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Biohazards: Now celebs have to watch their lives on TV

Living it wasn't bad enough?

''This is some form of lunacy,'' says Neil Papiano, the attorney for Elizabeth Taylor. ''This is ridiculous. You don't have the right to protect yourself from these vultures?''

The vultures in question are the TV producers and writers who have been circling over celebrities in search of fodder for TV movies and miniseries. Prime time has seen biopics before, but never so many about living stars so near the height of their fame (or infamy): La Liz, Mia Farrow, Mike Tyson, O.J. Simpson, Madonna, and Roseanne (the subject this season of dueling Fox and NBC bios). Even though producers are allowed considerable license under the First Amendment to portray the life stories of famous figures, some of the stars are still fighting back:

*After losing one round in court to block production of NBC's Liz, Papiano says, Taylor may file suit again — after the movie is made. He says Taylor is angry about reported plans to portray the star — erroneously, he adds — as a wife battered by three of her husbands.

*Roseanne has been even more vociferous, if less litigious. She denounced one of her doppelgangers, Denny Dillon of HBO's Dream On, scheduled to play her in Fox's Roseanne: An Unauthorized Biography, as a ''freaky little thing ... a midget woman,'' and then voiced her anger in a taped skit on The Tonight Show.

*After consulting with Simpson's lawyers, Fox postponed the air date for The O.J. Simpson Story until after jury selection so it wouldn't prejudice potential jurors.

*Farrow's lawyers have sent letters of protest to the producers of Fox's Mia: Child of Hollywood. Her publicist, John Springer, says Farrow ''strenuously objects. She knows what they'll probably concentrate on.'' But one of the producers says he can't accommodate her wishes: ''Then you find yourself making a bland promo piece.''

Madonna and incarcerated ex-heavyweight champ Mike Tyson have been silent, though. The producers of HBO's Tyson never spoke to the boxer, but they won the cooperation of many of his buddies. And Madonna, says spokeswoman Liz Rosenberg, ''has no opinion'' on Fox's movie about her early years — or about her now-shelved plan to set the record straight by producing her own bio.

Those cashing in on the celeb-of-the-week trend have predictably lofty rationales for their work and equally Machiavellian tactics for avoiding lawsuits. Some pointers:

INVOKE MYTHOLOGY WHENEVER POSSIBLE

*''It's a classic story,'' says Tarquin Gotch, executive producer of Mia. ''It's like a Greek drama, her relationship with Woody and the betrayal and the way it spiraled.''
*''It's a romantic tragedy,'' says Brian Pike, executive producer of NBC's Roseanne & Tom: Behind the Scenes, ''about some very whacked and bizarre people.''

ENGAGE IN SHAMELESS FLATTERY

*''I think she's a landmark American comic,'' says Patrick Faulstich, executive producer of Fox's Roseanne. ''Our story is about the forging of a unique artistic voice.''
*''Her life has been her best role,'' says Lester Persky, executive producer of Liz. ''(She's) this magic individual who's held our attention and our love all these years.''

PREPARE YOU SUBJECTS FOR THE WORST — GENTLY

*''As you can imagine with someone as hugely famous as Madonna, there were millions of sources out there,'' says Howard Braunstein, coexecutive producer of the Madonna pic. ''Obviously, we didn't do anything we thought was inappropriate or illegal.''
*''I would hope that Mike (Tyson) understands that we really try to explain his soft side,'' says Ross Greenburg of HBO Sports, ''as well as the unfortunate moments.''

DON'T LET MATTERS OF TASTE STOP YOU

*''It's almost like a game of Clue,'' says Robert Lovenheim, executive producer of Fox's Simpson movie. ''When has there been a double murder where you know all the facts? Everybody can sit around and say, was it 10:15 or 10:45? Was the glove planted? It's become a parlor game.''
*''Last year, there were a lot of (TV movies about) stolen babies,'' explains Braunstein. ''Now it's famous people. Television is pretty cyclical.''

WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS, USE HISTORICAL REFERENCES TO HELP BRING IRRITABLE CELEBRITIES INTO LINE

*''As angry as I might be if I was her, I'd be flattered that two networks were making movies about me,'' Pike says of Roseanne. ''I don't think Abraham Lincoln could say that.''

Originally posted Oct 14, 1994 Published in issue #244 Oct 14, 1994 Order article reprints
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