Star Attraction

How a package of golf balls brought John Travolta to Mike Ossi’s doorstep

Published in 2010 Florida Super Lawyers — June 2010

Act I: How it Began

The scene opens in the pro shop at Pablo Creek, an exclusive golf course in north Florida, on an ordinary day in October 2001. Mike Ossi, personal injury attorney from Jacksonville, is buying golf balls and minding his own business. A pro shop employee stands behind the counter.

The phone rings. The employee answers: Hello? Uh-huh, OK, wait a minute.

He puts a hand over the mouthpiece and looks at Ossi. “It’s Samuel Jackson’s assistant, and Jackson wants to play golf.”

That’s Samuel L. Jackson, the movie star (Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Jurassic Park). He’s in the area shooting Basic, a military-suspense thriller with Pulp Fiction buddy John Travolta, and he wants to play golf at this swanky course that has strict rules: no visitors unless accompanied by a member.

So Ossi, a genial guy with an eye for opportunity and a knack for being in the right place at the right time, offers to do the honors.

And that’s how—eventually—Ossi came to meet and become primary attorney, as well as family friend, to John Travolta. But not yet.

There’s more to the story than that, but here’s how it ends: Today, when Travolta—a multi-national corporation unto himself—needs a movie contract negotiated, Ossi is in charge. When Travolta buys real estate or sues a developer, Ossi is on the case. Most recently, in a bizarre extortion case centering around the tragic accidental death of Travolta’s son in the Bahamas, Ossi was there to speak for the family in court and to the media.

 “He’s the single most active person in John’s [professional] life,” says Phil Davis, a longtime L.A. attorney who represents actors, writers, producers, musicians, studios and other players in the entertainment industry. Davis works with Ossi on Travolta’s entertainment law matters. “He’s the quarterback for John’s various activities.”

Ossi, founder and partner in Ossi, Najem and Rosario, came to entertainment law through the back door. Entertainment attorneys may be as plentiful as starlets in Hollywood, but they’re nearly nonexistent in Florida, despite the Sunshine State’s fervent longtime hopes to become “Hollywood East.” When movie stars need a lawyer, they don’t check the Jacksonville Yellow Pages. Even players for the Heat, the Magic, the Dolphins and the Jaguars are represented by out-of-state counsel.

So how did Ossi come to be Travolta’s go-to legal eagle?

 

Act II: Flashback

Ossi never dreamed of stardom, even in his chosen field of personal injury law.

“I always went for the base hits,” he says. A native of Jacksonville and graduate of Stetson University College of Law, he started practicing in the mid-1980s, gladly taking the cases other attorneys didn’t want: the claims for less than $100,000 and the cases that were tough to prove, like soft-tissue injuries.

His willingness to take a chance and his uncanny propensity for catching a break intersected one day in the late ’80s at his father’s drugstore. A customer had a problem with L-tryptophan, a component in a drug for nervousness and insomnia. Ossi became involved in a class-action representation of hundreds of Florida plaintiffs against the manufacturer of a bad batch of the drug. It ended in a significant out-of-court settlement.

“Sometimes being lucky is good,” he says. “You have to be lucky when you’re young.”

His technique is to stay low-key and work things out with fellow attorneys rather than be combative. “I haven’t made one enemy since I started practicing law,” he says.

It’s certainly difficult to find anyone with a negative word to say about him. The worst people say of him—and that’s people in L.A.—is that he’s the world’s biggest Yankees fan.

Even in the ferocious, clash-of-the-egos entertainment industry, people genuinely like him, according to Travolta’s agent, Randi Michel, of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment. At the agency, Ossi is “loved and revered,” she says. “I guess that’s an odd thing to say about a lawyer. For a guy to operate in Hollywood and be loved, that’s a feat in itself.

“He has this uncanny ability to keep people on the other side of the table happy and also get every drop he can for his clients.” Don’t let the friendly exterior fool you, she warns: “He’s a shark when it comes to business.”

Davis calls Ossi street-savvy: “He sizes up what’s going on and doesn’t get lost in the minutiae.” And does it while maintaining a non-confrontational, non-arrogant demeanor, Davis says.

Gradually, through word of mouth, Ossi built his personal injury practice—a field in which he’s still active, regardless of the entertainment business. Convinced that personal connections were the way to be successful, he joined the prestigious Pablo Creek in 1999.

Which is how he came to be in the pro shop when Jackson’s assistant called. “We became friends after that first round of golf,” Ossi says of Jackson. Pretty soon, he was hitting the links almost daily with other actors, producers, even executive producers.

Nor was this his first brush with celebrity. A few years earlier, actor Gregory Harrison, who played a young doctor on the TV series Trapper John, M.D., wanted to play at Pablo and Ossi gladly obliged.

