Celebs are easier to take when they act a little Spacey

April 21, 2004

BY RICHARD ROEPER SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST

Kevin Spacey is a regular-sized, middle-aged guy, but he’s a commanding screen presence who has played some of the most charismatic, sarcastic and intellectually intimidating characters of the last decade.

Whether he’s portraying an Irish thief in “Ordinary Decent Criminal,” a duplicitous mastermind in “The Usual Suspects,” a glory-hound cop in “L.A. Confidential,” or a chillingly creative serial killer in “Se7en”[sic], Spacey comes across on screen as someone to be reckoned with.

In real life, not so much.

The last time I saw Spacey was at the Sundance Film Festival, January before last. He was in the parking lot of the Park City Library, wearing a stocking cap and chatting with Ryan Gosling, who plays his son in “The United States of Leland.” Sundance has some of the most knowledgeable and rabid film fans in the world — the kind of people who could spot William H. Macy at a hundred paces — but dozens of moviegoers sailed right past Spacey on their way to the next screening.

He’s just a guy. He’s not built like the Rock, he’s not stupidly handsome like Brad Pitt and he doesn’t have the don’t-talk-to-me-or-I’ll-put-this-cigarette-in-your-eye demeanor of Sean Penn.

So I wasn’t terribly surprised when I read that Spacey had been mugged in a park near London at 4:30 a.m. last Saturday. It seemed reasonable that the attacker wouldn’t recognize Spacey out of context — and wouldn’t be intimidated if he had identified the two-time Oscar-winning thespian.

Within hours, though, we learned the truth: Kevin Spacey hadn’t been mugged. He had tripped over his dog.

His dog named Mini.

A convincing performance

Spacey told London police he had been beaten about the head and robbed of his cell phone — and the authorities apparently believed him — but after Spacey was treated at a hospital for his injuries, he returned to the police station and withdrew the charges, admitting he had hurt himself by tripping over Mini while chasing a guy who had stolen his cell phone.

“What actually happened was, I fell for a con,” Spacey said on BBC 4’s “Today” show. “And I was . . . incredibly embarrassed by it. [I was told] some sob story about somebody needing to call their mother and could they use my phone. It was such a good con, that I actually dialed the number myself and when somebody answered I then finally handed [over] my phone. And this kid took off . . . and I tripped over my dog, and I ended up falling on to the street and hitting myself in the head. And now I’m bleeding profusely. . . . I feel like the biggest fool that has ever lived. I march over to the police station and I say I got mugged.”

The London tabloids are having a blast with Spacey’s misfortunes, with some reporters wondering if there was another reason for him to be in the park at such an unholy hour, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say no more. (Spacey’s explanation: “My doggy had to go!”)

Scotland Yard is investigating the matter. As of this writing, Verbal Kint is not a suspect.

Acting like a hero

I take no delight in Spacey’s misfortune, but the story was almost refreshing compared to all those tales we hear about some actor saving a life or making a citizen’s arrest or lifting a car or whatever. For a while it seemed as if every leading man in Hollywood was playing offscreen superhero.

Harrison Ford was flying his helicopter over Yellowstone Park when he spotted and rescued a missing 13-year-old Boy Scout. Ford also was credited with flying his chopper up a mountain in Wyoming and rescuing a dehydrated and dazed hiker.

Chuck Norris, moonlighting as a reserve cop, participated in drug raids in Texas. Vin Diesel was riding his motorcycle in Hollywood when he witnessed an auto accident, with a car bursting into flames. Diesel reportedly pulled children from the burning wreck.

Mark Harmon used a sledgehammer to break the windows of a burning car and pull two teenagers to safety. Viggo Mortensen saved his “Hidalgo” co-star Zuleikha Robinson from a runaway horse. Kevin Costner once used his garden hose to stem a neighborhood fire. Tom Hanks saved a drowning man in Malibu. When a woman collapsed at the Toronto Film Festival, she came to and looked into the comforting eyes of Matthew McConaughey. In 1996, Tom Cruise was lauded for saving seven lives in three separate incidents.

Even squishy little Renee Zellweger saved a woman who had collapsed while hiking in California.

Good Lord. Isn’t it enough that these people are good-looking, wealthy and famous? Do they have to go around saving lives?

So it’s comforting when a Kevin Spacey trips over his dog, when a Colin Farrell falls off a bench and hurts himself, when a Cameron Diaz gets a bump on the nose. We don’t wish physical harm on anyone — but we can empathize when a celebrity sustains a dumb injury or is involved in an embarrassing mishap, as opposed to when he’s pulling people from burning cars.

Falling stars are a lot more interesting than the ones that simply shine all the time.