The 20th Anniversary Of the Most Awesomest TV Contract Dispute Ever

Actually, the anniversary was in September (and technically it’s only the anniversary of the end of the dispute), but what the heck. Everybody loves a good story about TV actors getting fired or walking out — see “Caruso, David.” But though there have been many such stories, few of them compare in scale and impact to what happened in 1987 and concluded with a successful lawsuit in September 1988, a story that is still interesting and relevant (even though the show itself is neither interesting nor relevant). Before we get to the story, though, here’s a reminder of how it ended, courtesy of CNN Headline News in its golden age:


And yet, within this story there’s a surprising amount to learn about the balance of power between actors and producers in TV. And it’s just a fun story to tell, so here it is, as far as I understand it.

In the summer of 1985, NBC announced that they were making a sitcom for Valerie Harper, who had not done a regular TV series since the cancellation of Rhoda. The show was not part of the 1985 fall schedule, but NBC ordered it as a possible mid-season replacement, presumably realizing that with the new smash success of The Cosby Show (which had just completed its first season) it was going to need a lot more comedies, stat.

The producers of the new show were Tom Miller and Bob Boyett, which seemed like an odd mix with Valerie Harper and NBC. Nearly all their previous productions had been for ABC, and they specialized in broad, sophomoric shows, whereas NBC was trying to sell itself as the home of more high-class comedy. But Miller-Boyett benefited from the same fortuitous circumstances as Chuck Lorre and a few other comedy producers benefit from today: they were among the only comedy producers available at a time when the demand for comedy unexpectedly shot up. The sitcom was “dead” in the early-to-mid ’80s, and most of the leading sitcom producers had already disbanded or gone into something else. Miller-Boyett, who had left Paramount and signed with Lorimar TV (which was later bought by Warner Brothers and no longer exists), were just about to give up on sitcoms and do hour-long family dramedies when The Cosby Show exploded, and the networks went begging and pleading for new sitcoms. And Miller-Boyett were among the few experienced people who could respond to all that begging and pleading.

So NBC set up a project for Valerie Harper, a product of the high-class MTM school of comedy, and Miller-Boyett, among the founders of the Happy Days/Laverne and Shirley school. To split the difference, the creator and writer of the pilot — the story of a woman with three sons and an airline-pilot husband with terrifying hair — was a guy who wasn’t really from either camp: Charlie Hauck had written for Maude and co-created one of my weekend flops, The Associates. (He later wrote a novel called Artistic Differences about writing a sitcom for a megalomaniacal diva star.) And NBC got their superstar director James Burrows to direct the pilot instead of Miller-Boyett’s usual people (they usually went with Joel Zwick). Harper brought on her husband, Tony Cacciotti, as a producer (in the Lucille Ball/Gary Morton tradition) and got a contract that called for her to have creative input as well as a cut of the profits. So as with many star-vehicle comedies before and after, the setup made it clear that no matter who the nominal producers were, the star was in charge.

Miller and Boyett’s specialty, apart from knowing exactly how to combine broad comedy with sappiness, was their quite phenomenal casting ability. (Bob Boyett is now one of Broadway’s most successful producers, drawing on those same instincts for crowd-pleasing material and casting.) They had never done a star vehicle before, instead preferring to pick actors who had only done guest parts on TV or small parts in movies and making them into leads: among the people Miller and/or Boyett elevated from bit-player to lead were Tom Hanks, Robert Hays, Peter Scolari, Robin Williams, Bob Saget, and Annie Potts. The other thing they were good at is figuring out which young actors could be a hit with their young-skewing audience. In casting Valerie, they realized that Jason Bateman, who had been kicking around shows like Silver Spoons and Little House on the Prairie and had played the lead on the flop It’s Your Move, was at the age where he had potential as a teen heartthrob: a good actor with good comic timing, good-looking enough to be appealing to girls and not so good-looking that boys would hate him. (This is, roughly, the Michael J. Fox template.) Casting soap actors in sitcoms was also a specialty of theirs, as they demonstrated by casting a guy from Days of Our Lives as Valerie’s husband.

