5 Wild Hollywood Lawsuits
The entertainment sector currently employs about half a dozen directors, 20 A-list actors, two screenwriters, and 30,000 lawyers. Because the real movie business is drawing up complex contracts and agreements and then suing the crap out of everyone when things go wrong. It's pretty routine work most of the time. But other times a lawsuit can get ... weird.
Mr. Rogers Sued The KKK For Imitating Him To Spread Racial Hatred
In 1990, a phone number was circulated among the children of Independence, Missouri. Once they dialed, callers heard what sounded like the reassuring voice of Fred "Mister" Rogers. The words he said were a little different from his usual message, though. "AIDS was divine retribution," began one call, followed by a speech ridiculing gay people. Another tape describes a black boy on a playground, whom "Mr. Rogers" calls a "little drug pusher" -- only he uses a word other than "little." That's because the voice was actually a member of the KKK. The call ended with "Mr. Rogers" lynching the boy.
The number was discovered by civil rights and religious leaders in Independence, and after they escalated the issue, the real Mr. Rogers and his company (Family Communications Inc.) acted. They filed a temporary restraining order on the grounds of copyright infringement, since the Klan was using actual sound effects and music from the show. A judge granted it immediately. A couple of weeks later, the men responsible (who now claimed not to be Klansmen) agreed to destroy all the recordings.
The whole thing played out much like copyright takedowns do today, the difference being this case went through actual courts and was subject to legal scrutiny rather than corporate whims. No record appears to exist of what the three men (Adam Troy Mercer, M. B. Madison, and Edward E. Stephens) did next. Let's imagine that after they signed the agreement, Mr. Rogers personally appealed to them and convinced them to be better people.
Nicolas Cage Sued Kathleen Turner For Saying He Kidnapped A Chihuahua
Nicolas Cage doesn't care what the news says about him. Insane anecdotes can't hurt you when insanity is your whole brand, right? Suppose you wake up one night to a naked intruder standing over you eating a Fudgsicle. Spread the news far and wide; you're Nic Cage! Let's say you're caught grabbing your wife and drunkenly smashing up cars, only to be bailed out of jail by Dog the Bounty Hunter. That's not a scandal, you're Nic Cage! Or what if you spend a quarter million on a dinosaur skull stolen from Mongolia? You don't suppress that story, you brag about it, because you're Nic Cage!
But everyone has their limits. Kathleen Turner wrote a memoir called Send Yourself Roses in 2008, and she included some lines about Cage. The mention was so brief that I can quote it in full: He'd been arrested twice, for drunk driving and I think once for stealing a dog. He came across a Chihuahua he liked and stuck it in his jacket.
Not that many people would have heard the DUI/dognapping story, because not that many people read books, but then The Daily Mail posted extracts from the memoir online, Cage bits included. Cage then sued for libel. "I have never been arrested for anything in my life, nor have I stolen a dog," he said -- which, let's be honest, sounds like a statement that only a man who's been arrested and has stolen a dog would make. But a court ended up siding with Cage, so let's say that at least nobody could prove it.
In addition to paying Cage's legal bills and making a donation to charity, the publishers had to print an apology in all future copies of the book, and The Mail took their story down. It's worth noting that this was in the UK. The suit would have seen less success in the U.S., which has stronger protections against libel charges. Among other things, a plaintiff has to prove actual damages to win a defamation case. An American judge would probably have said, "Hey, didn't you commandeer the PA system on a plane and impersonate a sick pilot to scare the passengers, resulting in police nearly arresting you with Charlie Sheen's cocaine? These stories can't damage you. You're Nic Cage!'
Mike Myers And Producers Sued Each Other When He Hated An SNL Script (Which He'd Written)
Saturday Night Live used to frequently churn out full-length films based on recurring characters. Such characters used to be the backbone of the show, and they kept giving them movies, no matter how little basis for it the sketches actually offered. The very first of these movies, The Blues Brothers, was based on a sketch that didn't even have a narrative (it was just two guys unironically singing), so they must have figured that pretty much anything would work.
In 1998, SNL Pictures started work on a Sprockets movie. The Sprockets sketch saw Mike Myers playing a German expressionist named Dieter, who'd interview guests dressed all in black. Every segment ended in him asking the guest to touch his monkey (not a euphemism) and then cutting the interview short so a bunch of techno dancers could come out. A previous Mike-Myers-character-hosts-a-thing sketch, "Wayne's World," had produced two successful movies, so how could this one possibly go wrong?
