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Hollywood's Suddenly Drunk on a Bartender's Idea

By Sharon Waxman
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 14, 1997


Stuff like this only happens in the movies. Seven weeks ago, Troy Duffy was tending bar in a West Hollywood dive, living off 14-cent ramen noodles, coffee and all the beer he could drink. Today he's a millionaire screenwriter and director, and the hottest property in town.

The 25-year-old former bouncer/roofer/short-order cook was signed by Paramount last month to write two original scripts for $500,000. Two weeks later, Miramax won a bidding war to buy his screenplay "The Boondock Saints," about two outlaw Irish brothers on the run from an FBI agent, for a writing-directing fee of $450,000.

He has no previous screenwriting experience and has never directed a movie. But Hollywood believes that Duffy has that elusive something, and has sprinkled him with its special brand of fairy dust.

If the rags-to-riches legend is a dearly held parable of American society, only in Hollywood does it unfold so immediately. A guy can go from living in the back of his car to landing a role on a prime-time TV show, as Jim Carrey did. Some 44-year-old former janitor can write a single joke for the Oscar telecast that clinches a six-figure screenplay contract, as writer-comic Dana Snow found last month.

In Duffy's case, he went from taking buses around Los Angeles to riding in chauffeur-driven limousines, from flipping burgers in a topless joint to hiring a staff for his production offices. All in a matter of months.

That has to feel a little bit weird.

"I was very, very, very poor. I'm coming into my own," acknowledges Duffy, a beefy, sardonic man with a penchant for getting into barroom brawls. "But I don't figure success in terms of money. It's in terms of achievement. All this stuff is nice, but what I really want is to sit down in a theater and see my movie on the screen."

In the meantime, the stuff will have to do. He has a brand-new cellular phone (though he doesn't yet know how to use it), a computer and plans to buy a car this week – a 1949 Mercury. Suddenly surrounded by agents, lawyers, supplicants and sycophants, Duffy is practically an industry unto himself. He goes everywhere with an entourage of six to eight buddies, several of whom he has gainfully employed as of last week. They include two fellow bartenders for whom he wrote parts in the movie and a weight trainer who is now his "director of creative development."

Also along for the ride is Duffy's younger brother Taylor, 24, who helped inspire the lead characters of "Boondock Saints," vigilante twins Connor and Murphy McManus. The McManus brothers do things like drop toilets on evil Russian mobsters from fifth-story windows. The Duffys did things in their teens like once jumping 100 feet into a quarry swimming hole. Taylor Duffy is in a unique position to observe the radical changes in his older brother's life.

"He's – mmmm – magnified," Taylor muses, as the entourage waits for a table at California Pizza Kitchen in Beverly Hills. Troy Duffy will pay for lunch. These days he always pays. "I think anyone would be. He doesn't seem to have much time to do stuff anymore. He's so busy that some of our friends are feeling a bit estranged. Sometimes I feel that way, but it's not on purpose. . . . You know, people keep giving me messages for my brother – 'I have this friend who can do this,' 'I know this actor' – I don't have anything to do with that, and I'm almost thankful."

With the bravado of youth, Troy Duffy insists that none of this will change him. "My deal is the most unprecedented deal," he says. "If that hasn't changed me, then I don't think anything will. It's only been about six weeks, but even in Boston on the location scout we had limos, hotel suites, the whole thing, and I invited my friends up to eat everything in the fridge."

He considers this. He considers Hollywood. "I don't know, I just feel like I'm immune to all that. I might not be, but I feel that way."

Sealing the Deal
It started with a few lines in a notebook, scribbled as he stood guard at the door of J. Sloan's, a bar on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood where the beer comes in pitchers and the TV monitors feature mud wrestling. Like a lot of people, Duffy had gone to one too many horrible movies and thought, "I can do better than that."

But slowly the script began to take over his life. Until last summer, Duffy's main occupation had been with the Brood, his four-member rock band (he and Taylor are the lead guitarists). After consulting a couple of scripts to learn the proper format, Duffy found that the tale spilled out uncontrollably. He typed it on a rented computer.

Duffy finished the script last fall and told his friends about it. One of them was a producer's assistant at New Line Cinema (the two had worked at the topless bar the previous year) and managed to get it read by a fairly senior executive. For several weeks, the script was passed from hand to hand, up and across Hollywood's matrix of influence, until an undeniable buzz had been created. Agents came courting while Duffy poured drinks at the bar. Over at Sony Pictures, producers Rich Zinman ("Michael") and Rob Fried ("Godzilla") got copies, and showed up at Sloan's.

"What was amazing is a lot of guys started to come over to the bar, being brought into my circle," says Duffy. "I started liking them as people." In February he signed with the William Morris Agency, which is now representing the Brood as well.

