This is a story of Hollywood, with a lesson for the ages: Death, Be Not Proud (it will only cut into your residuals.)
Roger Richman, 38, is a show business agent without a single living client. In his cluttered little house on a Los Angeles side street, he is building an empire of beer mugs, dinner plates, post cards and toiletries--all bearing the image of Marilyn Monroe, W.C. Fields, or some other star long dead.
He represents these ghosts, and they are pulling in, as he puts it, "healthy six figures."
Bloomingdale's is opening "Remembering Marilyn" boutiques. The Los Angeles Times syndicate has just begun marketing a W.C. Fields comic strip. A plate manufacturer wants to make one with the ageless face and form of Clark Gable. Behind it all is the energetically gesturing figure of Richman.
He issues stern warnings to 56 manufacturers of bootleg Marilyn Monroe gear. He looks askance at full-page ads for unauthorized promotion of the recently deceased Henry Fonda (not his client). He plans a trip to rid Spain of cigarette billboards exploiting John Wayne.
"I'm thrilled to be working with the greatest stars that ever lived," said Richman. He is a bubbly lawyer who brushes away charges of ghoulishness with the enthusiasm of any man about to corner a market. He has stumbled across the megaton emotional power of the human memory, and it is taking him into unexplored frontiers of the law and the marketplace he never dreamed he would see.
Ten years ago, Richman, a Washington native, was a dropout from the high-wire world of New York theatrical law, trying his hand as a sculptor in the little Spanish fishing village of Nerja. Today, lured back to the dizzy charm of show business, his name is on the lips of, among others, Elvis Presley fans throughout the country. He is their champion, helping fight off the money-changers who (without proper authorization) might sully the memory of the King.
For decades, agents and attorneys for living entertainers have tried to keep hucksters from using their names and images without permission or payment. In some cases, after the entertainers have died, their heirs have made halfhearted attempts to continue the battle. But Richman appears to be the first to make this a full-time occupation.
He represents not only Monroe, Fields and Gable, but also Bud Abbott and Lou Costello and, on a limited basis, Wayne and Presley. He accepts no regular salary or retainer, receiving a percentage of whatever fees he can wrest from manufacturers. In return he gets more than the usual agent's percentage for his unusual labors: his cut is somewhere between 10 and 40 percent of the fees won by the heirs and estates of his deceased clients.
This system tends to bother the uninitiated, who at first see nothing but a callous milking of the widespread honest affections for the famous dead. But Richman and the relatives of his clients quickly explain that the objects of all this affection probably would have wanted it this way.
"Initially it bothered me," said Everett Fields, a deputy city prosecutor in Pasadena, Calif., and a grandson of W.C. Fields. "I thought we were exploiting a human being." But he recalls that his grandfather had been promoting himself since 1919, starting with a men's toiletries endorsement. Manufacturers were using the W.C. Fields image, for years after his death, with no regulation and no fees, so the younger Fields eventually contacted Richman on the family's behalf. "I think he (his grandfather) would be a little miffed if we didn't," Fields said.
The fruits of Richman's labors, which Fields rates as "outstanding," are stacked in makeshift displays all around his tiny living room: W.C. Fields-brand toiletries, cassette recordings, cigar boxes, mugs, dart boards, Scotch, gin, vodka, coasters, liquor cabinets, corkscrews, ice buckets, stationery, and lapel pins with quotes such as "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break" and "The Future Ain't What It Used To Be."
With visible distaste, Richman displayed a gag poster with Fields spread out nearly naked like a Playboy centerfold. Richman said he bought the poster for $4 in Times Square and moved to cut off production, only to find the Burbank manufacturer already had gone out of business. With a clipping service that checks 16,050 different publications, Richman watches constantly for abuse of his clients' images. Action against the Fields character in the comic strip "The Wizard of Id" has been considered, he said, but no moves are planned at the moment.
In Richman's view there are only about a dozen dead stars--he prefers to call them "legends"--who have the kind of arc-light image which still can move people from the grave. But a series of recent court decisions are broadening protections for the heirs of the deceased celebrities and may create even more clients for the likes of Richman.
Richman's work grows from copyright and trademark law, but also from a less concrete legal notion called "the right of publicity." Courts have established the principle that a celebrity's right to exploit himself is his property and can be inherited.
In 1981, a federal court in New York said the heirs of the Marx brothers could control the characterizations in the Broadway play "A Day in Hollywood, a Night in the Ukraine," although the specific decision later was reversed on a technicality. In California, the courts have indicated that the right of publicity only can be passed on if the deceased celebrity actively exploited himself during his lifetime. But in Georgia in October, the state supreme court ruled that the right of publicity could be inherited even if the celebrity had not chosen to exploit it. That case involved a company which has been selling a statuette of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Social Change won a verdict giving it the power to stop the sales or take a licensing fee.
Richman protects his clients with a full court press, calling bootleg manufacturers early and often, pointing out the laws on his side and waiting (but not too long) for reason to take its course. Some bootleg merchandisers have resisted, but only once so far, Richman said, has he had to take anyone into court. This case involved a Falls Church restaurant, "W.C. Fields and Friends," which had the Fields likeness on its logo, canopies, matchbooks and menus. Finding themselves facing a trial before U.S. District Court Judge Albert V. Bryan Jr., owners John Kefalas and Washington Bullets basketball star Kevin Grevey settled out of court, agreeing to remove the offending materials and change the resturant's name to "Just Friends," a restaurant spokeswoman said.
Richman will not reveal his income from all this, but he lives very modestly. The licensing fees going to his clients amount to 7 to 18 percent of wholesale sales and in some cases, such as the Fields comic strip now in 30 newspapers, he has been actively involved in putting together the merchandising plan from the beginning. His clients pay him "only if I'm successful" while other part-time dabblers in this kind of work are "Beverly Hills lawyers who charge $240 an hour," Richman said.
In 1979, when the Fields family approached him, manufacturers were skeptical that much money could be made from products associated with a personality dead so long. Then Richman, while thumbing through his desk encyclopedia, discovered that the 100th anniversary of Fields' birth was coming in a few months. "That was the hook I needed," he said. Various commemorative Fields promotion deals began. Richman even persuaded the U.S. Post Office, which expected to earn $4,046 from its own merchandising of a Fields commemorative stamp, to turn over half of that to Fields' heirs.
To his detractors, Richman points out that much of the money goes to charity. Twenty-five percent of the Monroe estate, for instance, went to the star's psychiatrist, Marianne Kris, who upon her death assigned the proceeds to the Hampstead Child Therapy Clinic in London. Presley fans are so taken with Richman's efforts that they often send him samples of Presley promotions they consider undignified and unauthorized.
Richman maintains a string of agents throughout the world to watch out for overseas abuse of his clients' images. He plans a trip soon to Britain, Spain, France, West Germany and Japan to track down some bootleggers himself. The law, he said, has yet to answer some intriguing questions about his line of work. For instance, could the heirs of John Hancock claim fees from the insurance company that bears their ancestor's name?
But there are areas where Richman draws the line. An interviewer recently asked if some ambitious agents might now post themselves in hospital waiting rooms to sign up the bereaved heirs of the next crop of Hollywood legends who pass away.
"Now that's ghoulish," Richman said.