''I breast-fed those little devils,'' Tracey Ullman once said of the Simpsons. That sentiment is being played out in Los Angeles Superior Court in one of the year's most intriguing lawsuits Ullman v. The Simpsons. Actually, it's Ullman v. Twentieth Century Fox, a multimillion-dollar action by the comedian. The Simpsons began as 30-second shorts or ''cartoonlettes,'' in the words of creator Matt Groening, on Ullman's comedy series, and now she wants a share of The Simpsons' merchandising and gross profits. The case, which is scheduled to go to a jury this week, hinges on a 12-page contract Ullman signed with Fox only hours before filming the first Tracey Ullman Show in February 1987. Five years later, that hastily concluded deal has the studio and its former star who once had nothing but praise for each other hurling charges of greed and ingratitude.
The way her attorneys read it, Ullman, 32, is entitled to $2.5 million of Fox's estimated $50 million in profits reaped from merchandising the cartoon family, whose popularity has far outstripped that of the show that spawned them. Fox contends that Ullman doesn't have a right to a share of those revenues.
The strategy: Fox attorneys Louis Meisinger and Rita Tuzon are trying to represent Ullman as a hired performer with limited creative control over her show, making it implausible that Fox would have given her merchandising rights to spin-offs. ''Nobody gets that deal when they are performing as an actress on a series,'' Meisinger told the court. Implying that Ullman is both greedy and ungrateful, Tuzon noted that Fox has already paid her $3 million for the 3.5 seasons her show was on the air and an additional $58,000 in royalties for The Simpsons.
In response, Ullman is portraying herself as a sought-after comic actress who was not only involved in every aspect of the show but who once defended The Simpsons to her show's veteran producer-writer, James L. Brooks. ''I remember Jim once saying he thought the Simpsons were a little frightening,'' Ullman testified. ''And I said, 'No, they're very '80s. This is an '80s show. We've got to keep up with the times.'''
What gives the case added tension is that Ullman is trying not to alienate Brooks, who was allowed to videotape his testimony. She hasn't even named Brooks in her suit, even though his company was instrumental in negotiating the disputed contract (he went on to become the executive producer of The Simpsons). As it turns out, to tape his testimony Brooks had to take time out from his next film, I'll Do Anything, starring Nick Nolte. Nolte's costar? Tracey Ullman. Sometimes, Hollywood is just one big small town.