This period of frenzied negotiations led to some odd situations. A still-carless Duffy had to take the bus to a meeting with agents and lawyers at an upscale sushi restaurant in Beverly Hills last month. The doorman at the restaurant saw him get off the bus and refused to let him in until Duffy tapped on the window and his agent intervened. Within days of that meeting, he had several six-figure offers for the script. Duffy accepted none of them, holding out for an offer to direct. In the meantime, he signed the deal with Paramount to write two new screenplays.

Then, the day after the March 24 Academy Awards, Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein lumbered through the doorway of J. Sloan's, sat at the regulars' table with Duffy and asked: "What will it take?"

Duffy replied: "I want to buy the bar."

"How much?" asked Weinstein.

"Three hundred thousand dollars."

"Okay," Weinstein said, agreeing to buy the bar outright and give Duffy half ownership. That, along with granting Duffy's wish list – including directorial control, final cast approval and hiring the Brood for the soundtrack – clinched the deal.

It may be hard to believe that any good idea can be worth so much cash, effort and risk. Hollywood is full of clever, hopeful young men like Troy Duffy. What makes him different from a thousand others?

"I loved the script that he wrote. Then he told me all the ideas for other films that he had, and I said, 'A guy who thinks like this won't be around [just] on a one-shot deal,' " says Weinstein. "The proof is in the words. I read a lot of scripts that get near 'Boondock Saints' but that don't close the deal. They're imitations. They're mechanical. These characters come from Troy Duffy's soul."

The rest is Hollywood history. On March 31, Duffy faxed his mother, a secretary, a copy of a story that appeared on the front page of the the Hollywood Reporter about his deal. Across the cover, he scrawled: "I shook up the world, Ma. Love, Troy."

Finding His Muse
Growing up in Exeter, N.H., in a raucous Irish American family, Duffy remembers being poor until his mid-teens. Clothes were hand-me-downs; sometimes there was only oatmeal for dinner. Seven people were living on an English teacher's salary.

Robert Duffy, the father, monitored what his children read and listened to (Shakespeare and Elvis). At the same time he was open-minded, seeking truth in various religions.

Undersized and dyslexic as a child, Troy was drawn to the underdog in school. When a friend's brother beat up a mildly retarded classmate whom Troy had befriended, Duffy recalls entering the classroom and calling the teenager to the principal's office. Then he beat him up and locked him in the janitor's closet. Troy and Taylor say they earned a reputation for being troublemakers, getting kicked off the soccer team for fighting and luring their pals into risky feats like ski-jumping bicycles off a barn-door ramp.

With his close-cut hair and a scruffy red near-beard, Troy Duffy looks like a tough, but he's also a born raconteur. Ask him about his childhood and he'll reel off stories that could have been taken from the movies. More than likely they'll turn up in his own movies. Like the time he was savoring a Cherry Coke after riding seven miles on a broken-down bike to a Little League game. Someone sicced a dog on him, and he went after the dog, then the bully, with his baseball bat. Or the time his father beat up and threw, discuslike, a Rottweiler that had come after him during his rounds as a Jehovah's Witness. His dad gave up on religion after that.

Somewhere in all this, both brothers taught themselves to play guitar, to sing in harmony and to breakdance. But Duffy was determined to pursue a stable career, and his father rejoiced when he was accepted to a premed program at Colorado State University.

But the academic stint didn't last longer than two years. Playing in bars around campus, Duffy realized that what he really wanted to do was compose music and perform. With a new wife, Lisa Marie Janis, he set out for Los Angeles in 1993. Then came the night job flipping burgers at the topless bar, the day job at a Westwood cafe, the house between a crack den and a whorehouse. (He's now sharing a house with three buddies in a safer neighborhood.) His marriage couldn't bear the strain, and broke up last year. (Duffy says he still hopes to win his ex-wife back.) He took odd jobs with a contractor, ripping up roofs and refurbishing houses, then landed the job at Sloan's.

Then came script mania. He quit the bar seven weeks ago, with an advance on his deal with Paramount.

The Power Broker
It's 11:30 p.m. at J. Sloan's, a bar that has served continuously since the end of Prohibition. Duffy's group is gathered around the corner table doing coffee-and-whiskey shots, fortification for the next round of Bud Light that is not far behind. In the corner, an elderly blind man is huddled earnestly with the director-to-be, showing photographs of his son who aspires to an acting career. Duffy takes the package. Later he decides to hire the young man. Every day is like this. Suddenly his life is full of decisions and unexpected power. There isn't time to think about all the things being thrown his way. He's smart enough to know that.

"There's going to be a lot of women. There are already," he says. Pause. "I'm not sure of people's intentions anymore."

"I have not changed. My life has. Some of my friends have changed – it's odd – it's hard to see it happen. You can tell they're upset at what's happening." He smiles. "But I'm just coming into my own rather than going Hollywood."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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