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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Defamation? Delusion? Damaging despicableness? ............................................................ From Ryan O'Neal's $30M Warhol docu-drama to CBS Corp.'s retro sitcom jackpot, celebrity image is everything in David-vs.-Goliath legal battles

Montage illustration by Chris Mann/Retroality.TV
Part one in a two-part story

TV angel Farrah Fawcett sadly left us in June 2009, and Happy Days went to rerun heaven more than a quarter-century ago. But that's not stopping costly and increasingly nasty legal wars over the use—or alleged misuse—of the multimillion-dollar likenesses these cultural icons left behind.

Fawcett's posthumous drama involves an estimated $30M Warhol portrait of the late actress, the Texas alma mater she named in her will, the embattled longtime lover she did not and the outspoken TV producer who for years has fought him and his business manager’s handling of her reportedly $50M estate.

The Happy Days dispute centers on circa-2008 Vegas casino slot machines and displays plastered with cast member likenesses, a media conglomerate hitting a decades-in-the-making merchandising jackpot and a beloved family of retro sitcom actors claiming they're owed a $10 million-plus cut of the "winnings."

The sitcom actors claim they had not been paid in over a decade—or, in most cases, ever—for CBS Studios Inc. licensing their likenesses on everything from Vegas slots, DVDs, dolls, bed sheets, drinking glasses, trading cards and lunch boxes.

Today, their lawyer, Jon Pfeiffer, told the AP that CBS recently issued his clients checks for $6,000-$6,500 each, claiming “that is the full payment for all that is owed.” In other words, CBS just told Mrs. Cunningham, Joanie, Potsie and Ralph Malph to sit on it.

As the Fonz would say in a thoroughly disapproving tone, Aaaaaaaay.

(Fonz’s portrayer, actor-producer-director Henry Winkler, is not a part of the suit, nor is co-star-turned-producer-director Ron Howard. Winkler said he’s received his royalty checks, sums undisclosed, as part of a separate contract but supports his castmates in their fight.)

Both the Fawcett and friends-of-Fonzie fiascoes pit powerful and wealthy institutions—academic and showbiz—against individuals with comparatively limited resources, all battling over the value, real or perceived, of celebrity images designed for and dependent on public consumption.

In the case(s) of Warholgate, acclaimed film actor-turned-controversial “docu-reality” TV star Ryan O'Neal has come out swinging on both sides of the coin. But more on that shortly.

In the Happy Days money war, co-stars and co-plaintiffs Marion Ross, Erin Moran, Anson Williams and Don Most remain the very picture of wholesomeness personified in their hit 1974-84 series set in 1950s and ’60s Milwaukee. Their images have been used since the mid-Seventies to market a relentless array of products that in turn have continuously sold the series to new audiences, making the show’s corporate owners a very pretty penny.

Now, especially in the case of the cash-strapped Moran—who last year lost her home to foreclosure—these not-so-Happy folks are clearly the collective David taking on the corporate Goliath of CBS Television Studios, Inc. (which now owns co-defendant Paramount Television, which produced the series for ABC).

Happy Days epitomizes what is best in America, with the Cunningham family exemplifying the best of what a family can be,” states the complaint filed in April against CBS on behalf of the four actors and the widow of co-star Tom Bosley. “As will be proven at trial, defendants’ actions epitomize what is worst in Corporate America, exemplifying its worst business practices.”

The Cunningham family versus big, bad business exploiting their likenesses in the name of Sin City jackpots? Can CBS really afford this narrative influencing a jury—or, worse yet, the court of pubic opinion?

Which brings us back to the thorny O’Neal saga.

Earlier this month, the University of Texas System's Board of Regents sued O'Neal in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles for possessing a mixed-media portrait of Fawcett that pop artist Andy Warhol created in the early 1980s. The UT System, a richly endowed group of 15 academic and health institutions in the Lone Star state, claims the highly valuable portrait was bequeathed to the University of Texas at Austin—Fawcett's alma mater—in her living trust.

One of two nearly identical Warhols of the actress known to exist is on display through Sept. 4 at the UT Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art. (In fact, the famous image is the face of the museum’s “About Face” exhibit, gracing promotional material and signage hanging near the Blanton’s front entrance.) The other was seen hanging above O’Neal’s bed in recent episodes of his OWN reality series.

O’Neal’s name was notably excluded in his on-again, off-again girlfriend’s living trust, which stipulates that “all of (her) artwork and any objects of art” be given to the university when she died. The UT System claims O’Neal has “wrongfully converted” the portrait—and possibly other artwork from his late lover’s estate. Essentially, the university alleges he stole what a UT rep calls a “big-ticket” Warhol and wants a jury to force him to hand it over.

