How A Bizarre Wiretapping Scandal Ruined The 'Die Hard' Director's Career
Director John McTiernan is responsible for some of the most badass sequences of images to be put into motion by the seventh art: he directed Die Hard, Predator, and the criminally underrated Last Action Hero, among other bangers. So how come he hasn't made a movie in nearly 20 years? It's a long story -- one involving illegal wiretapping, the mafia, and tremendous amounts of human stupidity.
It starts with Los Angeles Times reporter Anita Busch walking up to her car one day in 2002 and finding an upside-down baking tray on the windshield. Inside was a dead fish with a red rose in its mouth and a hand-lettered sign that said "STOP," which was weird because she hadn't ordered any of that. Oh, and the windshield appeared to have a bullet hole in it. When Busch called the police, they asked her who might be interested in telling her to "stop" and why, and she thought of this guy:
See, Busch had been writing about Steven Seagal's feud with his former producer and former BFF Julius R. Nasso -- at one point, Nasso and Seagal lived right next to each other and wore matching black outfits, but by 2000 their relationship had deteriorated to the point that Seagal didn't want to grace Nasso's next movie with his presence anymore. Reportedly, Nasso had hired members of the Gambino crime family to take Seagal to a nice lunch where they threatened to kill him if he didn't make four more movies for Nasso or compensate him financially for the "millions" he was missing out on (bear in mind that at this point, Seagal was already strictly a direct-to-video guy, so the mobsters' math was suspect).
Seagal, who said he was armed during the lunch but didn't use the weapon (it's unclear if he was simply talking about his biceps), later admitted he hired another mobster to act as "peacemaker," though Nasso's defense claimed he wasn't very peaceful. Busch wondered to the FBI if Seagal or someone connected to him had left that "message" on her windshield, either because he didn't want people to know about his mob connections or because the whole thing made him look like a chump.
Another suspect for Busch was Hollywood agent and one-time Walt Disney Company president Michael Ovitz, whose financial shenanigans she was covering for the New York Times. Seagal and Ovitz had one thing in common: they'd both hired Anthony Pellicano, who was known around Hollywood as a "fixer" because he went around "fixing" stars' problems, often via a dramatically delivered series of expletives. For instance, one critic claimed he once got a threatening phone call from Pellicano right after daring to write an unflattering article about Seagal, which allegedly ended with the fixer saying: "I'm not only a tough guy, I'm connected to the right people, you a**hole."
(Above: "the right people," presumably.)
But, unlike Seagal's, Pellicano's tough guy talk wasn't just talk. When the feds raided his office to find out if he was the one who threatened the LA Times reporter, they found much more dangerous than dead fish: he had two grenades and enough military-grade C-4 explosives to "bring down an airplane." In fact, according to an ex-con who said he was hired by Pellicano to spook Busch, the original idea was to blow up her car, but the ex-con himself talked it down to a ruined windshield.
This was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to Pellicano. As the feds looked into him, they found evidence that he was involved in racketeering, witness tampering, identity theft, computer fraud, wire fraud, and the juiciest crime of all in Hollywood: wiretapping. The feds alleged that Pellicano had illegally spied on everyone from Nicole Kidman (during her divorce from Tom Cruise) to Sylvester Stallone to SNL's Kevin Nealon. At one point, he was involved in a bizarre saga involving Chris Rock, a Hungarian model, and a Kleenex with Rock's spunk preserved in a freezer (not Pellicano's, we should note).
Pellicano had a strange magnetism to him that not even Hollywood actresses could resist. During the long trial against him, he managed to get not one but two stars/girlfriends to go to bat for him. Sandra Will Carradine, former wife of Deadwood's Keith Carradine, not only posted Pellicano's $400,000 bail when he was arrested but also ended up pleading guilty to perjury for claiming she didn't know anything about her boyfriend tapping her ex's phone. Even more bizarrely, Linda Fiorentino, a central character in the first Men in Black and Kevin Smith's Dogma, got an FBI agent she was dating to show her some confidential files related to Pellicano's case by telling him she was researching a role based on that story. It turned out Fiorentino was an old flame of Pellicano and only did that to hand the FBI files to his lawyers and try to keep him out of jail. For all his other faults, Pellicano was apparently such a good boyfriend that even his exes were willing to ruin their careers for him (Fiorentino hasn't been in any movies since then).
Speaking of ruined careers, that's how we come to John McTiernan. When looking into Pellicano, the feds found out that McTiernan had hired him to spy on his producer, Charles Roven. Why? Because of ... Rollerball.
No, McTiernan wasn't trying to get out of making that cinematic turd, which currently sits at 3% on Rotten Tomatoes. In fact, he was so passionate about the project that he hired Pellicano just because he disagreed with Roven "about what kind of movie it should be" (presumably, Roven insisted on "not a turd"). What McTiernan didn't know was that his conversations with Pellicano about wiretapping were themselves wiretapped since the feds were all over Pellicano's case by now. Presented with the undeniable evidence that he'd conspired to spy on Roven, McTiernan pled guilty ... only to go back and say, wait, no, I'm totally innocent when he changed lawyers, suddenly claiming he had no idea about Pellicano's spy activities.
By doing that, McTiernan successfully parlayed a three months sentence into a year-long one and wrecked his career and finances. All because of Rollerball. Should Mr. McTiernan be reading this article, here's a video of Seagal "fighting off" multiple opponents to cheer him up.
As for Pellicano, he served 16 years in prison and was released in 2019. He has since written a novel, appeared in Alec Baldwin's podcast, and gone back to work as "totally not a fixer," since he's legally barred from serving as a private investigator. Now he's into "crisis management," which is a completely different thing. "People like to call me a fixer. The term I use is negotiator. I negotiate on behalf of clients. Am I doing anything illegal? No, I'm not," he said, believably.
McTiernan is currently making his first film in 20 years in France, where American directors go to die, and it appears to be some sci-fi thing. If he was smart, he'd team up with Pellicano again and make a movie about that, maybe with a few extra explosions thrown in there to spice things up. They already know where to get the C-4.
Thumbnail: 20th Century Studios, K Zhestovskaya/Wikimedia Commons