An actress hired to play a slender temptress on television's "Melrose Place" but fired after she became pregnant won a judgment of nearly $5 million from a Los Angeles jury yesterday.
Hunter Tylo, 34, maintained in her lawsuit against Spelling Entertainment Group and Spelling Television Inc. that clever camera angles, advanced technology, body doubles and her own fit figure could have allowed her to continue in the cast of the bed-hopping evening melodrama. Instead, she charged, one of the producers of the show had said, "Why doesn't she just go out and get an abortion? Then she can work."
Spelling officials, who denied that the abortion remark was made, countered that a visibly pregnant woman would not be credible as a "vixen, seductress, adulteress" and therefore could not be part of "Melrose Place."
The jury award -- $4 million for emotional distress and $894,601 for economic loss -- is the latest blow in a long-running war over the rules that will govern a television universe obsessed with appearances. Since the early 1980s, when Kansas City newswoman Christine Craft sued Metromedia -- ultimately unsuccessfully -- claiming she was demoted because of her looks, women have argued that the industry's standards are not only skin-deep but illegally discriminatory.
The verdict came at considerable personal cost, Tylo said in a telephone interview.
"We've won a victory after a little over a year and half of nothing but attacks on my family, my personal life, my sex life, my birth control methods, problems with my marriage," she said. "We've gone through a lot of mental anguish, and spent a lot of time just wondering if we were ever going to get justice."
A jubilant Nathan Goldberg, Tylo's attorney and lead litigator, said the case sets a new precedent for TV. "This is the first case in the annals of the law to deal with the issue of pregnancy discrimination as it impacts actresses," he said after the judgment was rendered in Los Angeles Superior Court. The jury of 10 women and two men had deliberated for five days.
In a statement after the decision, Sally Suchil, general counsel for Spelling Entertainment Group, vowed to pursue the case further. "We completely disagree with the jury's verdict, which we believe is inconsistent with both the law and the evidence in this case," she said. "The award is not based on the evidence presented and is even more than the plaintiff asked. We will appeal the verdict and are confident that we will be vindicated at the appellate court level."
Tylo had asked for $2.5 million.
She was playing psychiatrist Taylor Forrester on a daytime soap opera, "The Bold and the Beautiful," when, in late 1995, she joined the "Melrose Place" cast in the role of Taylor McBride. The popular evening soap, serialized on the Fox network, tracks the intricately interwoven lives of the uniformly sexy inhabitants of an apartment building in Southern California. A melange of skin, deceit and improbabilities, the program is the brainchild of Aaron Spelling, a producer legendary for his frothy, racy touch.
According to attorney Goldberg, Tylo told the "Melrose Place" producers that she was pregnant in March 1996, when she was only a month along. It was her third child; the baby, Isabella, was born in November 1996.
The producers decided to fire her "within five or 10 minutes," Goldberg said, and informed her by letter on April 10, 1996. She never made an appearance on the show.
Since Tylo filed suit, "Melrose Place" star Heather Locklear has become pregnant; the show continued with her in the leading role. Actress Lisa Rinna, who replaced Tylo in the role of McBride, recently announced her own pregnancy. The show's producers have indicated that they will write the baby into the script.
In a statement, Spelling Entertainment Group said that there is no parallel between Locklear's pregnancy and Tylo's. Locklear is the star; Tylo's character was still on the drawing board when she was fired.
"Equating the creative importance of a pivotal established character with a not-yet-introduced character is absurd," the statement said. The company also said it had offered Tylo a role in the series after she delivered.
Nothing in the law requires a company to cast a visibly pregnant actress in the role of a hard-bodied seductress, the company insisted. In a deposition from producer Spelling, read during the trial, executive producer Frank South told him it was "not dramatically sensible" to have a woman who is five months pregnant "rolling around in bed with our stars."
Tylo, meanwhile, has returned to "The Bold and the Beautiful" and is now pregnant with her third child by her husband of 10 years, Michael Tylo, formerly a hunk on "The Young and the Restless," another daytime soap opera. She has a son by a previous marriage.
Throughout the trial, she regularly dressed for court in short, tight skirts, even as she entered her eighth month of pregnancy.
"She looked unbelievably sexy and terrific, and I think that was important to the jury," Goldberg said. Recent "Bold and Beautiful" scripts made Tylo's character pregnant to mirror the actress's present state. The producers ordered up special padding to give her a more pronounced silhouette.
Many Hollywood actresses might have been afraid to sue one of the television industry's most powerful producers. But Tylo said in an interview that she was never intimidated. "I had a strong belief from the beginning that it didn't matter the size of the corporation. Even if it had been a small drugstore, what they were doing was unlawful and what mattered to me were the issues."
Those issues, her attorney explained, were simple. "What she was trying to establish is that nobody should ever be put in the position of having to make a choice between having a career and having children," Goldberg said. "And Hunter is the primary breadwinner in her family." CAPTION: Actress Hunter Tylo's jury award was well in excess of the $2.5 million her attorneys sought.