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‘Happy Days’ lawsuit may reform Hollywood

by Jim Longworth

In mid April, CBS announced it had paid its president, Les Moonves $58 million 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 percent of the net proceeds whenever their sole image appeared on a product, and 2.5 percent 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.

MR: 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.

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 percent 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 1980s 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 percent of net if other characters were on the product. I get a yearly summary of authorized merchandise from MCA Universal every Jan. 30 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,” she said, “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.”

DM: It’s always been a battle to get what you’re due with reuse 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.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).

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