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Sometime in early 1995, Lou Holtz Jr., a prosecutor in the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, completed his first screenplay, a comedy called "The Cable Guy," and sent it to some friends who are producers. They introduced him to two agents, Tom Strickler and Ari Emanuel, at the fledgling Endeavor Agency.

Within days the agents had received an enthusiastic phone call from Bernie Brillstein, a top talent manager. He said the script was a perfect vehicle for one of his clients, Chris Farley, the former "Saturday Night Live" comedian whose movie career had taken off with the comedy "Tommy Boy."The agents, with Brillstein and an associate, Mark Gurvitz, promptly took the script to Columbia Pictures. Desperate for a comedy to release in the summer of 1996, Columbia bought the script for $750,000, plus an additional $250,000 that would be paid to Holtz if the movie was made.

Holtz took a leave of absence from his job, flew to New York and began meeting with Farley to discuss his potential role as a lonely cable repairman who makes a house call on a yuppie customer and then tries desperately to befriend him.

"It was a comedy about a needy cable guy you can't get rid of," Holtz said in an interview.

From this relatively modest start, "The Cable Guy" grew into a monster, though not, unfortunately for Columbia, one of the box-office kind. The final version, released two weeks ago, cost $60 million to make and market. Of that, $20 million went to the star, who was not Farley after all but the biggest and most-sought-after comic in the movies, Jim Carrey.

By then Holtz was long gone, replaced by friends of Carrey, and the screenplay had been rewritten many times. Along the way, the quintessential Carrey character - silly, sophomoric but essentially winning - was lost. In the final version, the repairman is a violent, maniacal and generally unfunny person who almost destroys the life of the customer, a young architect played by Matthew Broderick.

The movie was greeted with scathing reviews (Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times that it offered "the shocking sight of a volatile comic talent in free fall") and disappointing attendance. It took in $19.8 million in its all-important first weekend, an amount that does not seem puny until it is compared with receipts for Car-rey's last film, "Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls," which grossed $37.8 million in its opening weekend.

So far "The Cable Guy" has brought in gross revenue of more than $40 million. Its makers insist that it will eventually make a profit, and they are probably right.

But that would not diminish the sense that this movie - one of the most eagerly awaited and, because of Carrey's enormous salary, closely watched releases of the summer - is one of its biggest letdowns, raising serious questions about decisions on both the creative and financial sides.

"The original script was basically a silly buddy comedy," Ben Stiller, who directed the movie, said in an interview. "What I wanted to do was make a comedy that satirized the psycho thrillers like `Cape Fear,' and `Hand that Rocks the Cradle' and `Fatal At-traction.' "

According to executives and others involved in the project, the deal to sign Farley ground to a halt almost as soon as Carrey expressed interest in the role. Mark Canton, chairman of Columbia-TriStar, quickly came up with the offer of $20 million, a figure that stunned the movie industry.

As is common practice among film stars, Carrey brought friends into the project. One was Judd Apatow, a comedy writer who had worked for HBO's successful "Larry Sanders Show" but whose films, "Celtic Pride," and "Heavyweights," had been box-office failures. Another was Stiller, an actor who had directed the Generation X film "Reality Bites."

Holtz, who is the son of the well-known comedian, was bounced as screenwriter.

"Carrey did not want to meet with me, did not want to give me any notes," Holtz said. "I was told I was out as soon as the studio could make a deal with Apatow."

At Carrey's request, Apatow revised the buddy script to make it bleaker. "There were four drafts, each with a completely different ending," Apatow said. "We were going for a funny version of the classic stalker films.

"Jim said, `I can't keep repeating myself, my audience is going to get bored, I can't keep making "Ace Ventura," if I don't progress as a creative person I'm going to go stale and the audience won't come anyway.' "

At least one of the drafts called for ending the movie with the Car-rey character's impalement on a cable dish. A more benign ending was finally written, but many critics denounced the film for what they saw as mean-spiritedness and, worse, a lack of humor.

Before the movie's release, Apatow and Holtz also battled before the Writers Guild for screenplay credit, with Holtz winning. Apatow is listed as a producer.

Stiller maintains that "we made the movie we wanted to make." But executives at rival studios said that Carrey and his team seriously misgauged the star's audience.

By all accounts, Carrey - who refused to be interviewed for this article - wants to model his career after that of Robin Williams, who moved from brash comedy roles to more dramatic parts in such films as "Dead Poets Society" and "Awakenings." Williams kept his audience, but many in the industry say that was because those roles and others he chose were essentially humane and gentle parts.

Similarly, top movie stars like Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford rarely deviate from certain roles. Cruise has played more or less the same character since he attained stardom in the 1983 comedy "Risky Business" - that of the brash, ambitious and, ultimately winning hero, like his role in his current hit, "Mission Impossible."

"The audiences don't fall in love with Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks," said a top studio executive, speaking on condition that he not be named. "They fall in love with the characters they play. It's not about the stars. It's what they become on screen. That's where Jim Carrey didn't get it. It's not about him."

People involved in "The Cable Guy" said that Columbia Pictures and some of the film's producers were dismayed when the first preview of the film was screened in Sacramento three months ago. But Columbia had locked itself into an opening date in June and refused to delay the release.

Holtz saw it in a studio conference room in May. It was not exactly what he had in mind, he said, but he did not want to criticize it. "It's fair to say it's darker than I imagined it would be," he said.