In pretrial maneuvering Tuesday, lawyers for 20th Century Fox Film Corp. raised the curtain for the first time on purported top-level feuding and an aborted proposal to take the Hollywood studio private shortly before oilman Marvin Davis bought it in 1981.
The company and Davis, defendants in a wrongful termination suit filed by former Fox Chairman and Chief Executive Dennis C. Stanfill, won a judge's decision that will allow them to present testimony at trial that might shed new light on Stanfill's contentions about his abrupt departure on June 29, 1981.
Howard Squadron, the New York attorney for present Fox owner Rupert Murdoch, and William E. McDaniels, a partner of Washington attorney Edward Bennett Williams, are leading the defense team representing both Fox and Davis, who sold the studio last year, in the proceedings that will shape the trial. Squadron said Murdoch had agreed to indemnify Davis in the Stanfill case.
Among evidence that the defense cited Tuesday in court are deposition statements by two investment bankers that Stanfill, declining to share power with prospective private partners after a proposed Fox buyout, told them at a New York meeting on the going-private matter: "I like power; I am 20th Century Fox." At the time, rumors were swirling around Fox that the studio would be acquired by someone or taken private.
Stanfill attorney Marshall Grossman held that the purported statement to Richard Wallace and William Thompson of First National Bank of Boston was in the context of his client's not wanting to put his own money in a proposal by bankers under which the studio would be operated by five partners.
Grossman contended that the matter was immaterial to the issues at trial. Defense attorneys, however, contended before Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Eli Chernow that they can present evidence that Stanfill refrained for months from firing Harris L. Katleman as the studio's television production chief and that one possible reason was that Stanfill did not want to upset the talks with the bankers.
Expense Report Questioned
The defense on Tuesday also cited earlier testimony by Davis that Stanfill and Alan J. Hirschfield, then vice chairman and chief operating officer, had "differences," which lawyers referred to at times as feuding.
Also, the court was told, Davis said in his deposition that Stanfill believed that Hirschfield and other executives had "double-crossed" him in dealing with the Fox board, which did not support Stanfill's attempt to fire Katleman over alleged irregularities in his expense reports.
Once he left Fox after 12 years in high management, Stanfill claimed that he did so because Davis himself reversed his attempt to fire Katleman. His suit said Davis' move was part of a conspiracy to force him out, in violation of his contract. He also accused Fox and Davis of defamation. The defendants have denied the allegations.
The court was told Tuesday that evidence at trial will show that Stanfill delayed his move to fire Katleman because the TV chief was needed for the spring "buying season" of television shows by the networks.
Judge Chernow on Tuesday admitted the public for the first time to the daily pretrial proceedings that have been closed since they began a week ago. Attorneys for the defense and for Katleman, who is not a party to the suit, had sought secrecy on a number of matters concerning types of evidence that will be admissible when the jury trial finally begins.
Although the motions remain under court seal, Chernow acceded to a press request and recited in open court his earlier rulings on some motions, including those involving Katleman.
Among other things, the court denied a Katleman request to limit evidence about him to his part in the decision-making process at Fox.