Edward L. Woody, 65, is a controversial player in the high-stakes business of fame
He has even portrayed himself on a couple of episodes of "Entourage"
Woody says he's an old-school news photographer whose subjects happen to be celebs
Graying and grizzled, E.L. Woody still had the legs to stake out Arnold Schwarzenegger during the ex-governor’s recent love child scandal. But all’s not well in the 31-year reign of the self-described “King of the Paparazzi.”
Loathed by some A-list artists and loved by audiences for his revelations about celebrities, Woody, 65, has long been one of Hollywood’s most controversial players in the high-stakes business of fame.
Like most everyone else in mass communication, though – from studios to newspapers to networks – he and other paparazzi are not immune to the world’s media revolution.
On the front lines or back alleys of celebrity photography since 1980, Edward L. Woody is a study in the changing fortunes of fame.
The goateed paparazzo with a Texas twang has been such a steady fixture in Hollywood that he has even portrayed himself on a couple of episodes of “Entourage,” a popular cable TV series about a group of young men negotiating life in showbiz’s fast lane.
Daring, combative and savvy to how stars and “paps” need each other, Woody possesses the ability to be confrontational yet sympathetic, particularly with celebrities looking for a break.
“They have to have the photogs. It feeds the ego. Every flash, every click feeds their careers,” he says. “It feeds the supernova of fame.”
He declares he’s an old-school news photographer whose subjects happen to be celebs, but such newsman status hasn’t kept him out of face-offs or fisticuffs. He has an “attack reel” featuring Sylvester Stallone, Tommy Lee, Drew Barrymore, Snoop Dog and Leonardo DiCaprio expressing antagonism or even aggression toward him or his two protégés.
“We’re the sleazy paparazzi,” Woody said mockingly. “We’re the people that don’t get invited (by celebrities), but we’re the people that they depend on.”
Times have been difficult for his small shop, where he employs two other shooters who do a lot of late-night club and street work.
While the digital age has brought a nearly insatiable demand for entertainment news, that hasn’t translated into a bonanza for paparazzi, Woody says.
Major media companies are increasingly involved in the celebrity news business, building up their own paparazzi outfits, buying up smaller ones or paying less for independent images. The market is also flooded with amateurs with cameras – including, Woody says, illegal immigrants – who sell their work at near giveaway prices.
California has imposed a series of controversial laws restricting aggressive paparazzi, which some legal analysts say impinges on the First Amendment. Meanwhile, celebrities such as Kim Kardashian broker their own exclusive deals with media outlets, cutting out paparazzi like Woody.
“The Kardashians, they got over $18 million for the exclusive rights to their wedding package,” Woody said, referring to Kim Kardashian’s recent marriage to NBA player Kris Humphries, which landed in divorce court after 72 days.
“That’s where all the big money is.”
The era of six-figure or even million-dollar moments – such as when Sarah Ferguson, then-Duchess of York, was photographed topless with her toes being sucked by American financial adviser John Bryan in the 1990s – is bygone, he said.
“Those prices don’t exist any more,” Woody said. “I haven’t had a $10,000 sale for a still since Shia LeBeouf’s wreck (three) years ago.”
Woody’s finances have also been stressed by a battle with colon cancer in 2008 and a subsequent infection. His Los Angeles house, which doubles as his office, is facing foreclosure, and he is considering downsizing to a smaller residence.
“It’s a tough racket, and it becomes a tougher racket with people dumping photos at such low prices. The paydays are getting smaller and smaller and smaller,” he said.
Woody also resents what he calls “the encroachment of the networks on celebrity news.”
“They are supposed to be doing real news. There’s plenty of stuff out there that’s important to the public, but they are filling up programs with news about Lindsay Lohan.”
Changing public standards are driving such vagaries of fame, said media psychologist Stuart Fischoff.
“When The New York Times is covering the same story as the National Enquirer and the tabloids are covering, then you know that things have changed,” said Fischoff, senior editor of the online Journal of Media Psychology and a retired psychology professor at California State University at Los Angeles.
“The rules have changed and the sensibility has changed, and the standard of taste has changed. It’s kind of a moral anarchy,” he said. “[The paparazzi] have to worry about that because they made their living being the source of information about the underbelly of society and the deviations that were taking place.
