Monday, May 23, 2016

The day I was threatened with an injunction, federal and state lawsuit

Who hasn't had that?

I don’t think it’s possible to have a long career in television or motion picture production without being sued, threatened with cease and desist orders, and legal action.

Mine came when my partner, David Isaacs, and I created the series MARY for Mary Tyler Moore in 1985.

I hadn’t thought of this for a long time but in Googling something else recently I came across this article in the Los Angeles Times. You can read the article here.

I actually never saw it when it came out, but it is filled with inaccuracies. Had the Times bothered to talk to one of us and get our side maybe they would have had a more accurate account of events, but let me share that now since it’s an interesting story of gamesmanship and negotiation (and greed).

David and I conceived a series set in a tabloid newspaper in Chicago. There is a research service that clears names for legal purposes. We submitted a list of possible newspaper names and they came back with the few that had cleared. One was the Chicago Post. So that’s the one we chose.

Before designing the set we went to a few newspaper newsrooms to see what they actually looked like. One thing we noticed when we compared the photos was you couldn’t automatically identify one from the other. None had the name of their paper plastered on the walls. So, in designing our newsroom, nowhere did we show the words Chicago Post.  This proved to be a lucky break.

We filmed the pilot early in October (to air in December). The following week the director, Danny DeVito, and Mary went back to Chicago to film the opening title sequence. David Isaacs went with them. I stayed back and worked on upcoming scripts.

On the morning of October 16th I went into the office early. My plan was to work in the morning then go to the Dodger-Cardinal playoff game in the afternoon.

Meanwhile, in Chicago they were shooting scenes of buses going through town with billboards of “the Chicago Post” with Mary's picture prominently displayed (she was supposed to be a columnist).

At about 10:00 I get a call from a gentleman saying he was the publisher of the Chicago Post and happened to see one of these buses. What the hell was going on? I said I would call him back.

I quickly dialed Chicago information and asked for the number of the Chicago Post. Sure enough, she had one. Clearly, our research company fucked up big time.

I called the higher-ups at MTM and alerted them. They said were on it.

An hour later they called and asked how difficult would it be if we had to change the paper's name? I said not difficult at all. We would have to reshoot those opening title scenes with the bus boards, and do some looping of dialogue, but that’s about it. It would be a pain in the ass, but in no way would we have to reshoot the pilot (thus saving a million dollars). Relieved, they said “Great” and told me to stand by.

Then they called the paper’s publisher and very generously offered $100,000 for use of the name. In truth, the Chicago Post was just a throwaway paper. The owner said the name was worth much more and wanted some astronomical fee. He figured we’d have to reshoot the pilot. MTM said that was their final offer and he had until the end of the business day.

With that hanging over my head I sped down to Dodger Stadium to watch the game where Jack Clark hit the three-run home run to win the pennant over my beloved Dodgers. Not a good day. 

Now I go back to the office. The Chicago Post publisher thought we were bluffing and let the deadline pass.   We made those changes and the Chicago Post became the Chicago Eagle.

If he ever called back the next day and said he'd agree to the offer or was open to negotiate I'm not aware.  All I know is when the deadline passed the offer was pulled off the table and MTM was done with the matter.

We reshot the bus board scenes in Los Angeles, reprinted copies of the paper, looped the actors (I think it was said only three or four times), and that was that. Long before the show aired it was done.

So that's the real story.  To my knowledge there were never any injunctions, and federal and state lawsuits.  The show's airing was never in jeopardy.   If the publisher did file those legal salvos he wasted a lot of money because Chicago Post was never in the broadcast version.

I remember at the end of that day, the MTM exec saying, “It’s now only a minor problem of making some fixes. Go home with peace of mind.” And I said, “Screw that. How come Lasorda didn't walk Clark with first base open?" 


Jason said...

From the article: "This is because Mell publishes a small newspaper and the paper's name is copyrighted."

Seriously? In an article about infringement, they still can't get right the difference between copyright and trademark?

Anyway, that article was clearly only published because the guy was the vice-mayor of Chicago, which is apparently a thing, and that's also why they didn't look for the other side of the story.

Loosehead said...

Did anything happen regarding the copyright research company who seem to have messed up?

BA said...

I was living in Chicago at that time and the only papers I knew about were the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and the Daily News (which went under when Mayor Daily died).

AlaskaRay said...

I had a similar experience with the LA Times. A few years ago they ran a story on one of my friends and colleagues. We had published a number of scientific research articles and a book together. Before he defected to the USA, he had been the deputy director and chief scientist of the Soviet Union's biowarfare efforts, but since then he had worked tirelessly to help control the risk and spread of biological weapons. Anyway, I could tell from the first question that the Times reporter was preparing a hatchet job, and had most (if not all) of his information wrong. I let him know where he was wrong and gave him all the correct information. The article came out a few days later and he had completely ignored everything I told him. I learned that day never to believe what I read in the newspaper, especially the LA Times.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Looks like they mostly based the story on what the Chicago Post owner told them; if CBS didn't respond there's not a lot they can do and make their deadline. In 1985 it wasn't so easy to find showrunners, etc.

btw, in case anyone's curious, I found the pilot episode on YouTube:


Unknown said...

