Last September 1, an armada of water taxis left the Hotel Cipriani bearing America's royalty. Movie stars attending the International Venice Film Festival were staying at the luxury island inn, and the small boats were the only way to get to the theater. Everyone was dressed for the black-tie premiere of Good Night, and Good Luck and the glamorous Black & White Ball to follow.
In the front launch stood star Patricia Clarkson, ethereal in a white dress. To her left, actor-director-heartthrob George Clooney, on her right, director Steven Soderbergh and behind them, über-agent Brian Lord. In the second boat stood Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban, who helped fund the film.
And between them, Steve Stodghill, a paunchy guy with pasty skin and owlish glasses, pinching himself.
Who the hell is he?
As soon as Clooney hit the theater's red carpet, the Italian crowd went wild. Paparazzi started popping flashes. At the sight of Soderbergh, Venetian film lovers began chanting his name. They were followed by billionaires Cuban and Wagner...and Stodghill, waving and wearing the biggest, goofiest grin this side of Howdy Doody.
Clooney settled into his seat in the theater, where he could have been forgiven for biting his nails. His pet project, his second effort as a director, was about to get an important verdict.
Sitting behind him: Steve Stodghill.
As the credits rolled at the end of the film, all eyes were on Clooney and his team, who received an exhilarating 10-minute standing ovation. At the Black & White Ball, Clooney beamed as the glowing reviews started coming in. At his table: Stodghill, as thrilled as if he'd been the director. As the stars closed down the bar at the Cipriani, Stodghill met Renee Zellweger and chatted about their mutual love for Texas Longhorns football.
At this point, a journalist chronicling the night might have wondered: How does that bozo in black-tie keep turning up?
In the film world, Steve Stodghill is a complete nobody, and he's the first to admit it. "I'm a simple country lawyer," Stodghill says.
That's a lie. Stodghill, 45, is a very successful and rich Dallas lawyer.
But he's no Mr. Hollywood.
So why is Stodghill dining with Elizabeth Hurley, seated with Robert DeNiro at the American Film Institute Awards, schmoozing with Adrien Brody at Hibiscus and cheering courtside at a Dallas Mavericks game with actor Chris Tucker, who calls him Stodge-Dog? Why does he spend holidays with actress Peri Gilpin, one of his very best friends? How did a former Eagle Scout from East Dallas end up doing his version of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" dance for Quincy Jones during dinner at Steel?
"Steve will tell stories that if other people said them, they'd say, 'He's bragging,'" says Todd Wagner, who launched broadcast.com with Mark Cuban. "But he says it in such a self-deprecating way, you laugh."
Even before Stodghill started hobnobbing with the stars, he had a facility for drawing people into his circle like Magneto, the X-Man mutant who can manipulate magnetic forces. For a guy obsessed with Batman, Magneto may be too cheesy a comparison, but the metaphor is apt.
Some people have a few good friends; Stodghill has dozens. "He's really the mayor of Dallas," Wagner says. Through those friends he meets other friends. With Wagner's entrée, his friendship circle has expanded.
Stodghill is one of those people that Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, calls a "connector," a person who builds friendships across different strata of society and then links those folks with each other.
In a famous essay published in 1999, Gladwell pointed to Lois Weisberg, a Chicago grandmother who hung out with writers, actors, lawyers, politicians, doctors and musicians and became the epicenter of the city's cultural affairs. Weisberg went out of her way to meet people, found out what they were interested in and then hooked them up with like-minded acquaintances. Why? Not because she benefited but because that's who she was.
Like Weisberg, Stodghill collects people. He's the epicenter of Dallas' Hollywood connection, mostly through his friendship with Wagner. If he had access to President Bush, he'd probably be on a first-name basis with Condoleezza Rice and Tony Blair by now.
"Steve has these extraordinary relation skills that allow him to connect with people at any time and any place," says Tristan Simon, a restaurant entrepreneur who owns Hibiscus. Stodghill has invested in several of his ventures. "He's renowned for his Christmas party. It's a great, unbelievably eclectic assortment of people that span the gamut of human nature. And the one thing they have in common is The Stodge. His likability is so powerful, it's an organizing principle."
