By People Staff
October 16, 2000 12:00 PM

BARROOM BRAWL

Angry Cheers stars battle lookalike robots who inhabit airport pubs. Really.

Focus

George Wendt and John Ratzenberger are miffed. A chain of airport pubs, called Cheers, features two talking robots that bear more than a passing resemblance to Norm and Cliff, the beloved barflies the two actors portrayed from 1982 to 1993 on the classic television series Cheers. Although the robots are called Bob and Hank, Wendt and Ratzenberger say they’re not fooling anyone—they’re really Norm and Cliff. Meaning they’re really Wendt and Ratzenberger. And since the actors did not grant approval, they want the animatronic impersonators bounced.

No way, says Paramount, which produced the sitcom and licensed the rights to the Cheers bar concept to the restaurant firm Host International in 1992. Its lawyers argue that federal copyright laws protect their right to license the characters they created, no matter who plays them—human or robot.

The results so far? A court battle that has now lasted seven years reached the U.S. Supreme Court and may, with appeals, go on for another two. “This is not about compensation,” says the actors’ attorney Dale F. Kinsella. “While George and John had a spectacular run on Cheers, they didn’t want to be typecast as a fat accountant and a know-it-all mailman sitting at a bar. When Host asked if they could use their likenesses for their Cheers bars, we didn’t respond, ‘How much?’ We said, ‘No.’ ”

The California statute under which Wendt and Ratzenberger are suing has been used in the past by Bette Midler, Dustin Hoffman and Vanna White to retain commercial control of their likenesses. “If a studio acquires the right to license an actor’s image cloaked in the outfit of character,” Kinsella explained, then hypothetically “that studio could use Harrison Ford’s face to sell cigarettes or beer as long as he was dressed as Indiana Jones.”

The actors cheered a pint-size victory on Oct. 2 when the Supreme Court rejected Paramount’s appeal to dismiss the case and, instead, sent it back to be decided by a jury in a lower federal court. (Paramount representatives declined to comment for this story.) “We’re thrilled,” says Kinsella. “We think a jury will rule in our favor.”

Cash Call

Horror heavy-weight Stephen King had threatened to pull the plug on his online serialized book The Plant if at least 75 percent of those downloading the novel’s third installment didn’t pay the requested $1 fee. Since the warning the tally of paying readers stands at 73 percent (of about 88,000 customers). Good enough, says King, since he was mailed fives, tens and twenties from fans hoping to cover for deadbeats. He also received foreign money but can’t say how much. Notes King’s spokeswoman: “Who knows what the exchange rate is?”

Castaway Casting

As if eating rodents wasn’t grueling enough, fresh-faced Survivor castaway Colleen Haskell is about to subject herself to the romantic ploys of the man once known as Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo. Haskell—who now has her own showbiz agent—will play Rob Schneider’s love interest in the film Animal. He’ll play a man who receives organ transplants from various critters and takes on their characteristics. It is not a reality show.

A Morrison Plot Twist? French Say No

Will disruptive fan traffic (one million visitors annually) cause the imminent removal of Jim Morrison, the late lead singer of The Doors, from Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris? Au contraire, insists a cemetery rep, responding to press reports that the Lizard King was facing eviction: “He’s here to stay.” Still, the speculation raises the question: Can stars truly find a final resting place? Not if they don’t like company, says Scott Stanton, author of The Tombstone Tourist, who lists the burial spots of Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Patsy Cline, Frank Sinatra and Hank Williams Sr. as the five most-visited celebrity grave sites. Also popular: John Belushi’s grave in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., and Marilyn Monroe’s Los Angeles crypt.

Up for Bid: Fox Habitat

Everything must go! Even the walls! Translation: Michael J. Fox, late of Spin City, has put more than 300 items from his four-year series’ stint on the auction block, including the sets for his character’s city hall office and apartment. Also up for grabs: Fox’s wardrobe of custom-made suits (size 36 short), shoes (size 7), a blue dress shirt (14½ neck, 31 sleeve) and his New York Rangers jersey. The Amazon.com auction is to run Oct. 4-18, and all of the proceeds will benefit the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

Mob Guy Sings

Look out, Britney, gunning for your Billboard slot is Uncle Junior, one of the unlikely celebrities to throw caution to the windpipes recently and cut a CD. The Sopranos’ Dominic Chianese warbles old favorites on his as-yet-untitled album. Mike Wallace, of 60 Minutes, swings big-band-style on The Girl (She’s Mine), recorded with one of his researchers. And Martha Stewart offers Spooky Scary Sounds for Halloween—but doesn’t sing. “I don’t want to scare people off that way,” she says.

POP QUIZ

with Halle Berry

Halle Berry, fresh off well-received turns in X-Men and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, spoke at a Princeton University seminar on women, race and film. Scoop caught up with the actress, 34, on campus.

Why did you agree to speak at this conference?

Because the invitation came at a time that was probably the darkest, scariest time of my life. I’d been in a car accident, as everybody on the planet probably knows, and I was questioning my self-worth every day. I spent a lot of time crying and praying. The letter from Princeton was a light at the end of the tunnel. It reminded me I was a woman of substance.

What hurdles did you face early in your film career?

Because I came from a modeling and beauty pageants background, I had to convince people that I was a serious actress, not just a pretty face. So I took a lot of character roles that had nothing to do with my physicality. If you’re a black woman in film, you have to look hard for risks to take, otherwise you’ll be mediocre.

What are the issues you face?

As a black woman, the industry doesn’t know what to do with you. You have to fight for roles that aren’t specifically “black” roles. Like The Flintstones. Bedrock needed to be integrated. I said to the director, “How can you make a children’s movie in the ’90s and not have any black people in the cast?”

What kinds of risks are you taking?

I’m about to start filming Swordfish with John Travolta, and for the first time I’m facing nudity in a film. I’ve refused that for 10 years.

Will you do the nudity?

I don’t know yet. I’m open to it.

How would films be different if white men weren’t the primary decision makers?

The films wouldn’t be so sharply divided into black and white films, and as a result, the audiences would become more integrated. Onscreen, I think you’d see more stories that say it’s okay to have a mixed romantic relationship.

Who are your role models?

Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Jodie Foster, Julia Roberts. And Oprah, not only as an actress, but because of the kind of person she is. Just listening to her can get me through a bad day.

One last question, Any marriage plans in the offing for you and your fiancé, singer Eric Benét?

Yes, definitely. Sometime before the end of 2000, we’ll probably go off and elope.

ON THE BLOCK

CAGE’S CASTLE

Nicolas Cage, who won a 1995 Academy Award for Leaving Las Vegas, is now leaving the Hollywood Hills. He just sold his 5,300-sq.-ft, five-bedroom estate there for close to $1.5 million. The house, built in the 1920s, features panoramic city views, a living room with stained glass windows and a dining room complete with hand-painted frescoes. There’s also a library, a refrigerated wine cellar and humidor, three fireplaces and a two-car garage with a hydraulic lift—just in case you want to squeeze in a third vehicle. So where to next for the actor, whose upcoming films include Family Man and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin? Well, although Cage also has homes in Bel Air and Malibu, he may be headed for points east. Cage and his wife, actress Patricia Arquette, recently reconciled after a short split earlier this year and are considering buying an island in the Bahamas.

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