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Sam Raimi: Out of Left Field

After years of not registering on mainstream Hollywood’s moviemaking radar, ‘The Evil Dead’ director finally gets a chance to prove himself in a big-league ‘Game’

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Sam Raimi … R-A-I-M-I.

His voice is as understanding and as patient as a saint’s. In fact, maybe a bit too patient for a guy who’s just had to spell his name four times to the clipboard-wielding rent-a-cop guarding the entrance to the Universal Studios lot.

Raaay-meeee … Sam Raimi.

Never mind that Raimi’s production company has been headquartered behind these gates for years. Forget that his wildly popular syndicated TV shows Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess have pumped obscene amounts of cash into Universal’s coffers. And so what if he’s directed three movies for the studio, including its splashy upcoming Kevin Costner baseball romance, For Love of the Game. The sad fact is that even at his own studio, Sam Raimi is an Invisible Man.

R-A-I …

The irony is that despite the 39-year-old director’s virtual anonymity to Hollywood’s power brokers and security guards, in other circles — namely, the halls and aisles of your gamier-smelling film schools and video stores — Raimi is regarded with the same sort of awe that struggling guitarists reserve for Hendrix or Clapton: He’s a god. And his trilogy of camera-crazy Evil Dead horror movies is treated like celluloid gospel, meticulously studied and parsed by his disciples.

In other words, Sam Raimi is a man caught between two worlds. In one, he’s a celebrity because of horror films he made more than a decade ago. In the other, well, let’s just say he wouldn’t mind upping his profile enough to get past the studio guard. And at this very moment — in the wake of his critically hailed 1998 thriller, A Simple Plan, and on the eve of For Love of the Game — he’s a director on the verge of finally being accepted by the Hollywood establishment. Not that it’s been an easy transition. Working in the big time means working with big-time egos, and now his iron-willed leading man is lashing out at the studio over the final version of Raimi’s film. Welcome to the major leagues.

But if Raimi’s nervous, he’s not letting on. Dressed like an impish kid in a blue polo shirt, faded jeans, and sorry-looking, once-white sneakers, Raimi is exceedingly polite. He calls you ”sir” and has an aw-shucks demeanor that Billy Bob Thornton says reminds him of a ”Methodist youth preacher.” Sitting in the corner office of his production company’s three-story bungalow, Raimi weighs the idea of segueing from obscure working-class director to the A-list mainstream with his new film. After all, what could be more mainstream than a Kevin Costner baseball movie? ”I’d never really wanted to make a Hollywood movie,” says Raimi, who went after Game because he loved the script and saw the project as an opportunity to prove himself. ”To be honest, I’m still not [the big studios’] guy and I don’t think they think of me that way … I don’t know what their perception of me is.”

But Thornton says he knows: ”When Sam’s name comes up, studio heads may wonder, How do we know what he’ll do? They’re afraid that suddenly the whole baseball team will turn into zombies and their eyes will fall out. They’re afraid he’s going to do something offbeat — which it could probably stand. I think he’s probably the most underrated director there is.”

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