Jeremy Piven has become a Hollywood player by playing one on TV -- and in the process, he just might win a Primetime Emmy by making the most image-conscious business on Earth laugh at itself.
As superagent Ari Gold on "Entourage," the 40-year-old actor has become HBO's most fascinating scoundrel since Tony Soprano. Why, Carrie Bradshaw might even call Mr. Gold the new Mr. Big, especially if he walks away with honors this Sunday for best supporting actor in a comedy series.
"I'm attracted to flawed characters," Piven says. "They're fun and interesting to play and the rest comes from that."
But after years as a supporting actor on TV's "Ellen" and "The Larry Sanders Show," and in such films as "Grosse Point Blank," "Serendipity" and "Old School," Piven can no longer fade into the background. With Ari Gold, Piven has created an indelible image of show business that is sure to follow him around for the rest of his life.
A 'Titanic' Nod of Approval
Piven's Gold is a hyperactive wheeler-dealer, a film industry shark with supreme confidence and a cruel sense of humor, a man who describes himself as "rich and miserable," but nevertheless seems to enjoy the mayhem of moviemaking.
"Call me Helen Keller," he boasts, "because I'm a [expletive deleted] miracle worker!"
And if you find that quip a little offensive, don't worry. Ari's a total L.A. schmoozer, armed with the latest West Coast jargon. His current favorite: "Let's hug it out, bitch!"
"Entourage" is now among HBO's most buzz-worthy shows. Even though it's drawing fewer than 2 million viewers an episode, they must be the right 2 million. The pay cable network ordered a third season even before the second season ended, and last week's season finale all but assured Piven's character a greater role in the show's future.
Perhaps part of the cultish allure is the show's fresh take on the film industry. Adrian Grenier plays fast-rising boy star Vinnie Chase -- a character loosely modeled on Mark Wahlberg -- who brought his hometown posse to run amok in Tinseltown. Wahlberg is one of "Entourage's" executive producers.
Vinnie and the homeboys on his payroll hail from Queens, N.Y. His best friend Eric (Kevin Connolly) managed a pizzeria before becoming his personal manager. His brother Johnny "Drama" claims to also be an actor, but -- after a brief whiff of success -- his only steady gig is as Vinnie's live-in chef.
Then, there's Turtle (Jerry Ferrara), Vinnie's driver and gopher, who makes no bones about being anything but a guy who's just along to enjoy the ride. Still, he just might turn himself into a rap music mogul.
If Hollywood needed to voice its approval for this less-than-flattering lampoon, it's come in the way of celebrity cameos -- with stars popping in to play themselves -- to make the "Entourage" experience seem all the more real.
Mandy Moore has been Vinnie's on-again, off-again girlfriend this season, and James Cameron took a recurring role as the director of "Aquaman," the film that just might catapult Vinnie into the uppermost echelons of stardom -- if his relationship with Moore doesn't get in the way. Even Bono showed up for an episode.
"Whatever success that we have from this show, we've come by it honestly, and I love it," says Piven. "The fact that it has come from word-of-mouth -- that we didn't start off with big ratings -- that is the best way to come to people's attention."
As the second season drew to a close, Piven's character lost a power struggle and he was forced to walk out the door of his talent agency without his blue chip roster of clients, without his $80,000 Mercedes, and without any allies other than Lloyd (Rex Lee), the personal assistant he loves to abuse with an endless barrage of gay and Asian jokes. Even Lloyd isn't so sure he wants to join him.
"Ari, swear to me that you will never again say anything offensive to me about my race or my sexual orientation," Lloyd says.
"I can't swear to that," Ari answers. "But I promise I will always apologize after."
'I'm an Everyman'
Like the building buzz for "Entourage," Piven's rise has also been slow and steady. He's been acting since childhood, although for the most part, he's lived outside Hollywood. His parents founded Chicago's Piven Theater Workshop, which counts John and Joan Cusack, Lili Taylor and Aidan Quinn among its graduates.
"I can play an everyman because I am an everyman," he said. "And it comes easier to me than playing an abrasive agent."
In 1998, Piven made a run at prime time as the star and producer of ABC's short-lived "Cupid," in which he played a guy who thought he was the ancient Greek love god, and had to talk his way out of a mental hospital.
While the audience wanted no part of that, he's now the toast of the town. At last month's MTV Video Music Awards, Piven just couldn't help but tease Lil' Kim about her legal troubles as they presented best rap video.
"You know, she's about to go to the big house, for lying," Piven said. "I'd like to place a call to the warden and upgrade your situation."
Winning a Primetime Emmy for best supporting actor in a comedy will be no easy job. The competition includes Jeffrey Tambor of "Arrested Development," Peter Boyle and Brad Garrett of "Everybody Loves Raymond" and Sean Hayes of "Will & Grace."
But perhaps if Piven prevails, he can channel his own inner-Ari Gold as he comes to the podium and accepts the accolade with one of Ari's golden one-liners that just reek of celebrity. May I suggest this one:
"We're going to get drunk with Russell Crowe and we're going to head-butt some goddamn kangaroos!"