New Line?s bad-boy president -- Mike DeLuca's naughty behavior raises questions about his place at the head of the young studio

The gossip coursed through L.A. like a mud slide. During a Friday pre-Oscar bash at the home of William Morris exec Arnold Rifkin, New Line’s 33-year-old president, Mike De Luca, had been ordered off the premises after being caught unabashedly receiving oral sex from a woman in the backyard. Over the weekend, the beeping of cellular phones heralded the De Luca news, and other partygoers described the executive’s behavior as ”outrageous,” ”profoundly unprofessional,” and ”appalling.” The following week an El Nino-caliber media storm ensued as the public sexual tryst was reported on L.A. television and radio, in The New York Post, and on the front-page business section of the Los Angeles Times. In a town where naughty behavior is often tolerated, De Luca’s shenanigans raised troubling questions about the viability of an executive whose apparent penchant for self-destruction is becoming as obvious as his talents.

And it couldn’t have come at a more awkward time, just when New Line was trying to keep all spotlights on Lost In Space, the most ambitious — and expensive — project in the young studio’s history. As the story broke, De Luca and New Line (which, like EW, is owned by Time Warner) kept quiet. They issued no excuses, nor did they deny the exec’s actions. After all, his bad behavior is nothing new. In 1996, he received an alcohol-related driver’s license suspension; he was also tossed out of an L.A. restaurant after throwing a punch at a patron. And De Luca isn’t the only New Line exec whose personal life has gone embarrassingly public: Last year, New Line’s executive VP of production, Richard Saperstein — while he was overseeing production on Lost in Space — was accused of bigamy and fraud by then girlfriend Kearie Peak, who claimed that he had faked their romantic marriage ceremony in New Orleans (the parties have since resolved their differences).

And yet the strangest wrinkle of all may be that De Luca (whose reputation has recently been bolstered by Boogie Nights and The Wedding Singer) is still standing. Most agents and producers contacted by EW — while acknowledging that De Luca has shown poor judgment — say that the exec’s latest faux pas will not affect his business relationships. Boogie Nights‘ writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson defends him as ”a really good guy [who] loves movies, which is more than I can say for anyone else in his position in Hollywood. Mike De Luca is New Line.” Others are surprised that De Luca’s getting so much flak. ”I was talking about this with agents last night, and we’re all thinking, what’s the big deal?” says director Albert Hughes (Menace II Society). He jokingly adds, ”He’s not the first one to do it.”

According to a source at New Line, chairman and CEO Robert Shaye chastised his employee, but a studio spokesperson says ”it’s business as usual” at the office. For now, that includes dealing with the studio’s $100 million suit filed last September against Little Caesar Enterprises Inc., the pizza company New Line alleges backed out of a $20 million promotion of Lost In Space. A spokesperson for Little Caesars denies the allegation: ”We feel the lawsuit is without merit because there was no agreement reached. We are vigorously defending our position.”