An Agent for Dead Celebrities

Commentator Jake Halpern introduces us to a Hollywood agent who exclusively represents dead celebrities. He finds endorsement deals for John Wayne and is responsible for getting Steve McQueen his own video game.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

You can't get very far in your Hollywood career without an agent. All actors have agents who connect them with projects and then take their 10 percent. Recently commentator Jake Halpern found out that the need for an agent can even outlast your career in Hollywood.

JAKE HALPERN:

If you are a world-class celebrity in the twilight of your life, you may want to consider retiring to California before it's too late. I only point this out because the state of California offers, in addition to all the young trophy wives and Ferrari dealerships, some of the best post-mortem perks in the nation. I didn't know this until recently when I paid a visit to the offices of Roger Richmond. Richmond is a middle-aged fellow with conventional square-jaw, TV newscaster good looks. And on this particular day, he was in an excellent mood. `We just picked up George Burns and his wife, Gracie Allen, today,' he told me. `And we got Gloria Swanson yesterday. She was a big star back in the '30s and '40s.' When I asked him how he'd managed to sign these stars, he told me that the families of the deceased always contacted him. `So you're not reading the obituaries each week and calling?' `Never,' snapped Richmond.

The families come to Roger Richmond because of his sterling reputation and his superlative list of deceased clients, which include James Cagney, Mae West, Burt Lancaster, Steve McQueen, Otis Redding, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein and, of course, the Wright brothers. Richmond offers the heirs of these stars and luminaries two things: first, he promises to fight infringements, which are unauthorized uses of his clients' names and images; secondly, Richmond promises to seek out opportunities for posthumous advertising and merchandising. Thanks to the Roger Richmond Agency, Albert Einstein has endorsed Apple computers, and Steve McQueen now has his own video game.

Typically Richmond won't take on a new client unless he or she has been dead for at least six or seven years. `I had one family of a prominent actress that called me six months after her death,' recalled Richmond. `It was a little delicate because the body was still, well, warm, as I like to say.' As politely as he could, Richmond advised the family to sit tight for a while. Otherwise, he insisted, it would appear as if they were just cashing in. `But isn't that essentially what they're doing?' I asked him finally. `No,' said Richmond. For one thing, he explained, the proceeds from some of his clients, like Albert Einstein and John Wayne, go largely to charity. Secondly, he was, in his words, `protecting the reputation of legends.'

To make this point perfectly clear, he relayed the following story about his very first deceased client, W.C. Fields. Back in 1979, the heirs of W.C. Fields came to Richmond and complained about the way the actor's image was being used in several offensive ads, including one in which Fields' head was grafted onto a nude body. Richmond soon came upon dozens of other unauthorized celebrity products in ads, including rolls of John Wayne toilet paper and vials of Elvis Presley's sweat marked with the slogan, `May his perspiration be your inspiration.' Eventually Richmond became convinced that the solution was to pass a law through the California Legislature, so he drafted a bill that forbid the unauthorized use of a dead celebrity's name, voice, likeness, image, signature and photograph.

The bill, which became the Celebrity Rights Act of 1985, transformed Richmond's career. He was soon representing the families of dozens of deceased celebrities, who wanted to prevent unauthorized ads or products and generate some extra cash to boot. The only real problem that Richmond now had was with his clients who died in other states, many of which offered little or no protection for dead celebrities. According to Richmond, New York state is the worst place for a celebrity to die, a point that he has made to some prospective clients. `I've had people buy summer homes outside of New York,' explained Richmond. `My feeling is come to California. The weather is better. You can live here safely forever. And your heirs will never be fleeced.'

Over the years Roger Richmond's deft legal maneuvering have made him quite successful, so successful, in fact, that just recently Corbis, the vast image data bank owned by Bill Gates, purchased Richmond's agency. Corbis owns the copyrights to photos of dozens of stars, like Mae West, Burt Lancaster and Steve McQueen. This is shopping made easy for advertisers. Now in one single transaction, you can buy the rights to a Steve McQueen photo and get permission to use it in your next ad campaign. And if you want to throw a film clip in to boot, say, of Steve McQueen jumping the fence in "Great Escape," Corbis will find out who owns the rights, hammer out a deal and edit the whole thing for you at their in-house production studios.

(Soundbite of music)

HALPERN: It couldn't be much easier to find a winning corporate icon for your company. And no one, least of all death, seems to be standing in the way.

BLOCK: Jake Halpern is writing a book about fame.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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