As Hollywood's Fastest Fists Fly Again, a Prosecutor Plans to Give Sean Pennance

updated 05/18/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/18/1987 01:00AM

Poor Sean Penn. People are quick to label the fist-flinging film star and Madonna mate an arrogant brute. But for his latest escapade, pummeling a movie extra who tried to snap his picture, Penn, already on probation for having punched out one of Madonna's old friends, may be facing something worse than another smudge on his reputation. If, on June 23, L.A. County Commissioner Juelann Cathey finds Penn guilty of violating his probation, the pugnacious actor could be looking at a maximum sentence of six months in the slammer. It's time to consider the possibility that Penn, 27, may be an undiagnosed slugoholic.

The slugoholic is someone who just can't help slugging people. Just as the alcoholic says, "I'm a social drinker," and the workaholic says, "Somebody's got to do it," the slugoholic has his rationale: "I was provoked."

Penn's low provocation threshold was demonstrated in Venice, Calif. last month on the film set of Colors, in which Penn and Robert Duvall play a pair of gang-busting L.A. cops, one young and hot-headed (guess who), the other older and wiser. Jeffrie Klein, a 32-year-old scrap-metal dealer from suburban Orange County, was one of about 200 non-union extras being paid $35 a day to skateboard and stroll about the Ocean Front Walk while director Dennis Hopper shot Penn and Duvall walking together. During two takes of this scene, Klein, standing on the sidelines in a crowd, pulled a camera from his pocket as the stars approached and snapped their picture.

Every slugoholic has his trigger, and Penn's is lens. According to the statement Klein later gave police, Penn "came running up to me," cursing and demanding to know, "What are you doing taking pictures?" When Klein explained that he was an extra and pointed out that other people were taking pictures too, "Sean Penn then spit in my face and said, 'What are you going to do now?' "

Klein spit back, possibly not the wisest choice when dealing with a slugoholic. Penn started punching him in the face, Klein said. Three times the crowd separated them, and each time, Klein said, Penn broke free and attacked him again. Witness Meagan Montgomery, another extra, reported to the police that Penn kept pursuing Klein: "I saw Penn try to leap over the security guards and try to hit Klein in the head with his fist." Next day Klein, who is suing Penn for an unspecified amount, was treated for facial bruises by a private physician.

If Klein should have known that waving a camera at Penn is like waving a red cape at a bull, Penn should have known better than to have charged. Less than two weeks earlier, he had been fined $1,000 and placed on a year's probation for attacking a songwriter named David James Wolinski in a Los Angeles restaurant in April 1986. Wolinski's offense had been to say goodnight to Madonna, an old friend, as the couple filed past. "Why did you try to kiss my wife?" Penn reportedly shouted, then knocked Wolinski off his chair with a few flashing rights and struck him with the chair.

In pressure situations, the alcoholic knocks one back, the slugoholic knocks somebody else back. There was the time that free-lance photographer Laurence Cottrell approached the Penns as they were leaving a Nashville hotel in June 1985. Cottrell was bashed with a rock that the alert Penn happened to find nearby.

Up to now Penn's gotten off with suspended sentences, but his scrap with the scrap-metal salesman may be his Waterloo. On April 30 Penn pleaded no contest to charges in the Klein incident and was released pending the June 23 hearing. Though Penn isn't commenting, the office of his attorney, Howard Weitzman, says the actor "denies he has violated any terms and conditions of his probation." City Attorney Alice Hand—who prosecuted the Wolinski case—disagrees and says she intends to seek a jail term.

One sign of Penn's penchant is that he'll go after anybody who irks him, even if that person, like the 5'10", 210-pound Klein, is two inches taller and 60 pounds heavier. But if Penn has to spend time behind bars, he may meet some other slugoholics who could cause him to reflect on his condition in a visceral way. Madonna, who is standing by her man despite rumors of marital discord, recently added a wing to their Malibu home. It includes a dance studio for her and gym equipment for him. He may want to get in some workouts.

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