Later this year, Stodghill will get his own five minutes of celebrity in the Wilson brothers' new movie The Wendell Baker Story, playing, of course, a lawyer. Actor Luke Wilson met Stodghill through a mutual Dallas friend. "I had fun talking to him," Wilson says. When he wrote the comedy screenplay for The Wendell Baker Story, Wilson created the character of Otto Brinker, lawyer for a low-level scammer, with Stodghill in mind and then decided to cast him in the part.
"Steve was really into it," says Wilson, who just finished filming Super X Girlfriend with Uma Thurman in Austin. "It turned out better than I thought it would. He was really funny." Look for Wilson around town this fall when Dallas starts shooting (he's playing Bobby Ewing in the remake of the movie based on the TV show Dallas). Hey, if you're hoping for a celebrity sighting, just look for Stodghill.
Though his buddies make fun of Stodghill for his name-dropping and stories about what famous person he had lunch with last week, this "simple country lawyer" is living a life most people only dream about.
"Steve has always been somewhere great and done something wonderful," says Peri Gilpin, who grew up with Stodghill in East Dallas. "He loves to say in passing, 'Oh, did I tell you about this?' Steve lives big. I know people who have plenty of money to do things, and they don't do that. He's able to make things he wants to happen materialize. He loves films, so he's wound up being great friends with a great filmmaker. It's so Steve."
Gladwell calls connectors essential in modern life because they bring together people who would ordinarily never meet, and the nexus creates change. But why is Stodghill a connector and 99 percent of people are not? Nature or nurture: Are connectors born or made? Is connecting a skill that can be taught in a classroom?
Think about all those business books on success, leadership, the seven habits, the six "thinking hats" and love as "the killer app." Now think about the game "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon," in which anyone in the world can be connected by six links to the ubiquitous actor.
Play another game: "The Stodge's Seven Secrets of Social Success."
Master it, and maybe next year you'll be having dinner with DeNiro at the Tribeca Film Festival, but first...
Adopt a superhero.
A glowering Batman, arms crossed, stands to the left of the door at the spectacular office many people in the pink Banc One building call the "Stodge Majal." Black cape rippling, muscles flexing, he's 6-foot-2 and built of heavy-duty plastic, a Dark Knight to die for--if you're a 15-year-old boy in 1975.
To the right of the door is a painting of Gotham City by Stanley Kaufman. Down the hall in the Fish & Richardson law office is a conference room filled with Stodghill's extensive collection of Batman memorabilia. The more than 300 toys, action figures, masks and general bat stuff have been known to give the opposing side the willies during depositions taken in the Batcave. Heck, it's given some of his partners pause.
To say Stodghill is obsessed with Bruce Wayne and his alter ego would be like saying Jerry Bruckheimer is obsessed with explosives. The comic books he loved as a child are ingrained in his nature.
Dallas Mavericks President and CEO Terdema Ussery saw that emerge when the Mavs were sued by a law firm soon after Cuban bought the team. "Steve is a very, very nice guy, but if you twist him the wrong way or challenge his clients legally and you don't do it with diplomacy, he can react in a way that can be pretty devastating to the other side," says Ussery, who calls him "Snoop Doggy Stodge" for his goofy impression of a dancing Michael Jackson. "I'll never forget the night he said to me, 'When I get pissed, I can be the most dangerous man on the planet, and tonight I'm the most dangerous man on the planet--just like Batman.' He was going through this whole thing about superheroes. It was pretty funny, except he was dead serious."
Stodghill's fascination with Batman can be traced back to his father, who gave him subscriptions to all the superhero comics when he was 5 years old.
"I always liked Batman best," Stodghill says. "He doesn't have any superpowers. He has to accomplish everything without the ability to fly or super strength."
When Stodghill and Tom Melsheimer, a former assistant U.S. attorney, joined the firm of Fish & Richardson, Stodghill bought a Kaufman painting of Superman and hung it outside the door to Melsheimer's office.
