March 26, 2001 12:00 PM

With the post-Golden Globes party in full swing at Trader Vic’s in Beverly Hills on the night of Jan. 21, FOX television producer Bill Cipolla slipped away to use the men’s room. “I was stopped in the hallway by an army of guys in tuxedos, and I thought they were simply waiting in line to use the bathroom,” he says. “So, we’re standing making small talk and waiting and waiting and waiting, until finally Russell Crowe emerges from the bathroom and all these guys fall in around him.” In all, Cipolla recalls, six, perhaps eight, tuxedoed escorts attended the Aussie superstar. At the time, says Cipolla, who has covered his share of Hollywood award events, “I thought, ‘That’s a long way to go for a star to use the bathroom.’ ”

Now it all makes sense. On March 6 the FBI confirmed reports that the Oscar-nominated Gladiator star was the target of an abduction threat. The feds subsequently declined to comment on a British press report of “gangsters” bent on extorting millions of dollars in ransom. Instead FBI spokeswoman Laura Bosley said simply, “We have to investigate until we reach a conclusion. I couldn’t tell you what the outcome will be, but it’s continuing.” As for those undercover guys outside the men’s room, an FBI source says, “It’s common knowledge that the FBI was at the Golden Globe Awards.”

With no evidence yet made public of either a threat or a plot, skeptics are having a field day. After all, Crowe, 36, is the same star whose highly publicized affair with Meg Ryan, 39, costar of his latest film, Proof of Life, ended last December, around the same time the film tanked in the U.S. Now, just when Proof is hitting screens in Europe and Australia, comes word of the mysterious threat—a plot twist seemingly straight out of Proof, in which Crowe plays a hostage negotiator working in South America. “Call me a cynic, but the timing is extraordinary,” says a top British security source.

Usually tight-lipped, the FBI is taking pains to put out the word that the Crowe threat was no prank. “This is not a publicity stunt,” says Bosley. “We wouldn’t expend the resources unless we believed there was a credible threat.”

Concern for the peripatetic Crowe, who treats international air routes like the fast lanes on one giant interstate, seems justified given the explosion of kidnappings outside the U.S. over the last decade, particularly in Latin America. “We reckon there were something between 12,000 and 15,000 reported kidnappings worldwide last year, which might only be 10 percent of the total figure,” says Gerald Moore, managing director of Inkerman, one of Britain’s top kidnap-prevention organizations. “It’s an industry.” Ann Hagedorn Auerbach, author of the 1998 book Ransom: The Untold Story of International Kidnapping, says that over the last 15 years kidnapping for ransom “has become a big business, a well-known way to make money. The kidnappers’ perception is that the higher the profile of the individual, the deeper the pockets.”

It would be hard to find a man with a higher profile than Russell Ira Crowe, who stands a decent chance of walking away on March 25 with the Oscar for Best Actor, thanks to his stoic, smoldering performance in Gladiator. “He is in a league with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino—definitely a heavyweight,” says Michael Mann, director of The Insider, for which Crowe won his first Oscar nomination last year. Later this month Crowe will begin shooting Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, in which he plays Nobel-winning mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr.—just the sort of professional stretch on which the actor seems to thrive.

Publicly he jokes about the kidnapping threat. At the Oscar nominees’ luncheon in L.A. on March 12 he joked about what it might be like for kidnappers trapped in a small room with him. “They’d be on the phone going, ‘Look! We’ve passed the hat around, and we’ve got a couple hundred bucks if you can take him off our hands!’ ” The blithe tone suits Crowe’s reputation as an Aussie bloke who’s as tough as the Outback is dry. Despite his A-list credentials in Hollywood, Crowe regards a stuntman as a wimpy accessory (that’s the man himself hanging out of a helicopter in Proof), treats rugby as a religion (he had jerseys flown in for a match on the Maltese set of Gladiator) and has a history of bar fights in which biting is considered an option.

At the same luncheon Crowe told reporters that when the FBI first approached him in January, “I was probably taking the situation a lot less seriously than they did.” Since then, friends say, Crowe has wised up. “It’s pretty serious when anyone’s personal life gets stepped on like that,” says his Gladiator costar Djimon Hounsou. “He’s being careful.”

