It started as normal Hollywood friction — an actress who wanted better lines and a writer annoyed by her suggestions. But the squabble on the "Desperate Housewives" set four years ago took an unusually nasty turn that led Thursday to a windowless downtown courtroom.
There actress Nicollette Sheridan told a jury that series creator Marc Cherry slapped her on the head during a rehearsal after she repeatedly questioned him about deleting what she considered to be a particularly funny line for her character.
"It stunned me," Sheridan said of what she described as a "nice wallop" to her temple. Her face reddening and her eyes filling with tears, she told jurors, "It was unfathomable to me that I had just been hit by my boss."
The actress, 48, is suing Cherry and Touchstone Television Productions for wrongful termination and battery. She contends that after she complained about Cherry's conduct, he retaliated by killing off her character, the promiscuous real estate agent Edie Britt.
By her lawyer's estimation, departing the ABC hit cost Sheridan $6 million in lost income and other damages.
Cherry, who sat stone-faced at the defense table throughout Sheridan's testimony, contends he gave her only what his lawyer called "a light tap on the head" to demonstrate how he wanted her to hit another character in a scene. His attorneys have said Edie's demise in the fifth season was plotted months before the incident.
But in her testimony, Sheridan said Cherry had told her in 2008 that Edie would not be killed off because it would create an uproar with fans. She said she was under that impression Sept. 24, 2008, when she confronted Cherry over removing a line in which her character used a Beatles song to tease her on-screen husband's songwriting struggles: "She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah. How hard is that?"
After the second time she asked, she said, he pulled her aside and smacked her. She said he later came to her trailer, apologized and gave her an even better line: "Play that funky music middle-aged white boys."
She said she performed the scene but remained upset and contacted her attorney. Later that season, her character was killed in a car crash.
In court, Sheridan bore little resemblance to the vampy character who inhabited Wisteria Lane. She wore reading glasses, little make-up, a pony tail and a conservative navy suit. The only signs of Edie were the black platform stilettos that carried her to the witness stand.
Jurors were shown contracts that showed how the fortunes of Sheridan and the show rose quickly after its 2004 premiere. Paid less than $6,000 for the pilot, Sheridan was earning $175,000 an episode in the fifth season with an additional cut of series revenues.
She recounted how the show and its female stars, including Eva Longoria and Teri Hatcher, became pop culture sensations. There was a Sunset Boulevard billboard, a multitude of talk show appearances and magazine covers and, for Sheridan, a Monday Night Football skit in a bath towel with Philadelphia Eagles star Terrell Owens.
"She seduced him into not going out to play the game," Sheridan said, grinning.
The case is expected to include testimony from dueling television industry experts about how common it is to eliminate a major character. Sheridan told jurors that Edie was "a singular voice on the show, sexual, overt and audacious."
"I believe people loved to hate her," she said. Turning toward the jury box, she added, "I think honesty was about the only thing we shared."
Sheridan squirmed conspicuously and covered her eyes playfully as a large projection screen showed Edie provocatively dressed and in bed with a string of men. Cherry stared on morosely while several jurors chuckled.
"That was embarrassing," Sheridan said with a smile that suggested otherwise.