After two years and millions spent on pre-production for Sprockets, Myers declared that the material they had was terrible and unusable. He pulled out, claiming he had the right to do so because the contract said he needn't provide acting services until there was an approved script, and he wasn't approving the script. But Myers was the one who wrote the script which he was now saying he didn't approve ... as the production companies noted when they took him to court.
Myers responded to $30 million in lawsuits from two different companies with a suit of his own for $20 million, demanding to be paid for the movie he didn't make, and wanting compensation because the producers leaked his home address and stalked him. The producers countered that "sending a process server to him" did not legally count as stalking, and in the end, all parties agreed on a settlement whereby the world was denied a Sprockets movie, but Myers would work with Universal and Imagine Entertainment on another project. And that's the story of how we got The Cat In The Hat, one of the worst movies of all time.
The Prisoner From The Thin Blue Line Sued The Film That Got Him Freed
Before true crime podcasts, we had crime documentaries, and Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line kicked off the trend. It revolved around the killing of a Dallas police officer in 1976. Police learned that 16-year-old David Ray Harris had bragged about committing the crime and picked him up. Harris told them the murder was actually committed by Randall Adams, a man he'd met earlier that day. Investigators pursued a case against Adams instead of Harris (possibly because, being an adult, he was eligible for the death penalty), and Adams wound up convicted and on death row.
The Thin Blue Line contains interviews with a bunch of people who are convinced that Harris -- who graduated to death row himself for an unrelated murder by the time of filming -- was the real killer all along. And the final scene shows a tape recorder running as Harris admits to lying about Adams' guilt. It sounds a whole lot like Harris is confessing to the crime himself. Thanks to the case Morris put together in his film, Adams got a new hearing, and within six months his conviction was overturned. He was free.
Then he sued Errol Morris. Which seems a little ungrateful, considering the guy saved his life and got him his freedom. But Adams had a couple of disputes with The Thin Blue Line. The first was about money. He'd agreed to let Morris make the documentary for basically no compensation, but had demanded $60,000 if Morris made a "commercial film" -- and The Thin Blue Line, Adams now argued, had become a commercial film. Morris disagreed (the film supposedly hadn't even come close to recouping its production costs), and in the end, he and Adams came to no new agreement.
But Adams said the real issue wasn't about money, but who owned the rights to his story. If a man doesn't own the rights to his own life, then what does he have? So after he filed the suit, he and Morris agreed to a settlement in which Adams got the rights to all future movies and books made about his life. No such books or movies were made, as far as I can tell. Sure, Adams wrote a book himself, but he'd always had the right to do that.
Stephen King Made Millions Off Lawnmower Man ... By Severing All Ties With It
Stephen King has a pretty consistent attitude when it comes to movie adaptations of his books: Let them do whatever they want. Sometimes when the movie makes big changes from the source, he likes it better than what he wrote. He invites student filmmakers to buy the rights to his stories for $1 each. He even said the Dark Tower adaptation was "a pretty good movie," because he is a liar. Sometimes he'll speak out when he doesn't like a film -- he really, really doesn't like The Shining -- but he still lets them happen with mostly goodwill.
And then there was The Lawnmower Man. In the film, scientists give a mentally disabled man superpowers via virtual reality, and he decides to evolve into a higher being, so they must battle him in both the real world and the virtual one. There's also some cybersex. The short story it's based on, also called "The Lawnmower Man," is a little different. A homeowner hires a lawn care service, and the bearded man who shows up gets naked and eats all his grass. Then he eats the homeowner next as a sacrifice to the god Pan (or maybe the bearded man is Pan).
So a few subtle changes there. Or if you want to be strictly accurate, the movie had absolutely nothing to do with the short story, save for a single scene wherein Jeff Fahey kills someone with a lawnmower (which, if you want to be strictly accurate, also has nothing to do with the short story). And yet the film was going to be released under the title Stephen King's The Lawnmower Man. For some reason, King was far too modest to accept credit for this masterpiece, so he sued to get his name pulled out of the title. This is not something authors generally do. They enjoy money, you see.
King also wanted his name removed from the credits altogether, and while the courts didn't go that far, they did award him $2.5 million in damages, which must have been nice. And then later, when he caught the home video distributors sticking his name back on the box, he sued again, winning 100% of the video profits plus $10,000 a day until his name was fully removed. But would all that money make up for also being denied association with the sequel, Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace? That question surely haunts King to this day.
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