LOS ANGELES — Jussie Smollett is enmeshed in weekly drama on the set of “Empire,” the Fox TV series that gave the actor a breakout role and the fame to advance his social activism.
But a scene that played out on a dark Chicago street in January has left Smollett facing felony charges and raised the possibility that “Empire” could mark the pinnacle of the 38-year-old’s career.
Smollett, who is black and gay, told police he was the victim of a hate crime committed by men who threw liquid in his face, yelled racist, anti-gay slurs and looped a noose around his neck. After a three-week investigation, Smollett was charged Wednesday with staging the attack with help from two brothers he knew and allegedly paid for their services.
Even in an industry in which bad or erratic behaviour is expected , insiders and observers are stunned by what authorities allege was fakery intended in part to get Smollett publicity and a raise.
“This is incredible. No one does this,” said Garth Ancier, a veteran network executive and a co-founder of the Fox network. If more money was his goal, that’s what agents and negotiations are for, he said, calling the alleged hoax “beyond the pale.”
“It’s too bad that such a talented guy threw all that away,” Ancier said, adding he didn’t see how he could be kept on “Empire.”
Producers appeared to be doing that for now, with Smollett travelling directly after being released from jail on bond Thursday to the “Empire” set. There are two episodes left to make of the 18 airing this season, the fifth year for the series starring Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard as hip-hop moguls Cookie and Lucious Lyon.
Replacing Smollett at this point would be problematic. Writing his character, one of three Lyon sons, out of future seasons would be less so.
Smollett’s legal team released a statement late Thursday calling Chicago police’s version of events “an organized law enforcement spectacle that has no place in the American legal system.
“Mr. Smollett is a young man of impeccable character and integrity who fiercely and solemnly maintains his innocence and feels betrayed by a system that apparently wants to skip due process and proceed directly to sentencing,” the statement said.
After Smollett was charged, TNT’s celebrity battle-rap series “Drop the Mic” pulled an upcoming episode with him “in the interest of not being exploitative of an incredibly sensitive situation,” the network said in a statement.
The Fox studio that makes “Empire” publicly stood behind Smollett when he first reported the attack and as skepticism about it arose. But it declined comment Thursday about what happens next as he fights charges of filing a false police report.
Experts in the field of crisis management were pessimistic. The online mockery Smollett is taking is unlikely to stop, and it could hinder any attempt to re-emerge, said Eric Dezenhall, CEO of the public relations firm Dezenhall Resources.
“The thing it’s really hard to come back from is ridicule,” Dezenhall said. “It can be easier to come back from something just bad. In our culture the whiff of something dangerous has a certain street cred. But here we’re talking about a combination of malevolence and ridiculousness.”
Eden Gillott, president of Gillott Communications, offered a similar take.
“This could be a career-killer. We’ve seen this many times. Society has become more intolerant and unforgiving,” said Gillott, citing instances ranging from Kevin Spacey’s firing from “House of Cards” for alleged sexual misconduct to Megyn Kelly’s “Today” exit after she defended blackface costumes.
What Smollett is alleged to have done isn’t analogous to either one — or to just about anything that’s happened with a celebrity or prominent person in recent memory or in news files.
There have been stunts, such as Joaquin Phoenix’s role in a so-called documentary, “I’m Still Here,” directed by actor Casey Affleck and supposedly about Phoenix’s career as a rapper in decline. The film’s release came with public apologies and lawsuits attached.
Others have exaggerated their exploits, such as TV journalist Brian Williams’ account of being in a helicopter hit by a rocket in the 2003 Iraq invasion or Hillary Clinton’s 2008 account of landing under sniper fire during a 1990s trip as first lady.
But Smollett, instead of creating an image-burnishing fiction, positioned himself as a victim and the deserving centerpiece for outrage directed at his attackers. He said those who questioned him made him feel “victimized.”
The allegation that Smollett did it for money could be seen as both a betrayal and baffling, given what he earns: more than $1.8 million for the current 18-episode season of “Empire,” according to a person familiar with the situation.
Dezenhall said it would be tough for Smollett, who proclaimed himself innocent of the charges through his lawyers, to explain himself publicly.
“All of us have said something stupid, put something in an email we shouldn’t have — we can understand that. But very few of us would say, ‘I would orchestrate something like that to advance my career.’ There’s a difference between a mistake and a scheme,” Dezenhall said. His advice to Smollett: “‘Vanish for a few years, take up a cause, devote yourself to doing something good, and revisit it later.'”
Or search out people like Kandi Burruss, the singer-songwriter and reality star.
“I consider him a friend. I love him and regardless of if it’s true or not, I’m still going to be here for him. I hate the situation but I don’t hate the person,” she told The Associated Press Thursday at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood luncheon.
AP Entertainment Writer Andrew Dalton and Cindy Martin contributed to his report.
Check out the AP’scomplete coverage of the Jussie Smollett case.
Lynn Elber, The Associated Press