But the big fish waited. Travolta didn’t take his turn as Ossi’s guest until Jan. 19, 2002. (Ossi is a whiz at remembering dates.) After a few rounds of golf, Travolta started sending little legal tasks Ossi’s way. Eventually Travolta trusted him to handle bigger cases, including his suit against Jumbolair, an Ocala fly-in community, and its adjacent airport that didn’t want him landing his 747 there. Ossi won.

By the time Travolta’s son, Jett, died in January 2009, Ossi was a trusted family confidante. To compound the tragedy, two Bahamians—including a former senator—tried to extort money from Travolta, allegedly over a secret document related to the incident. Ossi represented the family in a foreign court as the case dragged on. He spoke for them to the media as well.

The document in question was a “refusal to transport” form that a paramedic claimed Travolta signed when first responders were working on Jett. The form is often used in the case of minor injuries when people decline to go to the hospital in an ambulance. Police said it was not a factor in Travolta’s case. The legal problem started when the paramedic, through his attorney, tried to sell the document.

Courts in the Bahamas are nothing like their American counterparts, Ossi learned. No video depositions are allowed, he says, and there are no alternate jurors. If someone gets sick or is bumped from the jury, the whole process has to start over at the beginning.

The biggest difference is that Bahamian justice allows defendants three options: take the stand, decline to take the stand, or give an unsworn statement directly to the jury. No prizes for guessing which option Travolta’s alleged extorters chose.

It’s a challenge to fight for your client when you can’t cross-examine people. Still, Ossi believed he had made his case and was on the verge of victory when a mistrial was declared in October 2009 because of jury misconduct. A local politician who knew a juror announced, before the jury came back with a verdict, that one of the defendants had been acquitted. The case has been reset for trial in the Bahamas in September. Meanwhile, U.S. authorities are involved, independent of the Bahamian prosecution, since the alleged crimes involved contacts within Florida, therefore crossing international borders.

 

Act III: The Other Side of Fame

So what’s Travolta really like? He and his wife, Kelly Preston, are genuinely nice, regular people, Ossi says.

A couple of years ago, Ossi and his wife were honorary chairs of the Red Rose Ball, an annual fund-raiser for St. Vincent’s Hospital. That year, the funds were earmarked for a neo-natal nursery. Travolta and Preston volunteered to be the celebrity guest hosts. On event night, Preston, in a Badgley Mischka gown and Travolta in his Armani tux, rolled up to the event not in a limo, but in the Ossi family SUV.

“John and Kelly proceeded to take photos and chat with over 500 guests, skipped their meals and helped auction items for the hospital,” Ossi recalls.

They also endeared themselves to locals by remembering the names of those who had been extras in Basic.

“The event turned out to be a fund-raising bonanza for the hospital,” Ossi says.

In a more high-profile rescue mission, Travolta used his 747—the plane his subdivision didn’t want him landing on its airstrip—to fly doctors, supplies, 6 tons of ready-to-eat military rations (and Scientology ministers) into quake-ravaged Haiti earlier this year. A 7-year-old Haitian boy, orphaned by the quake, got a private look inside the plane, plus extra treats, according to news reports.

And what’s it like being an attorney to the stars? Nothing glamorous, Ossi reports. There’s more grunt work than glory. You’re on-call 24/7, and there’s no room for self-promotion or grand-standing.

“You have to have absolutely no ego whatsoever to be an entertainment attorney,” Ossi says.

You also have to know your position in the celebrity firmament: “If I were handling an extortion case in the Bahamas for anybody but John Travolta, nobody would care,” he says.

Celeb lawyers also become familiar with the other face of fame: life in a goldfish bowl. Something that barely rates a raised eyebrow for ordinary mortals—a marital indiscretion, a minor brush with the law—is a big deal for a celebrity.

Every move their attorneys make is scrutinized, too. And on top of everything, they must be able to make decisions in a split second—decisions that affect people’s careers and livelihoods.

If you’re an entertainment lawyer in Florida, you also have to be better and work harder than those guys in California, says Ossi. For them, it’s an insult to lose business to some guy from Jacksonville.

Ossi says he and his law partners Lawrence Najem (who’s also his cousin) and Mariano Rosario Jr. would like more entertainment law colleagues in Florida. For that to happen, Florida needs a bigger share of the movie business, and Ossi and Najem have lobbied hard to convince the state Legislature to offer incentives and take other actions to build the state’s film industry.

A bill passed by the state Legislature and headed to the governor’s desk at press time would change film-industry incentives from direct payouts to tax credits, which are more flexible and potentially more valuable to filmmakers. It’s a move Ossi has championed for years. Credits would allow film productions to save money while protecting the state from paying funds from its dwindling budget. Proponents argue that it would make the state more competitive and put it on a par with places such as Louisiana, which is very aggressive about soliciting movie-makers.

The bill is no quick fix for Florida’s film industry, but Ossi is prepared to wait—and well-positioned to do so. After all, it’s all about being in the right place at the right time.

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