Michael Neill
November 17, 1997 12:00 PM

SOMEWHERE IN AUSTRALIA, AN auto-sales company is using a tawdry Audrey Hepburn lookalike—in TV and print ads. In South Korea, Albert Einstein has been spotted on milk cartons—and he isn’t missing. And in Texas, there’s a Betty Grable weight-loss clinic. All of this ticks Roger Richman off, almost as much as the vial of purported Elvis sweat or the roll of John Wayne bathroom tissue that he keeps on a shelf in his office. “These are people who are national treasures,” declares Richman, 53. “They should be revered and cherished—not denigrated, not put on toilet paper.”

The forces of evil—or at least of commercial exploitation—never sleep. And Richman, a Beverly Hills lawyer who represents the estates of 45 dead celebrities, is tireless in his efforts to thwart them—or at least to get a piece of the action for the celebrity’s estate. So, if you’re thinking about plastering W.C. Fields’s mug on a mug, you’d better check with Rich-man. The same goes for Boris Karloff, Sigmund Freud and clown Emmett Kelly. If the product doesn’t pass muster with Richman, plan to get hit with a cease-and-desist letter. And if it does, expect to pay a licensing fee worth between 8 percent and 12 percent of projected wholesale sales—with two-thirds of it going to the estate, a third to Richman.

It’s a split that celebrities’ heirs are happy to make. “Without policing, there can be trouble,” notes Everett Fields, 52, one of W.C. Fields’s five grandchildren and Richman’s first client. “What I was concerned with was protecting the image my grandfather had worked so hard to create. Roger was the first person I spoke with who really understood that.”

Fields came to Richman in 1979 after the U.S. Postal Service put W.C.’s image on a series of stamps—and then merchandised his trademark smirk on trays, glassware and curtains, all without compensating the family. “The state of the law at that time for celebrity families was either bad or nonexistent,” says Richman. The complaint was settled with the Postal Service agreeing to compensate Fields’s heirs for the merchandising.

Always, Richman is concerned not just with cash but with appropriateness. “We try to license things that are in keeping with the image and reputation the personalities developed for themselves while they were alive,” says Richman. “Therefore, Albert Einstein would do in the science, computer hardware and software area. Steve McQueen, he’s an action hero. Audrey Hepburn would do in very expensive and delicate clothing.”

A year after the Postal Service settlement, Everett Fields suggested that Richman draft a law to protect deceased celebrities. With $150,000 in financial backing from Mike Wayne, son of the much-exploited Duke, and testimony from Elizabeth Taylor and the sons of Abbott, Costello and Harpo Marx, Richman prevailed. In 1984, California passed the Celebrity Rights Act, forbidding unauthorized commercial use of a celebrity’s image, voice or even signature for 50 years after death. Fourteen other states have enacted similar legislation, and Richman is now pressing for a federal law.

The son of a rabbi and an artist, Richman, who grew up in Chevy Chase, Md., claims to have had inklings of his specialty when he was at Vanderbilt University School of Law. “I remember a professor saying that when someone becomes a public figure, they lose their right to privacy,” he recalls. “I immediately thought, ‘Hey, that’s not fair.’ ”

It took him a while to do something about it. He found work as a sculptor and worked in movie production before he met Everett Fields and started his new career.

When Richman, who’s single and lives in Hollywood Hills, isn’t bird-dogging the unauthorized use of his clients’ images—he employs agents in 19 countries to monitor TV, billboards and newspaper ads—he likes to backpack or spend time at a tourist lodge of which he is part-owner in the Amazon rain forest. “It puts all the work I’m doing on a day-to-day basis in a proper perspective,” he says. Even by the Amazon, though, he doesn’t lose his competitive edge. “The piranhas,” he says, “taste pretty good.”


JOHNNY DODD in Los Angeles

You May Like