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working on the chain gang

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There are many directors who probably should be chained and locked up. Whitey Bel-Air III actually was. Or was he?

Bel-Air, grim-faced in prison-issue scrubs, recently arrived at the Marina del Rey, Calif., offices of Ground Zero in a sheriff's van—shackled into a six-man chain gang—and was released to the baffled care of creative honcho Court Crandall. Apparently he was being sprung from the Big House, and wanted Crandall to sign for him so his young son at home wouldn't be traumatized.

"I didn't know what to think," Crandall says now. Neither did anyone else.

Turns out Bel-Air, 32, had been pestering Crandall for months to hire him as a director—or at least view his reel—but without much luck. Exasperated, he left Crandall a message saying he wanted an answer before he had to "go away for a while." Finally he cut to the chase, telling Crandall, "I'll be honest with you. I've got to go to prison."

Crandall eventually decided to take a chance on Bel-Air—convict or no. Then came the bizarre prison-release prank, which had everyone at Ground Zero going, except for a couple of people Bel-Air had tipped off.

The episode "spoke to Whitey's ability as a director," Crandall admits. Indeed, Bel-Air had friends film the whole thing with hidden cameras. But instead of prolonging the joke, he decided to come clean. "I didn't want them to think I'm some goofball," he quips. PETER KASKONS/INDEX STOCK/PICTURE QUEST