Cheatin' Situation

H.L. Mencken said that no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public. Bobby Goldstein is a wealthy man.

The shameless culture that begat The Dating Game, Cops and When Animals Attack! has perhaps reached yet a new low with the late-night cult hit Cheaters. Goldstein is the co-creator and producer of the Dallas-based reality show about folks who fool around and their insignificant others.

The man who helped him bring the show to life is Tommy Habeeb, who plays the Cheaters host, Tommy Grand. Goldstein is the moneyman. Private investigator Danny Gomez is their hired gumshoe. Together, they fight crime. At least they would if adultery were still illegal.

It would also help if the cheaters the show claims to catch red-handed were actually cheating. Or dating.

The show is supposed to work like this: A suspicious lover contacts the show and tells them the object of his or her affection might be straying. They are interviewed on camera, usually at Cheaters' Dallas offices located on, of course, Lovers Lane. Staffers then decide whether to take the case. The show foots the bill for surveillance, which Gomez says can cost more than $10,000, in exchange for broadcast rights.

Detectives stalk and film the suspects at hotels, strip malls and restaurants. Cheaters has even set up cameras in suspects' homes right in front of their beds.

After enough footage is gathered, the cheatee accompanies Grand and crew to a "surveillance situation," usually the cheater on a date with the new flame. The show is built around the ambush-style confrontations that follow: illicit lovers surrounded by lights, cameras and gawkers as Grand damns the busted and consoles the jilted. The ugly rawness of love gone strange bolsters the show's claim to be "the realest of real TV."

But five Dallas-area twentysomethings say investigator Danny Gomez paid them $400 to act out phony scenarios for the show that were presented as real. They say they've sent many other people to Gomez at $50 per referral. Fake footage has been aired hundreds of times. Host Tommy Grand even brought some with him on a recent Maury appearance.

Goldstein says he got the idea for Cheaters in 1995. His concept was to take a fictional private eye and weave him in and out of real-life stories. Goldstein, a former attorney, says Cheaters evolved from his personal and professional experiences.

Goldstein made a pile of money as a lawyer and lost much of it in a 1998 malpractice suit when he had to pay a wealthy Dallas divorcee for misrepresenting her. Goldstein's legal career was over.

"I had a lot of fun as a lawyer, but once you get to the top of the practice of law, all you've really done is climb to the top of a big pile of shit," Goldstein says. "Getting into the entertainment racket is something I'd always wanted to do."

He was "closing up shop" in 1998 and preparing to enter SMU's film school to learn how to make TV shows when a friend introduced him to Tommy Habeeb.

Habeeb had spent 20 years on the fringes of celebrity, including bit parts on Taxi and WKRP in Cincinnati. Habeeb liked Goldstein's idea of a film noir detective relating real stories of marital impropriety. Habeeb told Goldstein that he could have the show on the air within two years.

They formed a production company and filmed a 1999 pilot using actors. Habeeb's private eye character, then called Tommy Gunn, was prone to saying things like, "My favorite drink is Jack, my favorite cigarette is Marlboro and my favorite pastime is helping ladies in distress."

Station programmers turned down the pilot cold.

Undeterred, Goldstein and Habeeb shot several episodes using actual cheaters solicited from classified ads. They hired Danny Gomez, a former Dallas police officer who had just started his own investigation company, to do the legwork.

A German company contracted for a season's worth of episodes, providing the financing needed to film the remainder of the first season. The show first aired there in February 2000. U.S. syndication followed in fall 2000, but with a few changes.

"When we got on in America, they wanted a straight magazine-style show," Goldstein says.

The fictional detective angle was dropped in favor of a more conventional host with a new name. "They said Tommy Gunn was too campy," Grand says, "let's use Tommy Grand."

The show's concept from the outset was a mixture of fact and fantasy, but somewhere along the road to national syndication, the temptation to use faux cheaters must have started looking sweet to somebody. Actors don't need to be tailed by Gomez for weeks on end. They don't present security risks, and they don't need counseling. They also tend to be younger and better-looking than real cheaters, who often will not consent to allow the show to air their faces.

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Scott Nowell