Harry Shearer vs. The Partners in Evil

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Oct. 12 1997 3:30 AM

Harry Shearer vs. The Partners in Evil

A seven-part series from a principled plaintiff. He wasn't in it for the money. Unless, of course, they wanted to offer him a lot of money.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Maybe it's my karma, if there is such a thing as karma. Maybe it's the law of conservation of irony. But, having spent the latter part of last year and the early part of this one spectating at someone else's trial (O.J. Simpson's civil trial, if you must know), it came to be my fate, this summer, to be a participant--hell, the plaintiff--in my own civil trial. Satirist Paul Krassner's suggestion that O.J. cover my trial did not come to pass. (Simpson reportedly refused to do it because he didn't want "Fred Goldman to get all that Slate money.") Still, it occurred to me that some readers might wonder how the shoe felt on the other foot. This, then, is The Other Foot Report.

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A civil trial, of course, begins with a dispute. Mine began with a book I read some eight years ago, a mystery novel that a friend of the author's sent to me in galley-proof form, thinking that its subject matter--a murder mystery taking place at a familiar-seeming late-night television comedy series in New York--might scratch one of my well-known itches. Shortly afterward, I optioned the book and started looking for the opportunity to turn it into a movie. And the people who, in January 1989, proposed to give me that opportunity turned out to be the people I would sue, 11 months later, when they unceremoniously and, it seemed to me, with extreme prematureness, pulled the plug on the project.

The entertainment industry is an extremely litigious business compared with, say, the dry-cleaning industry. Aside from announcements of projects that will never see the dark of night, the pages of Variety and the Hollywood Reporter are filled with reports of lawsuits filed and settled--among former partners, between talent and manager-husbands, between Rupert and Ted. I'd never partaken of this show-business tradition until the day I received the brusque and angry letter from the lawyer of my quondam benefactors--a lawyer who's the namesake of a longtime Supreme Court justice but whom I'll call "Blackie," so as to avoid further legal entanglements. But this particular year had been a rough one, both professionally and personally--my girlfriend dumped me July 4 after we sat through a matinee of Do the Right Thing--and Blackie's letter felt like the last straw.

There was another crucial fact: The lawyer's client was a partnership comprising an old-time movie producer (Mr. B) and a younger woman reputedly related to one of the world's richest men (the Heiress). This wasn't Universal or Paramount giving me the Abner Louima treatment. I could, conceivably, sue these people and still work again.

Not every doctor performs brain surgery; similarly, not every civil attorney sues. The lawyer who had been negotiating my contract with the producers was and is a deal maker. When I called him, foaming about the injustice of my treatment, he offered these words of reassurance: "You were just in business with bad people." It soon became obvious to him that this was but kerosene on the flame of my anger, that I was not in any mood to shrug and move on to the next bad people. He ultimately suggested that I needed a litigator, and the one he recommended was Attorney G.

"I can't promise you anything," Attorney G said after I'd detailed my complaint in his downtown L.A. offices overlooking the plaza of perpetual decline known as Pershing Square, "except a complete tour of the judicial system." Not since Johnnie Cochran's "even with a knit cap on, I'm still Johnnie Cochran" has an attorney spoken more truthfully. Fortunately, Attorney G was both a fan of mine and the kind of litigator who gets an adrenalin rush from going after people he conceives to be Bad Guys. In his off-hours, he mounts expeditions to remote lands to engage in scientific adventures. He would be the perfect guide for the trek that lay ahead.

Tour Stop No. 1--My Cool Deposition, the Trailing Calendar, and an Offer to Settle

Tour Stop No. 2--Justice Can Be Bought

Tour Stop No. 3--It's Show Time

Tour Stop No. 4--Hey, Which Side Are You On?