THE ENCOUNTER TOOK ONLY AN instant—and for New York City, at least, it seemed like no big deal. At 1:30 a.m. on Oct. 7, actor Robert De Niro, 52, walked out of Manhattan's trendy Bowery Bar and suddenly grabbed the hair of a photographer who was staking out the front door. "Give me the videotape!" De Niro shouted. Moments later the actor walked off. No one was shocked when the papers subsequently reported that cameraman Joseph Ligier, 25, was pressing misdemeanor assault charges against De Niro. Hey, it happens every day in the big city.

But not quite like this. The war between the paparazzi and celebrities has escalated lately on both coasts. In the last two months, Woody Harrelson and Tony Danza (see page 63) have gotten physical with lensmen who shot photos of their kids. And De Niro, after his initial outburst, is now fighting back through the legal system—by cooperating with authorities to pursue a possible extortion case against Ligier.

De Niro's lawyers say that two days after the incident, a caller told them the assault charges could "go away" for $300,000. That price dropped to $150,000 after negotiations with Ligier's lawyer Anthony Amoscato, which De Niro's representatives taped at the Manhattan prosecutors' suggestion.

On Fri., Oct. 13, De Niro attorney Thomas Harvey picked up Ligier and Amoscato in a bugged black stretch limo. After a stop at the Manhattan district attorney's office, where Ligier withdrew his complaint, Harvey took the $150,000 out of a briefcase and handed it over. At that point detectives moved in and took both Amoscato and Ligier in for questioning. "We think it's extortion," said a law-enforcement source. "At best it was a very sleazy approach."

Despite the ongoing investigation into Ligier's actions, the cameraman, who refused to comment, didn't seem too worried. A week after being released, he was back on the street with his camera, handing out a flyer reading, "Cash Reward!!! If you see: Julia Roberts, Madonna, Brad Pitt..."