"I think he likes that particular character because he's a combination of guile, trickery and intelligence," Melsheimer says, "and he spends his days as a rich millionaire. Stodge can tell you more about the particulars of Batman's encounter with a particular villain than he could about Roe v. Wade. I've had people say it creeped them out. If you had a really delicate situation and a client was facing indictment, I'm not sure you'd want to tell them that in the Batcave."
Is it wise for a lawyer--entrusted with the serious business of clients who are often in deep doo-doo--to flaunt the superhero theme?
Maybe not, but it's memorable.
Batman had an unhappy youth, unlike Stodghill, which brings us to...
Choose your parents wisely.
Married for 47 years, Pat and Don Stodghill still live in the Forest Hills neighborhood east of White Rock Lake, where they raised Steve and his younger sister Sheri.
Don calls himself "a simple country lawyer" too. Steve's mother Pat, a former Poet Laureate of Texas, is a published writer and teacher. It's easy to see which parent Steve resembles most.
"His mother could get on an elevator and know everybody on it by the sixth floor," Don says. "I could get on it and ride all day and never meet anyone."
One of his best friends in the 'hood was a spunky girl named Peri Gilpin. "Steve was very studious, always the smartest kid in the class," Gilpin says, "but fun though, really into theater, which I was into. He was always an interesting conversationalist. We had chemistry together at Long [Middle School]. We just never shut up for the whole hour."
Since then, Gilpin and Stodghill have been touchstones for each other. Both attended UT, where Steve majored in government. "We were having complete polar experiences as always," Gilpin says. "He was very serious about his classes. I was very serious about drama and taking theater classes. We didn't cross paths except for socially."
Before going to law school, Stodghill worked a year as a legislative assistant for Congressman Ronald Hall. He loved Washington. Gilpin had done an internship at the Williamstown Theater Festival. "We met at the Oak Bar at the Plaza Hotel," Gilpin says. "We looked at each other and said, 'We're doing it!' We were so happy."
After graduating from law school in 1987, Stodghill, along with Wagner and Melsheimer, landed at Akin Gump, then the biggest law firm in Dallas. To save money, Steve lived at home and drove a beat-up '78 Buick LeSabre the size of a bass boat. His parents even added on to their house so that he could come and go as he pleased, which brings us to...
Invest in your friends and then get lucky. Really lucky.
When Wagner announced he was leaving law to do an Internet start-up with Mark Cuban, Stodghill tried to talk him out of it. "I said 'Todd, you're a fool,'" Stodghill says. "You're making $100,000 a year. This Internet thing--who knows whether it will last?"
Venture capitalists rejected Wagner and Cuban's pitch. "We didn't have any track record," Wagner acknowledges. He turned to his friends. "I went to each of them and said, 'Only put into us as much as you can afford to lose.'"
So, as he had done for other friends starting businesses, Stodghill wrote him a check.
"He was doing that not because it was a great investment," Melsheimer says. "He didn't know that Internet was one word. It was because Todd was his friend. He's extremely loyal to his friends."
Says Wagner: "I think he knew that, win or lose, I would put everything I had into it. That was good enough for him. That's what friends do, unconditionally. They may not agree that it will be successful, but they put money in because they are friends. I think those early investors were very important, because they believed in what we were trying to do."
Stodghill left Akin Gump to become a name partner in a "boutique" litigation firm. He declines to say how much he invested in broadcast.com, but Wagner estimates the first-round investors got a 500-to-1 return when broadcast.com was acquired by Yahoo! in 2000. Stodghill was a very wealthy man and ready for the next phase...
Find good partners who know the people you don't.
Stodghill's office, Batman fetish aside, displays ample evidence of a charmed life. The barrel-vaulted space has a wall of glass windows soaring 30 feet high, with motorized shades to block the afternoon sun. Created for the developer who built the pink granite skyscraper, Stodghill's office is ostentatious, with black marble floors, sleek black leather furniture and a massive aquarium swimming with tropical fish.