You'd think they'd be flattered being associated with Mary Tyler Moore.

Boomska316 said...

Friday Question:Speaking of Danny Devito I always wondered why he never ended up guest starring on Cheers considering his obvious connections? Was it ever talked about?

Michael said...

Ken, I'm here to answer your question.

Because Tommy Lasorda will go to his grave believing that no right-handed hitter ever got a hit off of a right-handed pitcher, and no left-handed hitter ever got a hit off of a left-handed pitcher.

tb said...

Damn right he should've walked Jack Clark!

Donald said...

More of a life question than a Friday question: The son of very close friendsjust graduated from college with his major in film. He is determined to head out to L.A. to make a go of it as a screenwriter. His parents tell me he is a good writer, so I take them at their word; I have not seen any of his work. He has some scripts written, but he has no agent nor any kind of gainful employment lined up. But as I said, he is determined to go. I was wondering if you could offer a couple of "first-step" suggestions for me to pass on to him (giving you full credit, of course).

thirteen said...

How stupid that Chicago Post guy was. I used to know Gary Ackerman, who published the real Flushing Tribune in Queens. It was a small community paper, just getting by. Well, all of a sudden a fake Flushing Tribune shows up on All in the Family, America's most popular program. The name was purely a coincidence. Ackerman got in touch with the producers, but he was all This is great! I'm so happy! Do you want real papers? T-shirts? Anything else I can do for you? The outcome was that All in the Family began using real Tribunes in scenes with Archie reading the paper, and Ackerman became very well known in Queens. Ackerman parlayed his sudden fame into a seat in the New York State Senate and, after that, Congress, where he served for twenty years, retiring three years ago.

Johnny Walker said...

Wow. What happened with the company responsible for the clearance? Did they have to pay some compensation to cover the costs of the reshoots?

The Chicago Post is apparently still going, but I'm sure they wish they'd taken the money.

How about a few more MARY stories? It's hard to imagine how bad it must have been to make you consider walking away from Hollywood for good :(

RobEB said...

Or with Levine and Issacs!

Breadbaker said...

Love the Gary Ackerman story; definitely the way to go.

About 20 years ago, I had a little website called the Trivia Tontine. We had a couple dozen players every day, sometimes more when the AOL Hometown site, which hosted us, would put us on their front page (which they did fairly often because the person running the big site sort of liked my little game).

One day, about the time I'm finding that doing this every day is a bit of a hassle, I get a cease and desist letter from someone who claims a federal trademark in a similar name. He gave me enough information that my lawyer friends said he had a case. I of course didn't make a dime on this; just did it for the fun of it. So I wrote him saying that I'd like to run the thing through the end of the month, because I had something special planned for the month end (which was my birthday). He said all right, but the site couldn't remain as archive under that name.

So it was later transformed into "Not the Tri*ia T*nt*ne". Sadly, there is no more AOL Hometown so the only records are on a computer of mine. We had a nice run. And the guy with the trademark doesn't show up when I Google it.

MikeN said...

Panda lovers want to know,
Was the director Danny DeVito?

Ed said...

Pitch to Clark or "that so-and-so Van Slyke"

Andy Rose said...

I see the intro depicts Mary going to interviews at the big name papers in Chicago, and leaving the Sun-Times building. Did you get permission from the Sun-Times to shoot that, or did you just set up in an area so their building would be behind you?

In the movie The Late Shift, there's a scene where David Letterman leaves the NBC building and walks up Sixth Avenue to the CBS building to attend the press conference where his new show would be announced. You see the actor, John Michael Higgins, actually walk through the lobby and out the doors of 30 Rock. But when they get to Black Rock, they cut away before he goes inside. I always wondered if that was because they were able to bypass NBC and get permission to shoot from the 30 Rock landlord, but CBS said no to using their building, which they still owned at the time.

John Trumbull said...

Boomska316 said...
Friday Question:Speaking of Danny Devito I always wondered why he never ended up guest starring on Cheers considering his obvious connections? Was it ever talked about?

I asked this question of Ken just over five years ago, Boomska316:

David Das said...

Reminds me of the Seinfeld situation with the Latvian Orthodox Church, although in that case I don't believe there was ever any threat of lawsuit. The presumed-fictional church denomination did actually exist and was grateful for the publicity!

Greg T. said...

Why did the show premiere in DECEMBER? Isn't that a terrible month for TV viewing?

Barry Traylor said...

Wow! There really are some dumb people around. I would have thought they would have been happy for the free publicity.