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Star Spelled Backward

To some, 'Willard' weirdo CRISPIN GLOVER will always be the dad in 'Back to the Future.' But is his career ready to McFly?

Meeting Crispin Glover is not unlike sitting down to watch one of his movies. You know it will be strange. The only question is how strange. Like Andy Kaufman in the '70s, Glover is a performer who's become as famous for his quirks and neuroses as he has for the nearly 30 films he's appeared in. Maybe more so.

After all, this is a man who's been known to unleash jujitsu kicks at the heads of talk-show hosts, who has recorded albums featuring overwrought renditions of Nancy Sinatra songs, and who has spent more than five years directing a film that stars a cast of actors with Down syndrome. Still, it's his latest high-wire act that may go down as his most daring. Because Crispin Glover has just become the unlikeliest leading man in Hollywood.

On a day in early March, Glover is holed up in a decrepit soundstage in the Silver Lake section of Los Angeles. He's there to direct a music video to accompany his latest film, New Line's remake of the 1971 horror movie Willard. If you were born after Johnson left the Oval Office, chances are slim that you remember much about the original -- a creepy, campy flick about a socially awkward young man who trains an army of rats to be his minions of vengeance. But if none of this rings a bell or, more likely, if the only thing you can recall is the dewy Michael Jackson ballad ''Ben'' that went with the 1972 sequel, it doesn't matter: With Glover in the lead role, the just-released Willard is its own uniquely freaky thing. And as a sort of guarantee of this freakiness, there's the video being shot today. It's for a brand-new quiet-storm version of ''Ben'' sung by...Crispin Glover.

The soundstage smells like a hippie's dorm room. The stench of patchouli oil mixes with a dry-ice fog. In the midst of the haze, Glover is lying flat on his back in the center of a '20s-era cabaret stage. He's covered with hundreds of fake white rats the size of Nerf footballs. Minutes later, a dozen vaguely Germanic dominatrices are led his way. Wearing thigh-high fishnets, heels like daggers, and barely there bustiers that strain to contain their uniquely L.A. endowments, the women look like they're on their way to a Weimar orgy. They sprawl on the floor and are soon covered with faux vermin as well. On cue, they begin to writhe with the rats. Frolic with them. Stroke them. And smack in the middle of this wriggling S&M freak show is its mad maestro, Crispin Glover, grinning and giggling as if he's just won some sort of X-rated lottery.

It's 10 a.m.

By definition, cult figures are worshiped by small but rabidly loyal devotees. These fanatics come in all different varieties. There are those who get tarted up to attend midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and those who can rattle off the date and city of a particular Dead show just by hearing the first few notes of ''Dark Star.'' Then there are those who genuflect at the altar of Crispin Hellion Glover. (And yes, that's actually his middle name.)

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