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.