If the sitcom actors lose in court, be prepared for lookalike Britneys and Eminems, says Ty Burr

By Ty Burr
Updated October 05, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

The ”Cheers” celebrity suit may lead to a scary future

There ARE second acts in American life — they just tend to take place in courtrooms. Case in point: George Wendt and John Ratzenberger, two actors whose recent public appearances have mostly been limited to the banks where they go to cash their ”Cheers” residual checks, have gotten the go ahead to proceed with their lawsuit against Paramount Pictures and Host International Inc. The defendants’ crime? Putting pairs of animatronic robots that LOOK like ”Cheers”’ Cliff and Norm but in fact AREN’T ”Cheers”’ Cliff and Norm in airport bars.

The greenlight was given by none other than the august U.S. Supreme Court. Now, Justices Rehnquist and company didn’t actually knuckle down and address either the continuing nostalgic vitality of the beloved, long canceled sitcom, or the larger question of the second banana’s place in pop culture. Nor did they rule that Paramount and Host International should quit with the robots because they’re just plain creepy. Really, all the Justices did was clear the docket of hundreds of cases they don’t feel merit their considered time, issuing one line rejections for all but a dozen or so matters. The ”Cheers” case was one of the rejectees.

To put it in chronological context: in the early 1990s, Paramount and Host International opened a chain of ”Cheers” bars in airports. The original plan was for each bar to have a pair of ”Norm” and ”Cliff” bots that would sit on the stools and crack wise, under the apparent assumption that drunks will watch anything. Wendt and Ratzenberger refused to go along, so the fat robot was renamed ”Hank” and the skinny mailman was rechristened ”Bob.” At which point the two actors brought suit, claiming infringement of their right of publicity, invasion of privacy by appropriation of name and likeness, that sort of stuff. They’re backed by a California law that gives performers rights in the control of their images.

Federal copyright law, on the other hand, gives the studios legal rights to the characters they create. The conflict was apparent when a federal judge twice threw out Wendt’s and Ratzenberger’s lawsuit, only to have a U.S. appeals court twice reinstate it. And it’s that deadlock that Paramount was hoping the Supremes would break by deciding one way or the other (presumably in the studios’ favor). By upholding the appeal decision and kicking the matter back to trial, though, the Supreme Court has guaranteed that this issue gets noisily played out in public, as it should. If the ”Cheers” duo wins, it’ll have a deeply chilling effect on Hollywood’s franchise extension strategies (sorry, no more ”Austin Powers” cocktail shakers). If they lose… well, imagine the possibilites:

— Uberhip New York nightspot Moomba installs a Leonardo DiCaprio robot at the bar. It hits on models (”I’m… king of the… world… baby”) and, when verbally challenged, throws a sucker punch and retreats behind a phalanx of posse bots.

— The Britney Spears robot slated to open at Disney World is canned when it proves too top heavy to stand without the aid of metal support struts.

— An electronic Martha Stewart is installed outside the Time Life Building, programmed to flock any tourist unlucky enough to come near.

— Al Gore’s handlers leave nothing to chance and replace the candidate with a Gore bot at the second and third debates. It wins the election in a landslide.

— Eminem cyborgs are placed at select shopping malls throughout the United States. They instantly prove impossible to tell apart from the legions of teenage Stan wannabes flooding said malls.

— In a desperate bid to save the show, Paramount sends six Dr. Laura clones around the country on a press tour. Four of them self destruct; two come out of the closet.


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