November 11, 2013 3:30pm PT by Eriq Gardner
Jon Voight, Judd Apatow Pen Letters Begging Leniency for Guilty 'Ray Donovan' Producer (Exclusive)
On November 25, Bryan Zuriff, an executive producer on Showtime's Ray Donovan, will learn if he'll have to spend time in prison after pleading guilty for his role in a high-stakes sports betting business.
In advance of his sentencing, Zuriff has written a letter to New York judge Jesse Furman that begs for mercy and calls the day he was arrested "the biggest wake-up call of my life." And Zuriff isn't the only one asking for leniency. Court documents obtained by The Hollywood Reporter reveal that a number of Hollywood power players -- including Knocked Up director Judd Apatow, Lone Survivor director Peter Berg and Ray Donovan star Jon Voight and producers Ann Biderman and Mark Gordon -- also have penned letters to the judge in support of the embattled producer.
In his letter, Berg calls Zuriff "my good friend of ten years" and says that mistakes of judgment are in the past. "I have had many long conversations with Bryan since his arrest, and I believe that he understands both the wrongness of his actions and the necessity of taking self-responsibility and never making these kinds of judgment errors again," writes Berg.
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Voight writes that Zuriff has been a constant presence on the Ray Donovan set and that the cast and crew developed a bond with him. Voight credits Zuriff's work ethic, clear head and positive attitude, and says he was particularly impressed by how the producer handled himself when police came to his home and handcuffed him in front of his family.
"Bryan did not hide," writes Voight. "As soon as he was released on bail he came to the set to express his sorrow and shame to all of us. He was full of remorse and sadness. We thank God he didn't give up and walk away from his work. Despite the painful private challenges he was facing he was able to be there to finish overseeing the season's last episodes. There isn't one of us who has worked with Bryan that doesn't feel he is a fine man and deserving of our loyalty."
Apatow, the heavyweight producer and director, also is supportive. After using Zuriff's home as a filming location for Knocked Up, Apatow says he got to know the producer and came to appreciate his generosity. "It is not easy to allow a movie crew into your home for several weeks and to watch as hundreds of people move your belongings and disrupt your life," writes Apatow. "Yet, this is exactly what Bryan did, and he did so graciously and modestly."
Apatow later writes that he is "surprised and confused by the actions which have led to his guilty plea. Those actions are out of character for family, friends and hard work. Bryan has not made excuses to me for what he did. In my conversations with Bryan, he has owned his actions and taken responsibility. His remorse is genuine. I believe he is truly sorry for what he did and is ready to make amends."
Others asking the judge for leniency are Hangover producer Scott Budnick, Content Partners CEO Steven Kram, game show producer Burt Sugarman, as well as various Ray Donovan staffers and family.
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Last April, Zuriff was one of 34 people accused of being part of a scheme by two Russian-American organized-crime gambling enterprises. In July, he became the first defendant to cop a plea.
"My family was terrified, my reputation was destroyed and I had to look deep into myself and face how I created this disaster," Zuriff writes to the judge. "Looking back, I see now that I was living two parallel lives -- on the one hand, building a solid and respectable family and career, and on the other hand, escaping into a world of [redacted] gambling. It is a world that I am happy to leave behind."
Zuriff's plea deal was entered into court on July 25, and in conjunction with the plea, the parties entered into an agreement that provided for a possible prison stay of 6 to 12 months. In addition, Zuriff agreed to forfeit $500,000, which he has already paid in full.
Charles Clayman and Isabelle Kirshner, Zuriff's attorneys, say the agreement precludes either party from seeking a departure from the guidelines, but that Zuriff is free to urge the judge to impose a non-custodial sentence. In letters to the court, Zuriff's lawyers say a probationary sentence would be sufficient.
The lawyers also describe how Zuriff, who caught his break in Hollywood as a talent manager for stars like Elizabeth Shue, Chris Noth and Brent Spiner, got caught up in the gambling enterprise.
On Ray Donovan, Zuriff worked with Gordon, whose company also produces Grey's Anatomy and Criminal Minds.
"Mark Gordon is an influential force in Hollywood and through his association with Gordon, Bryan developed social relationships with a number of Hollywood insiders," say the latest legal papers. "[Zuriff] started playing basketball and poker with a particular well-known actor, at whose home he met Hillel Nahmad, known to most people as Helly, and Ilya Trencher, co-defendants charged in this indictment.... This newfound friendship was exciting and Bryan did all he could to fit in with his new companions."
The explanation of Zuriff's activity continues:
"Helly and Ilya were such successful gamblers that bookmakers in L.A. did not want to deal with them, so they asked Bryan to find bookmakers that they could use to place bets. Bryan's personal gambling had steadily increased over the years, but with his new friends, his gambling quickly escalated."
Zuriff's lawyers say their client has had a gambling problem since childhood, but that after he met the other alleged co-conspirators, he found a way to "double his pleasure" by opening a "sports book" account on unlawful Internet gambling sites. Zuriff accepted wagers on behalf of Nahmad and others and took a portion of the proceeds as well as "their inside information as a guide to help him place his own wagers."
His attorneys admit that he knew Nahmad and Trencher but say he had no knowledge of their alleged connection to Russian organized crime.
The legal papers say that Showtime and its parent company CBS considered suspending Zuriff after he was arrested.
"Bryan wanted to make sure that no harm was done to his 'baby,' so he voluntarily resigned as executive producer of Ray Donovan," say the legal papers. "A month later, he was asked to return to the show as a consultant and remains deeply involved in the production of its second season."
THR has reached out to Showtime for comment on Zuriff's statements.
The legal papers also say that Zuriff has been at work on a Todd Phillips movie to be filmed in the summer of 2014, the production of an Aaron Sorkin-penned movie about Steve Jobs and a number of other TV and film projects.
"Having to take a public leave of absence to protect my show from negative publicity was a tremendous blow, and incredibly embarrassing," writes Zuriff in his own letter to the judge. "I am determined to never jeopardize my professional life or my family's happiness and security again."
Zuriff concludes his letter by saying, "Please, when you review my case, take into consideration both the positive impacts I have otherwise had on my community, and the transformation I am undertaking in my life. I hope you will be as understanding as you feel appropriate. I promise you, as I have promised my colleagues, wife and children, that nothing like this will ever happen again."