“Now, all of sudden, what was a deviation is normative, and what was the underbelly is now the face of whatever the celebrity wants to do. The dark side becomes the light side, the shadow becomes the persona,” Fischoff said. “It’s that kind of reversal of fortunes which is problematic for the paparazzi.”
Since Princess Diana was killed in Paris during a 1997 car chase that involved photographers, paparazzi also have been targeted by an array of laws in California – a world capital of entertainment – that bear down on aggressive behavior. A British inquest later determined Diana’s speeding driver was drunk and that Diana wasn’t wearing a seat belt; the photographers also bore a heavy responsibility in her death, according to a jury in the inquest.
Under California’s most recent law – the third in the past five years alone – the state imposed additional penalties for photographers who drive recklessly in pursuit of a picture or who swarm or create “false imprisonment” around a celebrity.
The 2010 law was sponsored by U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, when she was in the California Assembly. Actress Jennifer Aniston and other celebrities contacted her about how paparazzi conduct was becoming a major safety concern, Bass said.
A recent legal analysis of the new legislation said it violates the First Amendment and that existing laws already address any aggressive behavior by paparazzi.
“In taking steps further than these general laws, lawmakers seek to save the people from their ‘appetite to learn about even the most mundane details of the celebrities’ lives’ and, in the process, trample on the First Amendment,” according to the analysis, which appeared in the Loyola of Los Angeles Entertainment Law Review following a recent Loyola Law School forum on the law.
“This law was in no way intended to infringe on the First Amendment rights of the press, but rather impose a penalty on photographers whose motive is to exploit celebrities using devious practices,” she told CNN in a written response to questions.
“The tactics paparazzi use to obtain photos of celebrities are often careless and create a severe risk to the public,” she wrote. “The paparazzi began engaging in high-speed pursuits and causing near accidents merely to take photos, more recently with actress Tori Spelling who was involved in an accident due to the paparazzi’s over-aggressive conduct.”
As one might expect, Woody is a fierce critic of the anti-paparazzi laws and the celebrities who seek them.
“People think that the paparazzi, while individually may be unsavory, their entire product is believable,” he says. “It has veracity because they know we’re not going to go out and make something up.”
His work, he says, represents “the voice of the people.”
Woody’s office walls are covered with a proud mess of newspaper and tabloid clippings bearing his photographs of Charlie Sheen, Brad Pitt, Elizabeth Taylor, George Clooney and Paris Hilton, among others. Several computer monitors flash similar scoops.
Sitting behind his desk, the longtime paparazzo speaks with bravado. He boasts a treasured archive and says he’s the oldest pap still working the Hollywood night scene.
In fact, his best work is done at 2 a.m., when the bars close and celebrities are likely to get into trouble, he says.
“We’re getting the news like the way real reporters used to do it,” Woody said. “I’ll tell you, we got beat up and harassed and cops put on us and security guards put on us, but we finally got respect when guys like Mark Wahlberg realized what value we are and put out the word to their buddies.”
Wahlberg, an actor, is executive producer of “Entourage.”
While Wahlberg wasn’t available for comment, Beverly Hills public relations specialist Elliot Mintz says he always encourages his celebrity clients to speak with Woody, whom he described as the oldest and longest working paparazzo in Hollywood.
“He doesn’t spin or trade out a story. He’s old guard,” said Mintz, 66, who worked as a Los Angeles radio show host and KABC entertainment reporter in the 1960s and ’70s.
Woody isn’t like some paparazzi who “are out there to get the mean money-shot, which is out to humiliate” a celebrity, Mintz said. “That’s their purpose, how can we make those people look bad. That’s not Woody’s purpose.”
Credit Woody’s work ethic and longevity to his Green Beret background in the Vietnam War, where he served from 1968 to 1969 as a U.S. Army Special Forces medic and later a platoon and company commander who helped train 1,700 Montagnard mercenaries, a hill tribe that fought alongside U.S. and South Vietnamese forces.
