"Happy Days Lawsuit May Reform Hollywood"
May 4th, 2011
In mid April, CBS announced it had paid its President Les Moonves $58
million dollars last year. Coincidentally, two days later, cast members from
"Happy Days" filed a lawsuit against CBS for millions of dollars they never
received. Ostensibly neither announcement had anything to do with the other,
but the irony is inescapable.
It seems that CBS, now the parent company of Paramount, had failed to pay
members of the "Happy Days" cast their share of merchandising revenues for
the past 37 years. Joining in the legal action were: Marion Ross (Marion
Cunningham); Erin Moran (Joanie); Don Most (Ralph Malph); Anson Williams
(Potsie); and the estate of the late Tom Bosley (Howard Cunningham). Each of
the defendants had contracts with Paramount, giving them 5% of the net
proceeds whenever their sole image appeared on a product, and 2.5% for when they
appeared in a group.
I had met Marion, Erin, and Tom several years ago when producing a TV Dads
event for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, and I met Don through
Marion. I spoke with Ross and Most by phone recently to get a better
perspective on the lawsuit.
Jim Longworth: Surely you knew all these years about "Happy Days" lunch boxes, comic
books, and board games on which your image appeared. Why didn't you ever
call Paramount and ask for your cut of the revenues?
Don Most: At the time I didn't really know what merchandising was. I might not
have even known it was in my contract. My focus was on doing the show, so
merchandising was not even on my radar. After a while you figure you get
checks from residuals which is monitored, and you get those from your agent, so
I assumed that if Paramount owed us any money, I'd be getting it".
JL: So what triggered the lawsuit?"
Marion Ross: Someone called me from North Dakota and said, "Boy you must really be
cleaning up on those slot machines". And I said, "What are you talking
about?" And he told me about this casino where on the slot machine if you get five
"Marions", you hit the jackpot, and then the Fonz lights up.
Not only did the casino incident bring into focus monies owed to the cast
for use of their image, it also brought into question the way in which
those images are used.
Ross: We are a device for selling the show, and "Happy Days" is almost more
treasured now than when it first aired. People treat us with such honor,
it's just amazing. We represent something to them, so for me, had they asked
"could we have a slot machine with your face on it?', I would have said
"No", because it's not what we're about. Gambling is very entertaining, but I
don't think it's a very good thing for the image we created.
No one knows yet exactly how much profit CBS made off of selling those
images over the past three decades, but the actors estimate their share of the
revenues at between $10 and $20 million dollars. CBS agrees monies are
owed, but puts the figure at about $9,000 per person. When asked on the
"Today" show about the huge discrepancy in CBS's figures, Anson Williams quipped,
"I guess their calculators broke". Maybe, but not so at other studios.
My friend Jerry Mathers, star of "Leave it to Beaver" told me that his
contract with MCA Universal gave him 10% of the gross profits from merchandising his image. But years later when it was discovered that other cast
members had been slighted, the oversight was corrected. "In the 1980's when we
did "The New Leave it to Beaver", it was discovered that Tony Dow and the
rest of the cast had not been included in the share of revenues, so the
merchandising deal was re-negotiated. I agreed to take 7% of net if other
characters' were on the product. I get a yearly summary of authorized merchandise
from MCA Universal every January 30th for the prior year".
One would hope that CBS could learn from the MCA Universal model, but it
may take a trial to force the issue. Laurie Jacobson coordinates personal
appearances for dozens of TV stars, including her husband Jon Provost, who
played Timmy on the classic television show, "Lassie". She gave me her take
on the "Happy Days" fight, "In the past when a performer has gone up against
a studio or corporation, the big guys dragged it out so long, that the
little guy ran out of money before it ever got to court. There is definitely
more power in numbers, and right now the climate for this kind of case is
right. People are sick of corporate greed. If Team Happy Days scores any kind
of victory here, I believe we'll see more classic TV casts teaming up to
try and collect their due".
Most: It's always been a battle to get what you're due with re-use of
clips, use of merchandise, and residuals. But this case could open up a new way
of looking at things for the better.
I agree, and I'm betting "five Marions" that they hit the Jackpot.
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