The show that emerged was a very uneasy compromise between the type of show Harper expected to do and the type of show that Miller-Boyett preferred. Their specialty was re-tooling shows to fit prevailing trends and to emphasize any characters who caught on with the audience, while relying on a formula that called for very broad jokes and equally broad sentimentality (complete with sappy music). Valerie Harper and NBC were hoping for a family comedy with an edge, like The Cosby Show and Family Ties. So Valerie started out as an NBC-type show, but every week, Miller/Boyett would push it a little closer to their own kind of show, adding Edie McClurg’s “Mrs. Poole” character for wacky comedy value and building more and more stories around Jason Bateman, whom they correctly perceived as their best bet for keeping the show going. There were tabloid rumours at the time that Harper was resentful of Bateman, but Bateman has always denied that. What seems more likely is that she was resentful of the producers for turning her into a supporting player on her own show. (Meredith Baxter on Family Ties felt the same way, but Harper had even more reason to be P.O.’d, becaus the show was actually named after her and she owned a piece of it, yet it was being slowly taken away from her.) She said she was disappointed that not only she but the other characters were being neglected in favour of endless stories about Bateman’s girl troubles: “I wanted the little boys used more.” She reportedly told one of the producers: “I can’t do this to my career. I can’t stand in the kitchen and give advice to teenage boys.” What was supposed to be her career comeback had turned her, within a year, into just another generic sitcom mom.

But after one and a half seasons of weakish ratings, the show finally started to build an audience toward the end of its second season; it was renewed for a third season, was doing well in summer reruns, and was given a new time slot near NBC’s newest hit, Alf. Now that the show had become something resembling a success, Harper and her husband put in for a raise, asking for a big hike in her per-episode salary and a larger share of the profits. Lorimar and Miller-Boyett said no.

As part of the contract dispute, Harper held out and didn’t show up for work. She’d tried this before on Rhoda, and it worked; CBS and MTM blinked and gave her the raise she was demanding. (She was, obviously, neither the first nor the last star to hold out for more money.) While she was holding out, one episode was filmed without her. The studio then announced that if Harper didn’t come back, they had lined up Sandy Duncan to replace her. (Duncan had a contract with NBC to do a show, and they couldn’t find a project for her. The idea was that they could make her the star of someone else’s show if they couldn’t give her a new one.) This seemed to work; a tentative deal was reached, Harper came back to film another episode, and the thing seemed to be settled, or on its way to being settled. But a week later, Lorimar announced that Harper had been dropped from the show and that it would be going on without her. Her character would be killed off, and the show’s focus would shift to her family getting along without their mom. “She’s off the show,” Lorimar spokesman Barry Stagg said to the press.”We thought we had resolved our differences, but we were unable to work things out.”And they really did, as promised, hire Sandy Duncan to be the new star of the show, playing the previously-unknown “Aunt Sandy” who moves in to take care of the family after Valerie is killed in car crash. This all happened, by the way, with a little more than a month before the third season was due to start airing, which meant that the writers had to come up with all-new scripts and an all-new premise in record time. The revised version of the show, retitled “Valerie’s Family: The Hogans,” debuted in September 1987, and, with the boost from Alf, got good ratings. Brandon Tartikoff, president of entertainment at NBC, said he picked the name Valerie’s Family so he wouldn’t have to tell his young daughter “that`Valerie‘ was now called `At Home with the Hogans with a new lady.’


The firing of Harper was huge news at the time — even before she sued, it was one of the biggest stories on the entertainment shows. Stars had had contract disputes before, lead actors had left their shows before, but there was almost no precedent for a name-in-the-title star being fired from a show that was built around her. As the title implied, Valerie would not have existed without Valerie Harper, she owned a financial stake in it, and it was just generally assumed that her holdout and the studio’s threat to replace her were all just the usual hardball negotiation tactics. Harper herself seems to have assumed the same thing, since being fired came as a surprise to her. It wasn’t simply that Lorimar and Miller-Boyett didn’t want to meet Harper’s terms; by firing her after they’d made some kind of deal with her over financial terms, they were clearly saying that they had decided they’d rather do Valerie without Valerie. And if they hadn’t made that clear, both studio representatives and Miller-Boyett began telling the press that Harper had been let go because she was disruptive and — foreshadowing much of what was to come in the early ’90s — she supposedly allowed her husband, Cacciotti, to meddle too much in the show. ”It was an unhappy situation from the beginning,” an anonymous source told the Los Angeles Daily News. ”Here was this guy who had no experience in television suddenly put on the same level as Tom Miller and Bob Boyett.”

Another question being asked at the time was why NBC and Tartikoff stuck with the show even after the star was fired. It wasn’t a particularly good show, and while its ratings were improving, they weren’t so great that the number-one network (at the time) really needed it. It didn’t fit the house style of NBC and Miller-Boyett had no other projects lined up with the network. So why didn’t Tartikoff cancel it? The reason, or so most people thought, was that Tartikoff liked the idea of demonstrating that a show was bigger than its star; if NBC could make Valerie more successful without Harper than it was with her, it would send a message to stars far and wide that everyone is expendable. And the move paid off for NBC, not only because the Valerie-less show did okay, but because it allowed them to get away with a similar move a year later: when Lisa Bonet announced that she was leaving her show A Different World, NBC simply continued the show for six more years without her. Harper said, probably accurately, that by keeping the show going without her, Tartikoff was trying to deliver “a veiled threat to actors trying to straighten out their contracts.”

