June 15, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

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.”

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