TV Article

Making a Killing

Selling Amy Fisher -- Sex, money, and a bullet in the head make Hollywood producers hot for the true-life tale

On the sunny morning of May 19, a slight, auburn-haired 17-year-old named Amy Fisher allegedly shot a .25 caliber bullet into the head of Mary Jo Buttafuoco, 37, on the doorstep of Mary Jo's neat, white frame home on a quiet suburban street in the middle-class town of Massapequa, Long Island.

Amy, who was about to graduate from high school in nearby Bellmore, told police she'd been having an affair with Mary Jo's beefy husband, Joey, 36, an auto mechanic at a local garage. At first, Amy seemed to most people a love-struck teenager driven by a domineering older lover to commit a vicious crime. But then the story started to change. As Mary Jo struggled to recover in the hospital, the newspapers reported that Amy had been working after school for an ''escort service'' as a prostitute. Amy said the shooting was an accident — that she'd gotten angry but had only intended to hit Mary Jo on the head with the gun. Joey challenged that claim, saying Amy meant to kill his wife because the girl had become obsessed with him. When reporters asked Nassau County detective sergeant Daniel Severin for details of Amy's motivation, he blurted out, ''It was a near-Fatal Attraction.''

At the mere mention of that $340 million-grossing movie and a possible real-life parallel, Hollywood came racing to Massapequa. The industry's motive was plain. ''It's got attempted murder, it's got sex, it's got romance,'' enthuses independent agent Ron Yatter, who eventually secured rights to Amy's story for a TV movie. Now, as the case begins to go to trial, no fewer than three production companies are rushing to develop their own versions of the Amy Fisher story. Tabloid TV shows fight over every scrap of information about Amy. And many agents, producers, and public officials say that they've never seen a true-crime TV feeding frenzy equal to it. ''Anything that happens in this case immediately makes the front pages,'' Yatter says. Which means that the Amy Fisher case has become a gaudy part of a very old and often troubling genre: the show-biz tradition of cashing in on tragedies involving real people.

Murders, muggings, and rapes have long been, for better or worse, a staple of mass entertainment: The case of 1950s killer Ed Gein alone helped inspire the movies Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Silence of the Lambs. But today, documentary-style crime stories flourish on TV as never before. One NBC executive estimates that her network churns out one fact-based TV movie for every two fictional ones. Last year, true-crime movies of the week paid off big. A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story, starring Meredith Baxter as the mother of four from California who killed her husband and his new, younger wife, was CBS' second-highest-rated movie of the season. A sequel, also starring Baxter, is scheduled to air in November. Last week, ABC broadcast A Murderous Affair: The Carolyn Warmus Story, a TV movie starring Virginia Madsen. Based on another recent Fatal Attraction case in White Plains, N.Y., Affair drew more than 21 million viewers and was fifth in the ratings that week.

But the Amy Fisher story may top them all in the end, and it already requires a scorecard to keep the players straight. In addition to the principals, those involved include:

*Eric Naiburg, Amy Fisher's attorney. Claims the shooting was an accident, but will try to prove in court that Joey taught Amy how to use a gun and tried repeatedly to get her to kill his wife.

*Michael Rindenow, attorney for Mary Jo Buttafuoco, who, though impaired by pain, hearing loss, and partial facial paralysis, survives with a bullet still lodged at the base of her skull. Rindenow recently filed a $125 million civil suit — $75 million against Amy, $25 million against her parents, and $25 million against Peter Guagenti, who allegedly drove Amy to the Buttafuoco house the day Mary Jo was shot — with an eye to recovering any profits they make from movie deals.

*Marvyn Kornberg, now Joey Buttafuoco's attorney. Originally, Rindenow represented both husband and wife; Joey hired Kornberg for himself on June 8 after Naiburg publicly blamed Joey's alleged affair with Amy for the shooting.

*Stephen Sleeman, 21, whom Amy met when he was waiting tables at a Long Island seafood restaurant. He claims Fisher bribed him with sex and money in 1991 to shoot Mary Jo. Just after Halloween, he says, he accompanied Amy to the Buttafuocos' with an unloaded rifle, then backed out when he realized she was serious about going through with it. His lawyer is Bruce Parnell.

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