It's also somehow homey, crammed with memorabilia, art and collectibles, including numerous antique swords and spears. What most people notice, though, are the photographs of Stodghill with stars: Elizabeth Hurley, Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Clooney, Chris Tucker and on and on. In all of the photos, Stodghill has the same expression: wide-eyed wonder and a grin that says, "Wow! I can't believe I'm with [fill in the blank]!" Most he has met through Wagner.
For several years during the '90s, Wagner and Stodghill saw little of each other. Stodghill wasn't holding his breath waiting for Cuban and Co. to hit it big. He'd invested in about 15 buddies' ventures; few paid off. Nothing early on suggested broadcast.com would be any different.
Then the tech-stock boom and Yahoo!'s buyout of broadcast.com sent the net worth of Wagner, Cuban and their investors soaring. Stodghill set his pager to notify him when Yahoo!'s stock went up. He wallowed in the glory, lapping up all the experiences he could. Stodghill was less interested in the day-to-day practice of law--after all, that's what junior associates were for--and more focused on being a salesman. All major law firms need rainmakers who bring in business by schmoozing, and Stodghill had become a world-class schmoozer with three world-class clients--Cuban, Wagner and Yahoo!.
Friends say that led to Stodghill splitting the sheets with Mike Lynn, a highly respected litigator married to federal Judge Barbara Lynn. Stodghill and Melsheimer left to open a local office for Boston-based Fish & Richardson. It was such an ugly divorce that neither party will talk about it.
It was made nastier by a bizarre, highly publicized lawsuit filed against Wagner, Cuban, Yahoo!, Stodghill and everyone in their orbit by a disgruntled entrepreneur named Kimball Norman, who alleged breach of contract and other wrongdoing. Believing they had Cuban and Wagner over a barrel, Norman and his lawyer filed a $4 billion lawsuit on the eve of Yahoo! going public.
The shakedown resulted in high-stakes, scorched-earth litigation that included allegations that Stodghill had bribed a judge. That brought out the Dark Knight; Stodghill went ballistic and threw everything he could at the opposition. (I wrote about this case for D magazine, "The Pirate Attack on Yahoo!," April 2001.)
Wagner and Cuban won a summary judgment, but only after the case and the numerous lawsuits it spawned bounced around more than a dozen courts and Stodghill had to hire a lawyer to defend himself before the State Bar of Texas. Not a good start for the next phase in Stodghill's life, initially funded by work for the two billionaires and their various interests.
Cuban bought the Mavericks; Wagner became a philanthropist. Together they formed 2929 Productions and started learning the entertainment business. The first movie they financed was 2004's Godsend, notable only for starring Robert De Niro.
But their fourth and fifth films--Good Night, and Good Luck and ENRON: The Smartest Guys in the Room--were nominated for seven Academy Awards. "We've gone from two guys in Texas who they're going to rip off, to a whole different vibe about us now," Wagner says. "We took our time and spent two years out there learning the industry."
And Stodghill tagged along. When Wagner and Stodghill flew on a private jet to Beijing, they clomped across the tarmac to say hi to Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, also visiting China in their private plane.
"I lead beyond a charmed life," Wagner says. "Cuban and I talk about it all the time. Steve is a good friend and comes on a lot of these kinds of things. I think there's always, 'Who's this guy?' But they take to Steve. I think most of the people he's gotten to know well, like Chris Tucker and George, they think he's great. He's just very likable."
It helps that Stodghill knows how to...
Dress the part.
One of the first things Stodghill did after money started rolling in was find a Savile Row tailor.
"For a while there, every time you caught him he was going overseas to London for a fitting for his suits," Melsheimer says. "He's one of the few guys, who you ask for a tour of his house, will give you a tour of his closet."
Like a lot of newly rich men who go to charity events, Stodghill bought an expensive tuxedo.
Picture this. It's the premiere for Ocean's Twelve, and George Clooney is center stage. At the after-party, Wagner introduces Stodghill to Clooney, who is about to start filming Good Night, and Good Luck for 2929 Productions.
"George looks at me, and he looks at Steve," Wagner says. "All three of us are wearing Armani tuxedos. George steps back and he says, 'You two look fantastic!'"
