In a conspiracy as contorted as the plot of one of their action movies, Tom Cruise and John Travolta have been accused of persuading Rupert Murdoch's Fox News to sack an influential entertainment journalist who had a history of criticising the Church of Scientology.
Roger Friedman, who was dismissed in April after a decade covering the TV channel's Hollywood beat, announced yesterday that he intended to sue his former employer for wrongful termination, claiming that they fired him so that Cruise and Travolta would sign on to future Fox movie projects.
The lawsuit, which Friedman bullishly described as a "slam-dunk," promises to shed light on the close ties between powerful Scientologists and film studios that rely on their co-operation to get expensive movies off the ground. It is due to be filed in Manhattan later this week.
Cruise and Travolta have formally denied any connection to the sacking and Fox insists that the journalist was dismissed for writing a column on his "411" blog which encouraged readers to download an illegally pirated version of the 20th Century Fox blockbuster X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
In an interview with the New York Daily News, Friedman, who was a regular talking head on Fox News and wrote a blog on its website that was read by more than 50 million people, claimed that the official grounds were an elaborate cover story.
Though he was formally given the heave-ho for "promoting piracy" the journalist claims he was actually sacked to help Fox build stronger links with the Church of Scientology, of whom he had been a longstanding critic.
At the time of Friedman's dismissal, Fox was involved in protracted (and subsequently successful) negotiations to hire Cruise to appear in the forthcoming romantic comedy Wichita, alongside Cameron Diaz.
Friedman, now at The Hollywood Reporter, also claimed that Travolta's wife, Kelly Preston, had earlier attempted to get him fired last August after they became involved in a heated argument at the funeral of a mutual friend, the late actor and soul singer Isaac Hayes. After bumping into Preston (who, like Hayes and her husband, is a fervent Scientologist) Friedman said he was loudly berated for criticising Scientology in his column. "She called me a religious bigot," Friedman says.
Later, Friedman alleges, Preston orchestrated a meeting between senior Fox executives Roger Ailes and John Moody and the communications department of the Church of Scientology in an effort to have his longstanding criticisms of the church and its most prominent members reined in.
Though Friedman has yet to produce any factual evidence beyond his own recollection to back up his version of his sacking in April, he does appear to have been hard done by. The column for which he was sacked was read and approved by at least four of his superiors.
"It's outrageous that Rupert Murdoch made a decision to fire Roger after four of Roger's editors and superiors reviewed his column and found it very good," said Friedman's attorney, Martin Garbus.
"In falsely claiming Roger engaged in piracy, they attempted to destroy the reputation of a fine journalist. I've seen how Scientology intimidates even the most powerful media. That seems to be what happened here."
Asked about the specifics of Friedman's allegations, Fox News declined to comment, while an attorney for Cruise said it was "utterly false" that the actor had sought his dismissal.
Preston's lawyer, Martin Singer, said that Friedman's claim was "absurd and ridiculous".
"He was terminated just days after [his Wolverine column]. It is outrageous to try to blame my client ... on the basis of something that supposedly took place eight months earlier."
Friedman on Scientology: 'Believing in this means believing in aliens'
* "One possible theory for why the careers of Scientologists tend to go south is that the famous actors, such as Jenna Elfman or Juliette Lewis, 'get so involved in thinking only they can save the world' that the sect overwhelms them ... John Travolta has headlined a series of flops."
* "[Tom Cruise] is so consumed by Scientology at this point that he seems to have no awareness of the ridicule he's subject to ... Cruise is totally subsumed into the Hubbard world."
* "To believe in this religion means also subscribing to a belief in aliens, for one thing. And by aliens I mean creatures from other planets and galaxies ... [Looking at] the history of Scientology inventor L Ron Hubbard, one can only conclude that Cruise and Travolta share these same ideals."
* "Katie Holmes' parents must be beside themselves since their daughter joined the group."
* "Scientology is notable for recruiting stars at low points in their careers or personal lives, preying on uncertainty, instability or just plain fear by promising to fix life issues."
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