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Vanna White Ruling Has Impressionists Spinning : Law: Rich Little, Jim Bailey and even Cal Worthington are pondering the Supreme Court's decision.

June 04, 1993|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Impressionists, satirists and comedy writers are pondering whether imitation--often regarded as the sincerest form of flattery--may also be the quickest way to a lawsuit.

Comedian Rich Little, car dealer Cal Worthington and others said they were gauging the impact of a Supreme Court ruling this week that will allow "Wheel of Fortune" hostess Vanna White to seek damages for an advertisement depicting a futuristic female robot game-show hostess turning the letters on a game-show board.

The high court declined to overturn a ruling by a California federal appeals court that stated that she had sole right to profit from her celebrity identity. The case stemmed from a lawsuit White filed against Samsung Electronics and the ad firm of David Deutsch Associates for wrongly misappropriating her image.

Justices refused to hear an appeal by Samsung that argued that it had a free-speech right to make fun of a celebrity's image. The case will now go to a federal courtroom in Los Angeles, where a jury will decide whether the ad indeed parodies White.

The White case has already sparked a reaction in entertainment legal circles.

Cal Worthington, the television car salesman who wears cowboy hats and romps around with chimps and other animals playing "my dog Spot," has inquired about whether he might have the right to sue the makers of the just-released "Made in America," which stars Ted Danson as a car dealer who wears cowboy hats and acts with a chimp in commercials.

Worthington's attorney, John McDonough, declined to elaborate.

Rich Little, whose routine revolves around impressions of celebrities, said he would watch the case to see if it would have an impact on his act.

"It could," he said. "Nothing is defined. Every case is different. There's no clear definition of what you can do and what you can't do. If I started paying everyone I did an impression of, there would be lawyers for every person I did waiting for me after a performance wanting a piece of my paycheck."

Jim Bailey, who performs "illusions" of such women as Barbra Streisand, Peggy Lee and Judy Garland in a nightclub act currently playing at the Cinegrill at the Hollywood Roosevelt, said he did not think the case would inspire the women he impersonates to take legal action against him.

"It would be stupid if anyone tried to sue me now," said Bailey. "I've been doing this for 20 years. Where have they been?"

Bailey's manager, Stephen Campbell, added that Streisand, Garland and others that Bailey pays tribute to have seen his act, have approved of it and even given him tips.

"It's such a flattering portrayal, it's actually good for them," said Campbell. "It keeps their name around."

Blaine Greenberg, White's attorney, said he felt the legal ruling only applied to parodies of celebrities in commercial settings.

"This would apply to those who use a celebrity's image to sell a product," he said. "But the courts have always permitted artists to make fun of a celebrity when it's not to hawk a pure commercial product. That kind of speech has always been entitled to First Amendment protection. I don't anticipate that the court will take this case and expand it to that area."

Still, Campbell said, Bailey plans to be a little more careful. "His next 'lady' was going to be Vanna White in a skit on 'Saturday Night Live' next season. Maybe he'll have second thoughts now. She might be upset by it."

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