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Breathing New Life Into Dead Celebs

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 7, 2004; Page C01

Lawyers are frequently mocked -- and with good reason -- as shysters, sophists and pettifoggers. So it is refreshing indeed to read Los Angeles magazine's celebration of two lawyers who worked tirelessly to win justice for an exploited minority group.

The lawyers are Roger Richman and Mark Roesler. The exploited group is dead celebrities.

Until Richman and Roesler began their crusade of scorched-earth litigation, dead celebrities had no rights at all. Any sleazy huckster could use any dead celeb's picture to sell any kind of cheesy crapola -- and many sleazy hustlers did just that. They sold Marilyn Monroe toilet paper and James Dean condoms and cans allegedly filled with Elvis Presley's sweat, labeled "May His Perspiration Be Your Inspiration."

It was tacky. It was tasteless. And, worst of all, it wasn't making a nickel for these celebrities' heirs -- or their lawyers.

Richman and Roesler thought this an outrage, an injustice and, incidentally, a potential source of big bucks. And so -- as Tamar Brott tells the story in a hilarious article -- they battled to make life better for dead celebrities.

The story begins in the late '70s, when Bela Lugosi Jr. sued Universal Studios to win the right to sell his father's image. Lugosi lost that case.

But when Richman read the judge's ruling, he spied a loophole: If the elder Lugosi had appeared in ads during his life, the judge ruled, then his image would be a trademark that could be passed down to his heirs.

"As soon as I read that," Richman said, "I ran out to the Rose Bowl swap meet and bought up all the old magazines I could find."

In those old mags, Richman found ads featuring many now-dead stars who had sold their image -- Mae West, W.C. Fields, Marilyn Monroe -- and he started representing their heirs, forcing companies who'd used the stars' images posthumously to pay royalties.

Soon, celebrity offspring were "crawling out of the woodwork," he says.

"Bring home the bacon!" Clark Gable's widow told Richman. And he did, keeping a mere 35 percent of the bacon for himself.

Richman's second great victory came in 1984, after he lobbied the California legislature for a law that would grant rights to the heirs of all dead celebs, not just those who'd sold their image before departing for the big Beverly Hills in the sky. Richman made his case by showing the lawmakers a sex toy adorned with a likeness of Ronald Reagan.

"I held it up and said, 'This is a sexual device with the head of the president on it!' That's what got my law passed."

The law -- which gives heirs control of a celebrity's image for 70 years -- has a name that is beyond satire: "the California Celebrity Rights Bill."

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