It was during his tour in Vietnam that he learned photography from comrade and Army photographer Robert Skinner, who taught him the finer points on a Leica single lens reflex camera and was a member with Woody on the 5th Mobile Strike Force. Woody also attributes his interest to his father, Burtis, a World War II veteran who later joined the Air Force and trained as a photographer.
After Vietnam, Woody held odd jobs and shot photos for Easyriders magazine. By 1979, he moved to the California hub of celebrities – Malibu – to edit and write in Easyriders’ offices there.
While also working security and production jobs at a Malibu music venue called the Trancas Roadhouse, he began taking pictures of visiting celebs and musicians: Nick Nolte, Don Johnson, Kris Kristofferson, Ali MacGraw, Eddie Van Halen, Bob Seger.
Hundreds of Woody’s photographs covered the walls of the roadhouse, and soon he was such good friends with actor and fellow motorcycle enthusiast Jan Michael Vincent that Woody was taking his photo for a People magazine spread in 1983 and living on Vincent’s Malibu ranch down the road from the Easyriders office.
After living on friends’ couches or house-sitting in Malibu, he moved to Hollywood in 1989 and continued his celebrity photography.
Woody stopped using film in 2004. Today, he says, the real money is in video. He and his two photographers now tote hand-held video cameras.
“Have you ever noticed that paparazzi have never been proved to be liars. Why? Because video tells the story,” Woody said.
As one of the first paparazzi to use video – he insists he was the first, in 1993 – he has a library of 100,000 video clips of celebrities, plus more than a million still photographs. Video has been his business’ principal income since 1994, he said.
His PopTvDotCom YouTube site summarizes his daily scoops as a promotional catalog. His clients include TV entertainment news broadcasts, newspapers and magazines, which he declined to name for competitive reasons.
On a recent afternoon, one of his two protégés, Steve Brodersen, 40, was on a routine hunt for another video scoop.
Brodersen looked like he could be an undercover cop on a TV police drama: He sported a long beard, shoulder-length hair, wrap-around sunglasses and a black bowler.
After making the rounds in West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, along Melrose Avenue and Sunset Boulevard, Brodersen had no luck.
Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes weren’t home. Neither was Christina Aguilera.
He drove to Coldwater Canyon Park, where Heidi Klum, Jessica Alba and Gwen Stefani often take their children.
Instead, he found a knot of fellow paparazzi standing outside their parked Priuses, killing time.
Brodersen drives a Prius too. After 20 years as a pap, he began driving the hybrid to save money when gas hit $5 a gallon a few years ago. He was spending $100 on a tank of gas for his Tahoe every two and a half days. Now he drops $30 in the tank every six days.
His paychecks just aren’t what they used to be, either.
He remembers making $15,000 a month a few years ago. Now it’s $3,000 to $4,000. He attributes the trend to the recent recession.
For example, many tipsters now sell information to everyone but claim they are passing along an exclusive.
Why do they stretch the truth? They need cash.
“I’m in it right now because I’m still making money and I like doing it,” Brodersen said. “I’d rather do this than sit behind a desk.”
Later that evening, an example of the rise of reality shows played out when Woody’s other lensman, Henry Trappler, 46, was discreetly stationed under a canopy outside CBS Studios waiting for the principals of “Dancing With The Stars” to exit.
The contestants and dancers are big sellers: TV outlets just can’t get enough of the video shot by Woody and his protégés of the performers hitting the clubs and restaurants after the show.
Trappler had a fairly productive evening: He collected footage of host Tom Bergeron and pro dancer Tristan MacManus ambling outside the studio. Trappler was the only one peppering them with questions on the sidewalk.
He had to wait 90 minutes for his next subject: Kristina Kraus, a hair stylist in a tight dress and heels from Orange County, California, who’s on the dating reality show “Sweet Home Alabama” and prefers the nickname “O’C-licious.”
It didn’t really matter.
She and a friend had just walked out of a restaurant near the studios, and Trappler asked her flattering questions about how she liked the show.
Woody, however, tried to bait her with questions about whether she thought the Kardashians had any particular talent.
“Kim has one song,” Kraus responded. “They exude this glamazon lifestyle.”
That wasn’t the quote that Woody sought.
“She’s nothing to us,” Woody said of Kraus. “But I’ll get my dig into the Kardashians every chance I get.”