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Fred Is Her Co-Pilot

COVER STORY

Robyn Astaire is certain that her late husband would back her restrictions and financial demands regarding the use of his likeness. Others say, 'Dirt Devil?'

August 17, 1997|Irene Lacher | Irene Lacher is a Times staff writer

But there's another reason why Astaire believes Fred would have wanted her to do the commercials--the money. She says she has spent more than $1 million on legal fees, earning a reputation for being difficult and litigious in the process. And the coffers need to be refilled.

"I've had to deplete much of my financial security over the years to prosecute infringers," she says. "And neither Fred nor I contemplated having to sustain the burden of nine or 10 years of costly litigation. I just feel Fred would have wanted me to do these commercials."

Astaire has also been accused of demanding high fees for uses whose commercial value is questionable, particularly documentaries. White, Astaire's business representative, denied that filmmakers are discouraged by the price tag for Fred's clips.

"There's absolutely no truth to any suggestion that it's priced way out of the ballpark," he says. "We do a lot of transactions, I'll just put it that way, whether it's film clips, sound recordings or still photographs. Things Mr. Astaire did during his lifetime are being routinely used in all sorts of productions."

White acknowledges, however, that Fred Astaire fees are generally at a premium.

"I've never seen anyone who would like to get something for nothing and to exploit the value be happy about having to pay for it," he says. "The people who are tops in their field receive premiums. If you were selling a Rolls-Royce, you wouldn't be selling it for the same price as a Pinto. But it doesn't stop them from dreaming about it."

But documentarians generally don't have Rolls-Royce budgets.

"She's always charging money, and a lot of people are leaving Fred Astaire out of anthologies," says Robert Osborne. "I'm not sure it hurts his image to be shown in those things."

Filmmaker Peter Jones, who has profiled Judy Garland, Buster Keaton and Jack Benny for A&E's "Biography" series, says he gave up courting Robyn Astaire when she declined to respond to numerous letters.

"The network has said the first person who delivers Fred Astaire, which means Robyn, gets to produce it," he says. "It's like the 10 Most Wanted list."

What's more, filmmakers argue that Astaire may be defeating her own goal to protect his image by pricing him into oblivion. A source close to "That's Entertainment! III" says her rate for Fred clips was $250,000 per half-hour, although less than that was used. (Astaire and White declined comment on her fees.)

Negotiations were sometimes fractious, with Astaire occasionally crying, the source said.

"That's preposterous," White says. "Mrs. Astaire and I went to the MGM offices in Santa Monica and had a cordial meeting. Everyone was smiling. She never had any conversations with anyone after that."

While commercial theatrical releases generally command higher fees than televised documentaries, A&E producer Jones says he too finds "her prices [to be] prohibitive."

"And she's putting the body of work in jeopardy," he says. "I can understand if someone comes to them and says, 'Don't just give this away.' But there's a difference between licensing an Edward G. Robinson line of cigars and a documentary on his life, which oddly enough increases the value because it puts the image out there."

California law makes such distinctions as well. A statute that grants heirs rights to the name, voice, likeness and persona of deceased celebrities also makes exceptions mindful of the broadcast media's protection under the 1st Amendment. Some heirs, notably Astaire, argue that televised documentaries should not be exempt from fees, because they benefit for-profit networks.

"Anything which is sold, whether it's the L.A. Times or a videotape, can be considered commercial to that extent," counters attorney George Hedges, who represented the video company that has been fighting Astaire in court. "The fact that you sell newspapers for a profit doesn't mean the 1st Amendment doesn't apply."

It's a murky area of California law that has been largely untested--until now. Generally, filmmakers have made a nominal payment as a goodwill gesture to a deceased celebrity's heirs to encourage cooperation even if an estate fee isn't required.

Jones says he paid $5,000 to Gloria Swanson's daughters "to show respect to the family," and $20,000 to Judy Garland's estate even though he contested her heirs' claims to her image. "The estate legally controlled our ability to use Capitol Records recordings," he says, but "you're basically buying off a lawsuit."

Such modest payments are typical, says Mark Roseler, CEO of the Indianapolis-based CMG Worldwide, which represents 200 names in sports and entertainment.

"Some uses are clearly outside the 1st Amendment--when you deal with someone making a T-shirt or an ad or an endorsement," he says. "Then you have things in the gray area and everyone knows they're in a gray area, so it drives the price down. Typically, you either work out a nominal fee or you give them a free license."

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