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Pursuing a legacy

Rarely does a star get the rights to his films. So how, the heirs of Burt Lancaster want to know, did his slip away?

June 12, 2005|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

CALL it "The Mystery of the Lancaster Copyrights."

The star: Burt Lancaster.

The studio: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

The plot: Why did Lancaster's business manager sign away valuable copyrights to some of the actor's best-known films, including "Elmer Gantry," "Sweet Smell of Success" and "Birdman of Alcatraz," to MGM in the 1990s at a time when the actor either was incapacitated by a stroke or after his 1994 death from a heart attack at age 80.

Seeking answers, Lancaster's three daughters and grown granddaughter have filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court alleging that these well-known movies along with nine others were signed away to the studio for as little as $1 each, amounting to what the suit calls a "wholesale plundering" of the actor's estate.

"Something went terribly wrong with my father's estate," his youngest daughter, Sighle Lancaster, 50, of Los Angeles, said in a statement released through her attorney. "At this point, I do not know who exactly is responsible for why it happened, but my goal is to find out as much as I can."

Lancaster's relatives currently earn a portion of home video sales of the late star's movies, but contend that the copyrights could allow them to earn much more. Given today's red-hot market in DVD sales and rentals, the family says that some of Lancaster's movies could potentially generate millions of dollars in the years to come.

The other films at the center of the suit include movies that Lancaster either starred in or co-produced, such as "The Unforgiven," "The Devil's Disciple," "Separate Tables," "The Young Savages," "Cry Tough," "Bachelor Party," "Season of Passion" (also known as "Summer of the Seventeenth Doll"), "Take a Giant Step" and "The Rabbit Trap."

Joining their sister Sighle (pronounced Shee-la) in the lawsuit are Susan Elizabeth Lancaster, 55, and Joanna Mari Lancaster, 53, and the actor's 38-year-old granddaughter, Keigh Lancaster, all of Los Angeles.

According to the lawsuit, the movie rights were transferred in the '90s by the actor's business manager, Jack M. Ostrow, who died in 1998. Lancaster's heirs, who can't fathom why Ostrow would do such a thing, are alleging fraud, negligence, conspiracy and breach of fiduciary duty against three people who might know the answers: employees of a banking company, U.S. Trust, which was a co-trustee along with Ostrow.

The suit claims that former employees John Westwater and Andrew Gifford and a current vice president, Mimi Evers, "should have sounded an alarm" when the unusual transfers occurred and also alleges that the employees "failed to undertake any investigation of the suspect conduct."

U.S. Trust declined to discuss the suit, but a spokeswoman issued the following statement: "U.S. Trust and its officers managed the Lancaster Trusts properly and professionally, in the best interests of all of the beneficiaries of the trusts created by Burt Lancaster. We firmly believe the complaint has no merit."

The Lancaster heirs are also suing an attorney who they say missed a crucial deadline to file a claim against MGM. As a result, although MGM -- recently sold to a business consortium led by Sony Corp. -- retains the copyrights in question, it is not a party to the lawsuit, the family's attorney said.

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Out-of-the-ordinary pact

IT is rare for stars to have copyright ownership of the films in which they appear. Studios prefer to keep those rights, and instead give a star a percentage of a movie's gross receipts on the back end. However, the copyrights would give the Lancaster heirs the ability to pick out any distributor they want, and put together their own deals, instead of relying upon the studio to do so.

The story of the Lancaster copyrights began in the late 1940s, not long after Lancaster shot to stardom in the 1946 film noir "The Killers" costarring Ava Gardner. Before the decade was out, Lancaster had decided to buck the studio system and formed a production company with Harold Hecht, the man who had spotted him early in his career and told him: "In five years we'll be making our own pictures."

Lancaster and Hecht made film deals with United Artists stipulating that their production company would retain a substantial interest in ownership rights to each of their films, including copyrights, according to the lawsuit. United Artists eventually would be absorbed into MGM, which continued to distribute many of Lancaster's films around the world.

In 1988, the actor set up a trust to oversee his assets and he became a co-trustee along with Ostrow, his business manager. But Lancaster suffered a stroke in 1990 that left him unable to communicate and he was removed as co-trustee.

In 1992, Ostrow transferred the rights to "Elmer Gantry," for which Lancaster won an Oscar as best actor, to MGM. A year later, MGM received the rights to "Sweet Smell of Success." Then in 1997, the rights to 10 other Lancaster films, including "Birdman of Alcatraz," were signed away to MGM.

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