O’Neal’s publicist, Arnold Robinson, offered two conflicting responses to this dilemma. “The portrait that Mr. O’Neal has is the Warhol that was given to him by Farrah,” Robinson told The New York Post in an e-mail prior to UT’s suit.

After the university sued, Robinson told Star magazine, “This is a completely ridiculous lawsuit. Ryan’s friendship with Andy Warhol began 10 years prior to his meeting Farrah Fawcett. When Ryan introduced Farrah to Andy Warhol, he chose to complete two portraits of her, one for Miss Fawcett and one for Mr. O’Neal. Mr. O’Neal looks forward to being completely vindicated in the courts.”

Then, last week, the 70-year-old actor retaliated—but not at the university. Instead, O’Neal filed suit against Craig Nevius, Fawcett’s producing partner whom she called her “loyal friend and protector” in her final years. O’Neal claims Nevius, who assisted UT in what media reports called an investigation of the “missing” Warhol, is “a delusional fan” who’s maliciously defamed him in part by making allegedly false statements prompting UT’s suit against him.

The actor is seeking at least $1 million in punitive damages on his claims of defamation and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

According to O’Neal’s blistering complaint, “Nevius is obsessed with Ms. Fawcett, and his is deeply jealous of her relationship with her longtime romantic partner, the Academy Award and Golden Globe-nominated actor Ryan O’Neal. Two years after Ms. Fawcett tragically succumbed to cancer, Nevius continues to harass O’Neal by making false, malicious and defamatory accusations and characterizations about O’Neal and his purported theft, possession and concealment” of the Warhol portrait to UT and the media.

In a detailed response posted on The Morton Report, Nevius—who last month was quoted in Good Morning, America and Star magazine reports breaking news of the Warhol drama—denied he ever claimed O’Neal stole the portrait.

“I have simply recounted the request by Farrah’s alma mater to help them identify and locate numerous pieces of artwork that appeared to be mysteriously missing from the original inventory provided by her estate, which, by the way, is overseen by Richard B. Francis, Ryan O’Neal’s loyal friend and business manager of over 40 years,” said Nevius, who executive produced Fawcett's hit 2005 TV Land series, Chasing Farrah.

Nevius sued both men and Fawcett’s friend Alana Stewart in May 2009 on the eve of NBC’s premiere of its Emmy-nominated “news special” Farrah’s Story. That two-hour “video diary” chronicled Fawcett’s three-year fight against the anal cancer that would take her life on June 25, 2009. It premiered to more than nine million viewers and mixed reviews, many calling it exploitative. "After Mr. O'Neal and NBC gained full control of the documentary," wrote New York Times reporter Jim Rutenberg, "the film took on the feel of network celebrity fodder--at once more glossy and more morbid."

Nevius served as the project’s executive producer but claimed O’Neal, Francis and Stewart conspired to cut him out of the project (and Fawcett’s life)—while allegedly violating Fawcett’s business partnership with him and her expressed wishes for the documentary—during its final weeks of production. An article last May in The New York Times detailed O’Neal’s contentious takeover of the documentary originally titled A Wing & A Prayer.

Filing on behalf of Fawcett’s estate, Francis—the estate’s trustee and O’Neal’s longtime associate—sued Nevius in January 2010. Francis’s allegations are more or less repeated in O’Neal’s new action against Nevius.

“Sadly, Nevius’ malicious behavior is nothing new,” O’Neal’s new suit alleges, “and it is consistent with his prior despicable conduct. In 2009, Nevius intentionally sold private, personal medical information about Ms. Fawcett’s battle with cancer to tabloid journalists, distributed film footage of her battle with cancer and other materials proprietary to Ms. Fawcett and third parties, and embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from the company that Ms. Fawcett established” with Nevius to produce A Wing & A Prayer.

Both Nevius’ suit against O’Neal, Francis and Stewart and the Francis-filed estate suit against Nevius were dropped last spring. Nevius told The New York Times that he entered into settlement talks when his attorney advised him last December that the legal fight could continue for two more years to the price of at least another quarter of a million dollars.

“In spite of their best efforts,” Nevius told The Morton Report last week, “Ryan’s former attorneys were unable to obtain a confidentiality agreement from me when they dropped the last equally frivolous action against me (which was purported to be in the name of Farrah Fawcett). So this new charge of ‘defamation’ would seem to be nothing more than another intimidation tactic: a second bite at the legal apple. I understand the truth can be a very frightening thing for some people. By the way, it is also my understanding that truth is a complete defense to defamation.”

“I’m fighting at least two multi-millionaires,” Nevius told The New York Times last spring. “And at this point I don’t know that it’s honoring Farrah. I just don’t think she’d want us all destroying each other, which is pretty much how it’s going.”

And, much like the Happy Days merchandising melee, it sadly doesn’t show any signs of stopping.

Next week: Dueling accusations, the Farrah poster and media branding.