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Acting on a Legality

When the real world intrudes on Hollywood, who wins? An actress who lost a 'Melrose Place' role because of her pregnancy plans to find out.

August 12, 1996|Pamela Warrick | Times Staff Writer

Lawyers for the Spelling Entertainment Group call it her "material change." Hunter Tylo calls it her baby.

Tylo, a 33-year-old up-and-coming actress, is pregnant. And because her pregnancy is not in the script, neither is the actress.

According to producers of Aaron Spelling's steamiest prime-time series, "Melrose Place," there is no place in the show for Tylo until she is back to the state she was in when they offered her a role--that is, the unpregnant state.

"It's clear she was terminated because of her pregnancy," says Tylo's outspoken attorney, Gloria Allred.

"It's a creative decision, no more, no less. And it is entirely legal," says Spelling's general counsel, Sally Suchil.

Tylo has filed suit in California Superior Court in Los Angeles seeking unspecified damages from the Spelling company. Attorneys on both sides say this is the first such test of the 1978 U.S. Pregnancy Discrimination Act. While pregnancy discrimination complaints are increasing nationwide, most have dealt with traditional business settings and the more predictable "Mommytrack" complaints of derailed careers.

Tylo's case, not expected to go to trial for months, could have strong reverberations in Southern California, as well as in New York City, where the livelihoods of many actresses and models depend on the shape of their bodies.

Although state and federal laws prohibit discrimination against pregnant women by employers, gender discrimination or even selective hiring of individuals with specific traits such as youth or fair skin can be exempted if the hiring qualifies as what the law calls a Bona Fide Occupational Qualification.

Ellen J. Vargyas, legal counsel for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, says such exemptions are rare and "must go to the essence of the business." Vargyas calls Tylo's case "an interesting one" for its focus on authenticity: "For example, could you refuse to hire a woman to play Hamlet? How about a pregnant woman? In the entertainment business, those issues are certainly out there."

Lawyers for Spelling, whose production empire has included such sexy TV hits as "Charlie's Angels," "The Love Boat," "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "Savannah," say the need for a believable character is a proper and legal consideration.

"The character we had in mind for Hunter Tylo was a seemingly happily married woman who starts having affairs," says Spelling attorney Suchil. "Had we kept Tylo in the role, she would be going to bed with the first guy when she's about seven months pregnant. Obviously, this wouldn't work."

Tylo, who has played the glamorous Dr. Taylor Forrester on the daytime drama "The Bold and the Beautiful" for the past six years, was chosen for a new role by Spelling in February. But in March, Tylo learned she was pregnant. The actress and her actor husband, Michael, have two sons, ages 15 and 8. "We were thrilled to find out there was another baby on the way," the actress says. But when her agent informed "Melrose Place" producers she was expecting in November, Tylo received a letter from Spelling Television lawyer Cortez Smith notifying her that the show's agreement with her was terminated.

"Although we wish you much joy in this event, your pregnancy will result in a material change in your appearance," Smith wrote. "Your material change does not conform with the character you have been engaged to portray. This character is by necessity not pregnant. . . ."

The Spelling company claims a contractual right to terminate Tylo should she be incapacitated or "suffer any material change" in her looks. The company offered Tylo a different part for the 1997-'98 season if "Melrose Place" is picked up for a sixth season.

"This is a show where our characters parade around in various states of undress," Suchil says, "and our decision not to use Ms. Tylo for the upcoming season had nothing to do with the company's using or retaining pregnant women on the show. Last season, we had a pregnant character, as well as a pregnant director."


Indeed, veteran Beverly Hills publicist Dick Guttman suggests, the growing number of female producers and directors may be making it easier for actresses to have it all.

"With more women making important decisions in the entertainment industry, we're seeing more flexibility when it comes to pregnancy," he says.

Martha Williamson, executive producer and head writer of the CBS series "Touched by an Angel," went out of her way to help a pregnant actress keep her role as an angel. "Roma Downey, who plays the angel Monica, came to me as soon as she found out she was pregnant. Of course, we were all thrilled for her, but unlike other shows where you can marry off a pregnant character, there was no way to explain a pregnant angel," says Williamson, who successfully shot around her pregnant angel's middle. "This is just television, after all. At best, television shows go into syndication, but babies--babies last forever."

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