On TV shows, contract disputes are a hazard, indeed. They blow in every summer and follow a seasonal pattern: The actor coyly hints that he may not return for the fall season; the producer blusters about finding someone else but eventually offers more money; finally the two reunite before the first frost to bring an anxious world 22 more episodes of My Mother the Car. At least, that’s the way it traditionally happens. But over at CBS’ long-running (three and a half years) The Dukes of Hazzard, something about the summer rite has gone clamorously wrong—to the tune of more than $115 million in lawsuits, the walkout of stars John Schneider (Bo Duke) and Tom Wopat (Luke Duke), and the addition of two unknown clones who started shooting last week.
The fracas began May 24, when Schneider and Wopat filed suit for $25 million against Warner Bros., the company that produces Dukes, alleging that Warners had shortchanged them on royalties due from $190 million worth of Dukes of Hazzard toys, games and clothes. The merchandising spinoffs are considered to be among the most lucrative in TV history, a fact that is raising the stakes—and hackles—on both sides. “The Duke boys wouldn’t stand for being cheated and neither will we,” said Wopat, 30, and Schneider, 22, in a joint statement. “We have learned that for the past two years Warner Bros, has deceived and defrauded us. We hate to leave the show, but we feel we cannot continue to work for a company which, in our opinion, has cheated not only us but all our fellow actors.” On June 23 Warners countersued for $90 million, alleging libel and breach of contract. The issues involved are complex. Among other charges, Schneider and Wopat claim that Warners made “sweetheart” deals with its own subsidiaries to manufacture Dukes paraphernalia, thus diverting royalties from the actors. Warners countercharges that the pair’s real goal is to get out of their series contract.
Barring a sudden out-of-court resolution, which could still bring one or both actors back to the show, the only clear winners in the dispute are two newcomers to Hazzard County. They are Christopher Mayer, 28, and Byron Cherry, 25, the two Duke-alikes who beat out 2,230 rivals during three weeks of cattle-calling for the new roles of Vance and Coy Duke, two “cousins” who’ll sit in for Wopat and Schneider behind the wheel of their often-wrecked General Lee vehicle.
“It is the nearest a man can come to having a baby,” says the sturdy, dark-haired Mayer, who was filling out an unemployment form the moment he received the fateful phone call two weeks ago. Shortly before, the one-bedroom West Hollywood apartment he shares with his pregnant wife, Teri, 21, was robbed. “We were so desperate for income that Teri had even taken to making and painting straw baskets so we could put dried flowers in them and sell them at swap meets,” recalls Mayer, who is already looking to rent a house near the beach. “Only in this business can you be an overnight celebrity.” Nonetheless, after five years of auditions, bit parts and acting classes, he feels prepared. “To be ready when your moment comes—when the ball is passed to you, to run with it and score, that takes some work,” says Mayer. He sees the show as innocent fun, something he believes his own age group didn’t get enough of. “I grew up in a generation where it was Vietnam, black moratorium armbands and no one went to proms,” says Mayer. “It’s nice to see there’s been a swing back—younger people are getting into things, playing sports. They don’t want to sit around, drink Rhine wine and say the world sucks.”
Mayer grew up the eldest of seven children of a machinery company executive and a homemaker in Ridge-wood, N.J. and graduated from Colgate University in 1977. He once did swimming pool therapy with retarded children and hopes that Dukes will allow him to expand his social contributions. “A week ago I could only give a little money,” says Mayer. “Maybe soon I’ll be able to do something to bring in a lot more money.”
Though he won’t discuss how much they’re making (Schneider and Wopat raked in $30,000 an episode), co-star Byron Cherry was working as a bartender when Warners plucked him out of an Atlanta audition. “I’ve been poor for a long time, and happy,” says Cherry. Since leaving East Tennessee State in 1977, he also worked as a lifeguard, a suntan lotion salesman and an Eastern Air Lines steward (“It was fun, but I was always pouring coffee on people’s shoes”). Though he’s never acted professionally before and has had only a few acting lessons, the role of a clean-cut good ole boy fits as snug as his jeans. Except for an occasional bullbleep, “I don’t cuss,” claims Cherry. “And I don’t do drugs, and that’s the very honest truth.” The youngest of four sons of a recently deceased Atlanta architect, he says he counts on the support of his family and ex-wife Angela Williams, 25. Their two-year marriage ended five months ago, but Cherry calls the divorce “taking a break” and says he still loves Angela, who lives in Atlanta with their son, Byron Jr., 2. “Getting the part is great because kids love the show and I love children,” Byron beams. “I would love to have 10 some day.” He’s not a bit worried about going Hollywood. “All I know is that I’ve been a fan of the Dukes and now that I’m part of it fame won’t change me at all.” His docile (so far) attitude may be even more attractive to his new bosses than his Schneider-like dimples. “All I want to do,” attests Cherry, “is keep Warner Bros, happy and show up on time.”