It was die-and-go-to-heaven time for pudge-boy.
Ann Stodghill met her future husband at a deposition. A lawyer with long red hair, a movie-star figure and a degree from UT in math and economics, Ann was a fact witness in a lawsuit being handled by Stodghill. They were friendly, but each was involved with someone else.
Their relationship began six months later at a happy-hour gathering of lawyers. Stodghill had just settled a giant case and was in rare form, keeping most of those around him in stitches. "He had great bullshit," Ann says. But when the raconteur asked her out to dinner, Ann refused.
"I said, 'We don't have anything in common,'" Ann says. "I thought he was an overgrown frat boy from UT."
Stodghill persisted, and Ann agreed to one date at a local wine bar, where Stodghill ordered an expensive bottle of wine. They argued over splitting the bill. Ann did the feminist thing--"I pay my own way." He said no way.
Stodghill told her: "If this is a respect issue, I know your boss, I respect you and your work. Now stop being a bitch, and I'll treat you like a princess."
Ann was floored. "When I told my parents that story, they said, 'This is the one.'"
Ann wasn't quite convinced yet. She was 32, and Stodghill was 40. There must have been something wrong with him if he was still single.
On their next date Stodghill pulled a big power move, ordering Cristal champagne at Del Frisco's, then launching into the top 10 reasons she should date him. "I'm an unbelievably great guy, I can supply references, I've been in 19 weddings..." He got only as far as the fourth reason when they started fighting.
After dinner, they went to Sipango and met Stodghill's 10 best buddies, all trying to sell Ann on Stodge.
"His posse was so much fun, so nice," Ann says. "Steve collects people. He can be one of the meanest guys on the planet, but if you are his friend, he will unfold his bat wings and envelop you in them."
Their wedding took place at the Dallas Museum of Art with 500 of their close friends at a sit-down dinner. Everyone marveled at the life-size ice sculpture of Bevo bathed in orange light.
Which brings up the UT connection...
Frat boys stick together.
Slit Stodghill's wrists and he bleeds burnt orange. Virtually everyone in their wedding had some connection to the University of Texas.
Melsheimer says that the lowest he's ever seen Stodghill was at the end of the Texas-OU game when Oklahoma won by 50 points. He cried at the end of the most recent Rose Bowl, when UT beat USC. Soon after the game he bought a signed and framed Vince Young jersey. His and Ann's new kitten is named Vince Young.
Stodghill's intense loyalty to UT and his fraternity has created a sort of Longhorn Mafia.
"I have three kids, and Steve can do more schmoozing in a week than I can do in a year," Melsheimer says. "I like to say Steve has a Ph.D. in schmoozing. He gets out there and helps develop business. Some people do that and are very ham-handed about it. They'll meet someone and hit them up for business after a few weeks or months. Steve never does that. He'll know people for years before a business opportunity presents itself. Most of the time the other person raises it."
Stodghill sells his colleagues, Melsheimer says, not himself. "He's the best salesman for me that I know," Melsheimer says. "Nobody wants someone who's a pest--tugging at their sleeve and saying, 'Give me business' or 'Cast me in your movie.' He's the opposite of that."
Stodghill's celebrity encounters began with Gilpin's casting as Roz on the TV sitcom Frasier. They'd been each other's biggest cheerleaders for years. Before Roz, Gilpin would call Stodghill to catch up and complain she couldn't get arrested and was a terrible actress and should abandon her Hollywood dreams. "He'd say, 'Right,' and he'd name the 20 great things you've done," Gilpin says. "He knows how to get you out of your funk."
During Frasier's heyday, Stodghill would visit Gilpin at tapings and met Kelsey Grammer, David Hyde Pierce, Jane Leeves and the rest.
Then there was the time he was shown on TV with Courtney Love at a Mavs game. Even Stodghill doesn't remember how that came about.
Carpe the diem whenever possible.
When Stodghill finds time to practice law is a mystery. He's always jetting off with Wagner to play golf in the Dominican Republic, attending a movie premiere in Los Angeles or hanging out at an expensive resort in Cabo. If Wagner invites Stodghill to China, he says yes. If actor Adrien Brody comes to town and wants to see the Mavs, Stodghill not only takes him to the game but out to dinner.
