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Big Man On Campus

Todd Phillips can finally get arrested...by "Starsky & Hutch."

NEW YORK — He may never be called the next Martin Scorsese, but Todd Phillips is happy to settle for being the next Ivan Reitman. And the 33-year-old director, who wrote and directed the surprise hits “Road Trip” and “Old School,” now boasts what film-school graduates everywhere dream of: a big-screen adaptation of a long-forgotten television series with franchise possibilities. His latest movie, “Starsky & Hutch,” opens tomorrow, and stars Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and Snoop Dogg. Not bad for a New York University dropout who started off, at 22, as a driver for “Taxicab Confessions.”

“Hey, it got me in with people at HBO,” says Phillips, calling from his office on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. On the strength of his relationships at the network (and a student documentary about the self-destructive punk rocker g.g. Allen), Phillips got the green light to make “Frat House,” a documentary about hazing rituals that was a hit at Sundance, but has never been shown because its subjects threatened legal action. But Reitman saw it and came on as a producer of “Road Trip.”

“It just sort of happened,” Phillips recalls. “He has always been something of an inspiration to me, a mentor. I mean, ‘Stripes?’ ‘Animal House?’ That’s the stuff you watch over and over as a 12-year-old.”

Phillips has achieved a similar cult status with his first two movies, which have made him a semi-household name, at least in campus dorm rooms. The bigger-budgeted “Starsky & Hutch” is something of a departure, a project that mostly interested him because of the cast he assembled. “That’s not to say I wasn’t a fan of the show — I was,” he backtracks. “But not a big enough fan that I would spend two years of my life on it if Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson weren’t involved. I mean, I wouldn’t have made it with Vin Diesel and Paul Walker.”

Indeed, Phillips is loyal to a regular ensemble (he likens its members to a mob family) that includes the Wilson brothers, Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell. The camaraderie helps create an easygoing atmosphere on the set. “I keep it really loose and friendly. Everybody’s just hanging out, and it’s not because I’m not serious, it’s because I think that sense of fun finds its way into my movies,” Phillips says. “I’m not delusional — I know that some people don’t like my movies, but one thing that even people who don’t like the movies say is, ‘Boy, looks like you guys had a great time making it.’”

This story first appeared in the March 4, 2004 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

And despite the big opening numbers expected for “Starsky’s” first weekend, Phillips is still nervous. “I remember six months ago, we were looking at the release date for the movie and someone said, ‘What’s this “Passion” thing?’ We all laughed. It had the biggest non-holiday opening in the history of the movie business!”

Things in Hollywood move fast, and success has brought the Long Island native bigger offers. His next project is a film version of another television series, “The Six Million Dollar Man,” starring Jim Carrey. But that doesn’t mean his mother’s impressed. “I flew her out to L.A. for the premiere of ‘Road Trip.’ This was a big deal — it’s my first Hollywood movie and there’s a red carpet, press people, the whole thing,” Phillips recalls. “We step out of the car together and there are all these photographers and I say, ‘Look at this, Ma, this is just for the movie. Isn’t this cool?’ And she looks at me and says, ‘Your sister’s a doctor.’”

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