A turbulent history of erratic behavior and on-set outbursts colors the comedian's success

By Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
June 11, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Martin Lawrence: Chris Cuffaro/Corbis Outline

The following is an excerpt from a story in EW’s June 15, 2001, issue.

It was a rotten, rainy day last summer when the cast and crew of ”What’s the Worst That Could Happen?” prepared to film in Manchester-by-the-Sea, an exclusive coastal enclave near Boston. They’d been working long hours, often outdoors, during Massachusetts’ wettest summer in memory and had done their best to adapt to the mercurial skies. But many were having a much harder time weathering the stormy moods of star Martin Lawrence, and, on this particular day, the actor’s lightning quick temper was about to strike a production assistant named Scott Myers.

With the downpour muddying the path between the trailers and the location, a private mansion filled with expensive Oriental rugs, Myers was posted outside the house to ask those entering to wipe their shoes. As Lawrence approached with his assistants, ”I kind of mentioned it to his group,” says Myers, adding that he had been instructed never to speak directly to Lawrence. ”Martin walked by without wiping his feet and turned around and told me… that I should lay down so he could wipe his feet on my ‘f—ing back.’… He was irate.” Adds Myers, ”My bosses came out and said, ‘Oh, we should have warned you about that.”’

”I wasn’t party to that incident,” says Sam Weisman, the film’s director. ”But [Lawrence] is very big on ‘Good morning’ and ‘Hello.’ He arrived on the set, it was raining, and apparently the PA didn’t say hello. And he got angry.”

As an isolated occurrence, Martin Lawrence’s behavior might suggest nothing more than a bad day. But stories about the 36-year-old star’s tantrums and ability to wreak havoc on a film crew’s spirits have been piling up at an astonishing pace in the last several months — ironically, at a time when Lawrence’s career has never been hotter. The actor — who refused repeated requests to be interviewed for this story — earned $13 million for ”What’s the Worst That Could Happen?”, $16.5 million for his next project, the time travel fantasy ”Black Knight,” and has now, with the comedy ”National Security,” reportedly reached the $20 million threshold reserved for Hollywood’s top stars. He’s likely to stay at that level for ”Blue Streak 2,” scheduled to start shooting this fall; Sony also hopes to reteam him with Will Smith for ”Bad Boys 2.”

Certainly, Hollywood is a universe unto itself, one in which more than a few players on either side of the camera are allowed to make up for an absence of manners with an income of millions. And by all accounts, movie stars have it the best — or worst, depending on which side you’re on. With studio executives relying on A-listers to bolster their annual reports (and bonuses), indulging the occasional diva request is all part of the job. As one person who has worked on a Lawrence film says, ”It’s like Carl Everett with the Red Sox. You put up with a lot, as long as he’s hitting.”

But the problem isn’t just that this hitmaker can act like a spoiled star. It’s that, as another crew member says, ”he’s powerful, he’s a prick, and he’s loopy. Put ’em together, and you have a celebrity who’s off the charts.”

The first day of filming on ”What’s the Worst That Could Happen?”, say some crew members, set the tone for the rest of the film’s production. Lawrence, whose late call time meant that he’d arrive on set at the tail end of breakfast, ordered an omelette from the caterer. When it was delivered with the wrong color cheese, the actor sent it back to the cook — who had moved on to preparing lunch — and refused to leave his trailer. (According to diplomat extraordinaire Weisman, chaos ensued not because of Lawrence’s temper but because ”everything got communicated by the [production assistants] like it was a big deal. It was simply the wrong breakfast order.”)

As the shoot progressed, things didn’t necessarily go any more smoothly, with another blowup occurring after a camera assistant accidentally hit Lawrence on the head with the clapper. According to witnesses, Lawrence demanded that the assistant be fired before storming off the set and halting filming.

”This happened early in the shoot,” says Weisman. ”Martin jumped up and the bottom of the slate hit him on top of the head. I think it shocked and embarrassed him.” But as for pitching a fit, ”he simply walked out,” says Weisman. ”He didn’t say a word. [Later], he said, ‘I can’t be comfortable working with him,’ so it was my desire that the guy leave.” (Ultimately, the assistant stayed but kept out of Lawrence’s way.) On ”Black Knight,” wiser assistants would ask Lawrence permission to approach him for the routine task of measuring the space between the actor and the camera.

Crew members also cite long delays caused by Lawrence’s disregard for the schedule. A ”Black Knight” filmmaker confirms that the actor was unwilling to learn more than a page and a half of dialogue a day; while Weisman says that wasn’t the case on his film, the director admits Lawrence caused some delays over ”wardrobe issues.” Insiders on both films say Lawrence was also loath to rehearse — refusing to participate in run-throughs that help not only other actors but also the director and cinematographer.

Additionally, he often wouldn’t provide ”coverage” (saying his lines when another actor was filmed opposite him). According to a ”Black Knight” crew member who worked closely with Lawrence, this could result in a lunatic jigsaw puzzle, where actors would face a nonspeaking double on camera while listening to Lawrence’s lines being spoken by a stand-in. (Yet another stand-in would be used to light the shot.)

Still, as ”Worst” producer David Hoberman attests, ”there are all kinds of stars [who require] the same things as Martin.” Lawrence, for example, likes to play basketball between takes. Although it’s not in the star’s contract, producers happily build him courts on location, even in the middle of the woods. But as Lawrence’s manager, Michael Green, says, ”When someone says he doesn’t come out of his trailer or likes to play basketball, yeah, he’s got a lot of pressure. But if the [filmmakers] can afford it because the studio makes millions of dollars [off of him], how terrible is that?”

Additional reporting by Daniel Fierman

Read EW’s June 15, 2001, issue to get more on Martin Lawrence’s reportedly erratic behavior.

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