"We all tease him about the fact that he's always available," Wagner says. "If a friend comes in town, he magically carves out the time to take them to dinner. Steve's always up for adventure. He's mastered the skill of balancing his life."
Balance is relative. When not invited on the trip, Ann goes shopping. Hanging in her closet is an Ocean's Twelve ballgown, purchased when her husband went as Wagner's "date" to the premiere.
At that event, Stodghill was introduced to Bruce Willis. "He's fantastic," Stodghill says. "He was saying, 'Where are you from?' Just a nice guy."
Willis caught Stodghill gawking at his date, a voluptuous actress and, in a room of gorgeous babes, by far the most stunning. Willis gave Stodghill a big wink.
"Bruce, you're the man," Stodghill said.
"Steve, I know I'm the man," Willis replied.
He met Chris Tucker after the actor pitched a script to 2929 Productions. Stodghill zipped around on the set of Rush Hour II with Tucker in the actor's new $300,000 Ferrari. One day, Ann answered the phone and heard Tucker's high-pitched voice: "Is Stodge-Dog in the house?"
She turned to her husband and asked, "I guess you would be Stodge-Dog?"
Stodghill may be a joke among some of Dallas' legal community, but he's in on the joke. "He's just incredibly sticky," says Simon, who has seen Stodghill walk into Hibiscus with the oddest collection of people. "People meet him, and they stick to him. He regards life as a great adventure. He's unabashedly enthusiastic. There's nothing Machiavellian about him. I've seen how he treats people of no particular consequence."
Terdema Ussery says that Stodghill doesn't realize that some of the situations he gets himself into are "pretty unique."
Take Stodghill's friendship with Elizabeth Hurley. Six weeks before his wedding, Hurley was in Dallas filming the movie Serving Sara with Matthew Perry and had a lot of down time, thanks to her co-star's sudden need for rehab. Stodghill met her through a mutual friend and ended up taking her to dinner.
As filming got delayed, Hurley would call. "Stodgy, I'm bored, let's go see a movie." They got to be good friends.
One night, a couple of fraternity brothers came to Dallas for a Mavs game. He told them they could have his season tickets on the third row. He'd be sitting in Wagner's seats with Elizabeth Hurley.
"They said, 'Sure you are,'" Stodghill says. At the game, Hurley wanted to meet hockey player Mike Modano. "I knew him from the Cannes Film Festival," Stodghill says. He scooted across the arena and said, "Mike, I'm here with Elizabeth Hurley. She'd like to meet you."
Modano, unclear on the concept of how beautiful movie stars expect to be treated, said, "Sure, bring her over."
"Mike, work with me on this," Stodghill said. Modano met Hurley, and they all ended up going to Bob's Steak & Chop House.
That ended up in Alan Peppard's society column. Stodghill got a blistering phone call from his fiancée. "I've gotten five phone calls from my friends," Ann said. "What the hell is going on between you and Elizabeth Hurley?"
Quick on his feet, Stodghill said, "Ann, sit back and think about what you just said." Long pause. "Yeah, you're right," she answered and hung up.
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Post-Oscars, Wagner and Cuban's budding entertainment empire has gone into hyper-drive, with HDnet cable stations, the Landmark Theater chain, plus TV and film productions. They've signed Soderbergh to a six-picture deal to make films in high definition. Stodghill's opportunities to hobnob with celebrities are expanding exponentially.
"I think I get carried along on a lot of this stuff for humorous relief," Stodghill says. "Hopefully I hold my own."
Stodghill's pasty visage will get wide release in The Wendell Baker Story, starring Luke and Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Eva Mendes, Harry Dean Stanton and Kris Kristofferson. At the film's world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival, Stodghill sat next to Owen. "You got three laughs out of five lines," Owen told him. "That's great. I may have another part for you."
But Stodghill doesn't want to be typecast. "I have to think of my career," he says. Surely he's not serious. Is he?