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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Porky Pig Lawsuit Is No Laughing Matter

July 31, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

The Porky Pig case went to court Thursday.

I try to follow most of the important legal battles around town, so I made sure to look into Ira Zimmerman vs. ABC-TV.

Zimmerman claims that ABC's "20/20" program reduced him, anonymously, into no more than "a stuttering activist who once demanded Time Warner retire Porky to protect children from being tormented."

In a lawsuit, Zimmerman is seeking due recognition for changing Porky Pig's image to a positive one. He feels that whereas Warner acknowledged his true purpose, ABC diminished him offhandedly.

"Nobody ever reports the full story," the 57-year-old retired aerospace engineer from San Juan Capistrano told me after spending Thursday morning in an L.A. Small Claims Court.

"Some people just aren't interested unless you're out there protesting in a picket line and carrying signs that say, 'ROAST PORKY!' "

I'm happy to report that he doesn't want to turn the porker with the speech impediment into a menu item at Boston Market.

Zimmerman just would like the public to understand what he did want.

And that he's not Looney Tunes.

*

I must confess, I knew nothing about Ira Zimmerman until the last 24 hours.

"Did you know I was a 'Jeopardy' question once?" he asked.

I put my answer in the form of a question:

"You were?"

"The question was, 'Ira Zimmerman Led a Protest Over the Mocking of Michael Palin's Speech in This 1988 Film,' " he explained.

It was a "Celebrity Jeopardy" show that day. The contestants were film director Oliver Stone, television news reporter Andrea Mitchell and comedian Bill Maher, and the category was "Politically Incorrect."

"Nobody got it," Zimmerman said. "I remember Maher saying later, 'I should have gotten that one.' "

The film was MGM's "A Fish Called Wanda," co-starring Palin as a crook who stutters and Kevin Kline as an accomplice who mimics him.

In a frame in Zimmerman's home today is a letter of apology from Kline.

Zimmerman saw no humor in having grown up in Brooklyn with a stuttering affliction. Upon moving to California, he wrote a letter to Warner Bros. in 1962, mentioning the Porky Pig cartoons and the ridicule he received as a child.

"I got a letter from Warner telling me that Porky Pig is actually a heroic figure."

He let the matter drop.

More than 30 years later, Zimmerman became a founder of a nonprofit clinic, the Center for Children Who Stutter, on the campus of Cal State Fullerton.

By then, he had organized a protest over "Wanda," requesting a disclaimer that the film hadn't meant to belittle people who stutter.

That led to the pig mess.

For a number of years, Zimmerman had endeavored to get Warner to make Porky a true "heroic figure" and not just a character who stammered for laughs.

He says, "It's not only about a speech issue. It's about stopping the bullying of kids who are different in any way--short, overweight, if they wear glasses, if their skin color's different, whatever."

Zimmerman says he got nowhere until he bought Time Warner stock, attended a shareholders meeting, then put it to the chairman of the board.

What he said was: "I realize Porky Pig has been enjoyed by millions. But for generations, a Warner Bros. media product has been used to bully and tease disabled children who stutter. When a product does harm to anyone, especially children, shouldn't a corporation move to recall that product?"

For good measure, he added, "Isn't it about time Porky Pig be retired at the age of 61?"

That's when the slop hit the fan.

*

Zimmerman's beef is no longer with Time Warner, which he once did picket over Porky.

He is actually pleased with that company, because Warner has indeed begun a Web site with Porky explaining to children: "Everyone's unique . . . and th-th-that's good, folks!"

"That's fine, Porky talking that way, since it's a positive image," Zimmerman says. "I'm not about PC run amok."

He objected, though, to ABC's news program that he said minimized his efforts. He is asking the court to make the network pay him a few thousand dollars to take out ads in the Hollywood trade papers to "clear my name."

Not a few million. A few thousand. That's all, folks.

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or phone (213) 237-7366.

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