on the street.”
Could this possibly be true? At least one expert thinks yes. “With a fair number of celebrities, I find this desperate anxiety to be loved,” says psychiatrist Frank Pittman, “by large numbers of strangers, by single strangers, by anybody who knows them.” But psychotherapist Susan Forward, author of Emotional Blackmail, takes a dimmer view of the incident. “Someone like Eddie Murphy or Hugh Grant, whose career is doing well and who has a gorgeous wife, they just get so damn jaded,” she says. “They see a diamond in Tiffany’s window and don’t think of getting caught; they just take it.”
Some prominent men have been accused of even trying to rewrite history. Consider the case of Robert Kennedy’s son Joseph, 44, a Massachusetts congressman expected to run for governor of the state. Divorced in 1991 after 12 years of marriage to Sheila Rauch, with whom he has twin 16-year-old sons, Joseph successfully petitioned the Catholic Church in 1993 to grant him an annulment so he could remarry. Outraged by the action, which means that in the eyes of the Church her marriage never existed, Sheila vented her anger in a new book, Shattered Faith—and is currently appealing the decision to the Vatican. Meanwhile the public flap about the annulment could deal a serious blow to Kennedy’s political career. Says Ronald Kessler, author of the scathing Kennedy exposé The Sins of the Father: “There’s a recklessness that runs throughout the family.”
Joe’s behavior has lately been overshadowed, however, by the scandal surrounding his 39-year-old brother, Michael. In April the respected Boston Globe reported that Michael, head of a nonprofit group that provides heating fuel to the poor, was caught in bed two years ago with the babysitter—then all of 17—by his wife (and Frank Gifford’s daughter), Victoria. So far, Michael has not denied or confirmed the accusations, while the girl has not filed statutory rape charges. Speaking for many, Brookings Institute senior fellow Stephen Hess asks, “How long will the public tolerate this ‘boys will be boys’ mentality? Just how much can they get away with for how long?”
Good questions, but the answers may be “plenty” and “indefinitely.” There seems nothing so resilient as a certified jerk. Take actor/party animal Charlie Sheen, 31, whose reputation is almost as bad as his movies. Sheen is currently being sued by ex-flame Brittany Ashland, 25, who alleges he threw her to the ground and pounded her face against a marble floor last Dec. 20. Sheen’s short fuse, though, hasn’t affected his career: his latest film, Money Talks, is due this August. But before he suits up for its premiere, he’ll have to make an appearance in court to face a misdemeanor battery charge on June 9. Ashland’s attorney Gloria Allred believes she needs a strong case when facing a high-profile opponent. “Rarely do celebrity men take responsibility for their actions,” she says, adding that there is a double standard of justice in America, “one for celebrities and one for everyone else.”
Her theory will be tested in the case of Billy Bob Thornton, who came out of nowhere—actually, Hot Springs, Ark.—to win a writing Oscar last March for Sling Blade. Three weeks after receiving the Award, he received divorce papers from his fourth wife, Pietra Dawn, who won a separate restraining order after alleging that Thornton physically, verbally, emotionally and mentally abused her over four years of marriage. Thornton, who is now reportedly dating Laura Dern, has denied the charges—allegations that “may make him look bad in divorce court but won’t hurt his career,” says one high-powered Hollywood agent. “It’s not as if he’s known for being Mr. Sensitive. He’s not Tom Hanks.”
Martin Lawrence’s problem may be that he’s too sensitive: the TV star has a long history of losing his temper and getting physical. On March 28, Lawrence, 32, allegedly punched a man at an L.A. nightclub—this after being charged in a suit with sexual harassment by Tisha Campbell, who co-starred on his now-canceled show Martin (the suit was later settled). The actor is also accused of violent outbursts by his estranged wife, Patricia, who in the course of divorce proceedings claimed that Lawrence “has been shown to behave irrationally when under the influence” of marijuana. The good news is that his court date to answer assault charges doesn’t clash with the July 11 opening of his latest film, Nothing to Lose.
More good news for Lawrence: it seems that few public images are beyond saving. Charlie Sheen, for instance, apparently thinks he can put a new spin on his persona with the alteration of a few letters. In early May he formally asked the media to refer to him henceforth as the more dignified Charles. “By and large, Americans are a forgiving people,” says L.A. publicist Larry Goldman, who worked for Paul Reubens, aka Pee-wee Herman, after Reubens’s arrest on an indecent exposure charge in 1991. “People make mistakes. It’s when they are not honest with fans that they can do some damage to their careers.”
The public likes to create idols, and to forgive idols, but in between, “we like to knock our idols off their pedestals, because it makes us feel better,” says Steven Berglas, Harvard psychologist and author of The Success Syndrome: Hitting Bottom When You Reach the Top. Allegations alone can taint powerful people. Yankee pitcher Dwight Gooden, on the comeback trail from drug abuse that got him booted from baseball in 1994, was accused of assault by an Arlington, Texas, taxi driver. The driver claims he picked up Gooden at a strip club around 2 a.m. on May 18, then was pummeled by the pitcher, who refused to pay his $5 fare. Even if cleared of the charges, Gooden, 32, may have endangered his baseball future.
And sportscaster Marv Albert, accused by a 41-year-old Virginia woman of savagely biting her and forcing her to perform oral sex on Feb. 12, found himself grouped with Frank Gifford and even O.J. Simpson in media accounts even before he had a chance to tell his story to police—and before reports surfaced that his accuser is awaiting trial for threatening to kill her former boyfriend, his girlfriend and his dog. “If Marv is innocent, as he says,” notes Goldman, “think about how scary all of this is for him.” Albert, 53, could face a life sentence if convicted of assault and forcible sodomy in a September trial.
One scandal-scarred veteran thinks not just Albert but even Murphy and Gifford are getting raw deals. Dick Morris, who was President Clinton’s chief political adviser before resigning last August after an affair with a call girl became public, told PEOPLE that “the furor over my horrendous behavior was fully justified. I worked for the President, pushed a values agenda, then violated a public trust. But to impose a similar standard on a comedian, former football player, and sportscaster is ridiculous.”
Yet whatever the standard, one constant, says Franklin Graham, 44, is people who sin. He should know; the once wayward, hard-drinking son of the Reverend Billy Graham shot up a neighbor’s tree with a machine gun and led police on high-speed car chases before finding God and becoming a preacher at age 22. What he learned from reading the Good Book, Graham says, is that men behaved badly long before video cameras were invented to catch them. “It’s the same thing that’s been going on for thousands of years,” he notes. “The Bible says that a man’s heart is wicked and evil. And it is.”
DANELLE MORTON, MICHELE KELLER, LYNDON STAMBLER and LYNDA WRIGHT in Los Angeles, SUE MILLER and MARIA EFTIMIADES in New York City, JANE PODESTA in Washington, DON SIDER in Miami, and bureau reports