Around the time Valerie’s Family went on the air, Harper filed suit against Lorimar and Miller-Boyett, demanding — among other things — damages for being wrongly dismissed, her share of the profits, and an injunction to stop the show from using her name in the title. Lorimar replied in its first court filings that Harper had been personally and professionally “out of control” and that’s why she was kicked off. Lorimar also counter-sued her, I think; some reports make it seem like they sued her first. Anyway they were suing her for about $70 million and she was suing them for $180 million in damages, profits and what-all else. Harper made the rounds on talk shows explaining why she was fired and castigating NBC for killing off the mother on a family show (she compared it to killing Bambi’s mother). When she went on Regis Philbin’s show and said that Miller and Boyett “robbed me of my show and lied constantly and publicly to the papers,” the producers filed suit against her for libeling them. When the case came to trial, not only Lorimar representatives but also Miller and Boyett themselves took the stand to portray Harper as insane. Though they also tried to deny that they had ever told the public that she was insane (because that was one of the things that they were being sued for); a Lorimar spokesman testified that they merely said that “she acted as if she were insane.”

At the end of the trial, in September 1988, the jury ruled for Harper and awarded her, according to the Los Angeles Times:

$1.4 million in damages plus 12 1/2% of the profits from the show, $220,000 in compensation for the dismissal of her husband, Tony Cacciotti, as supervising producer and another $200,000 that Harper would have earned by starring in a made-for- television movie for Lorimar as part of her original contract.

Though it wasn’t part of the lawsuit, the producers agreed to change the name of the show from Valerie’s Family to The Hogan Family. It survived on NBC with pretty decent ratings until 1990, when NBC purged it along with several other shows that it considered un-hip; Miller and Boyett, as they would do with several other canceled shows, took it to CBS for one last season and added a whole bunch of crappy new characters.

Most episodes of The Hogan Family, Valerie, and related by-products can be found on YouTube. I hadn’t seen the show in a long time, and, well, it’s not good. Actually, it’s pretty damned bad. Even Mrs. Poole isn’t so funny when you’re no longer 12 years old (but God bless Edie McClurg, she does that chirpy Midwestern busybody character better than anyone in the world). It’s a case where the behind-the-scenes stuff was more fun than the show.

But the story is fun, and even though this post turned out longer than it should have, there’s still a lot more that I haven’t even gotten into (as with all high-profile TV firings, the stuff that’s most interesting probably didn’t make it into the news articles). In some ways the story was a trial run for the ’90s, when the networks and their stars would actively struggle over the question of how much power a star should have as compared to the network or the producers. Roseanne, Cybill Shepherd, Brett Butler and others managed to have more power than Valerie Harper ever did, and that could be considered a by-product of her successful lawsuit, since she basically struck a blow for star power. But networks also moved toward ensemble shows where no one person dominated, even on shows created for and named after a particular person (this is NBC’s Seinfeld model, where the star of the show is consciously reduced to an equal partner in an ensemble). Today the true star-vehicle show is probably harder to find than it ever has been.

But what I like most about this story is that it’s almost a twisted version of a TV-land story that’s usually portrayed as noble and wonderful: the showrunners’ fight to make a show that’s true to their vision. What, after all, really happened here? Miller and Boyett didn’t want to make a show the way Valerie Harper was used to from her days at MTM. They didn’t want to make the kind of show that NBC wanted. They wanted to do their own kind of show — aimed at the lowest common denominator. They fought the star, they fought the network, and they won, emerging with a show that was worthy to stand with Full House and Family Matters. That’s the real fun of this particular story arc: Miller/Boyett and their loyal team of writers and producers — the creatives, in other words — fought the suits and the star, and they won the fight to make the show they dreamed of making. Except that the star and the suits wanted quality TV, and the creatives wanted to make family-friendly schlock. I do love it so.

Reason for insane length of post: This is a TV-history post, and as such is longer than usual; normally I would shorten such a post by linking to a chronology of events or another essay, but I couldn’t find one. I’m hoping to do other longer-than-usual posts about under-analyzed TV-history things when I have the chance; suggestions welcome.

Thanks to Sitcoms Online for collecting a whole batch of contemporary articles about this dispute, which helped to provide some of the quotes/info here.

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