Cooperating with authorities is a departure for the headstrong Crowe. A high school dropout who, by his own admission, was “an embarrassment” to his parents, caterers Alex and Jocelyn Crowe, he has been known to stomp off sets when he doesn’t get his way. His willingness to work with the G-men may owe something to his experience working on Proof. Shortly before the film’s U.S. premiere, Crowe said at a press briefing that when he first received the script he knew little about kidnapping. Then he launched into an informed discourse about the “K and R business”—professional security lingo for kidnap and ransom—peppered with information he had learned from K and R specialists while shooting the film. As for kidnappers, Crowe said, “I don’t think I can sympathize with this particular way of getting your point across.”

If Crowe is an unwitting victim, he is not an improbable one. Though U.S. kidnappings are on the decline (in contrast to the global trend), celebrities remain an obvious target. “It’s not unusual to have a threat like that, especially when you’re dealing with high-profile people,” says the FBI’s Bosley. “It’s not unusual, especially in Los Angeles, where most of them live or at least visit.” Author Auerbach says she was not surprised by the threat against Crowe. When she was researching her book, she says she was warned that she could become a target of kidnappers wanting to make a name for themselves by abducting a journalist investigating their activity. “So,” she says, “when [Crowe’s] movie came out, I thought, ‘He’s getting a lot more publicity and attention for that movie than I got. Oh my God, this guy is a target!’ ”

Last week a discreet but tight cordon of security personnel attended Crowe as he maintained a busy schedule of pre-Oscar appearances. On March 9, following two special screenings of Gladiator in L.A., at least two security guards kept close watch on him as he fielded giggly questions from a largely female audience. Two nights later Crowe was surrounded by guards as he chatted with Kate Winslet and Joaquin Phoenix at the party following the Screen Actors Guild Awards (where Crowe lost to Traffic‘s Benicio Del Toro in the Best Actor category).

Since early January Crowe has maintained tight security while jetting between three continents to promote Proof and to attend awards events honoring Gladiator. In London he reserved two additional rooms at the Athenaeum Hotel to accommodate his minders. “It was the first time he’s ever had bodyguards,” says a hotel source. “He’s just not that sort of person.” In the end Crowe chose instead to stay at the Dorchester, where all the press meetings took place. (The hotel declines to say if he had his security entourage in tow.) “High-profile people need to take measures, and the most effective one is unpredictability,” notes Andreas Carleton-Smith, a vice president for Control Risks Group, an international firm that specializes in corporate investigations, security and kidnap situations.

While the FBI has acknowledged only one instance of attending Crowe in public, it is unclear how often his retinue has included federal agents. “We don’t do protection, like the Secret Service,” says Matthew McLaughlin, the FBI spokesman in L.A. “For celebrities we do investigative work, and sometimes that requires us to go undercover.” On this point Scotland Yard is even less forthcoming. “We don’t discuss matters of personal protection,” says Angie Evans of the Yard’s specialist operations unit. “We do not discuss security issues, ever.”

The FBI, it appears, only wishes that were so. Last month, around the time that Crowe was promoting Proof in London, the FBI apprised Scotland Yard of its investigation. Lucy Panton, the crime reporter at Britain’s Sunday People who broke the kidnapping story, says Crowe was then interviewed at length by a female officer in the Yard’s Criminal Intelligence Branch. (“The joke in their office afterwards was ‘God, if it’s taken that long, she obviously fancies him,’ ” says Panton.) Subsequently, Panton says, she got her “tip-off from someone who knew the officer who did the interview.” The FBI’s Bosley says she does not know the source of the leak, but says that “in light of the fact that this was already disclosed from another source, we did go ahead and confirm it.”

Greg Boles, director of global-threat management for New York-based Kroll Associates, one of the world’s largest private investigative firms, sees cause to worry when such incidents are revealed. “It could have a contagious effect,” he warns. “Other people could get the idea and attempt a similar plot on someone else.”

But then, what exactly is the plot? The FBI isn’t saying what the threat was, who made it, when it was made or why Crowe was the target. It will not reveal whether it believes the threat was made by a hotheaded novice or a seasoned professional. “No arrest is imminent,” says a security expert acquainted with the investigation.

While some security experts believe the recent publicity has made an attempted abduction of Crowe less likely, that doesn’t mean that whoever made the threat has packed up and gone away. “If, in fact, the announcement has thwarted this kidnapping,” says Patrick Mullany, former administrative agent in charge of the FBI office in L.A., “our thinking is always that, if it is a credible plot, the suspects will just switch targets.”

Jill Smolowe

Nina Biddle and Pete Norman in London, Lyndon Stambler, Vicki Sheff-Cahan, Michelle Caruso, Meg Grant, Elizabeth Leonard, Karen Brailsford, Mark Dagostino and Marisa Laudadio in Los Angeles and Sandra Lee in Sydney

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