Article – Agent of the Living Dead

[This article originally appeared in Premiere magazine.]

Agent of the Living Dead

Salaries from beyond the grave:  Grateful Dead

Roger Richman has 37 clients.  Six of them are still alive.  Just because people are dead, Richman figures, is no reason for them to stop working.

Richman is an agent.  His busiest client is Marylin Monroe – she recently endorsed a line of jewelry, a brand of Thom McAn shoes, a new doll, and a Merlot wine.  He also represents Judy Garland, Clark Gable, Mae West, Albert Einstein, and Bing Crosby, among others.  “We call them Hollywood legends, not people who have been dead for a while,” says Richman.

Richman’s first dead client was W.C. Fields.  When the agent began representing the late vaudeville comedian in 1979 (at the request of Fields’s family), there was no law governing the use of a deceased celebrity’s image.  A few years later, Richman enlisted a California state senator to back a celebrity rights law, which requires any advertiser or licensee using a dead star’s name or image to obtain permission from the star’s estate.

He’s also drafted a similar law for New York State, whose legislature currently has it under consideration.  (The legislation was prompted by a condo complex that was using an Albert Einstein look-alike in its ads.  When Richman tried to enjoin the building company from using his client’s likeness, a New York lawyer told him, “The only thing Albert Einstein ever developed during his life that is protectable was a headful of dandruff.”)

Richman declines quite a bit of work for his clients in the interest of protecting their images.  “I probably get more phone calls for Einstein than anyone else – three to five a week,” he says “I turn down almost all of them.  Einstein did virtually no business of this sort when he was alive, so that sets a standard I feel compelled to follow.”  He did, however, allow Einstein to appear in an ad for Nikon cameras, and he’s working on a poster deal now.

On the other hand, “Monroe merchandized herself heavily when she was alive,”  Richman observes, “so we license things that are in keeping with what she did.”

Still, the agent claims he spends 50 percent of his time keeping people from abusing the Monroe icon.  He has had lawyers send cease-and-desist directives to the makers of Marylin Monroe toilet paper, the creators of a line of greeting cards that showed a Monroe look-alike snorting what appeared to be cocaine, and a male rock musician who goes by the name of Dead Marilyn and looks the way Monroe might have after fifteen days in the crypt.

The bulk of Monroe’s current earnings goes to the Anna Freud Center in London, the preeminent institute for child psychiatry.  Richman would not reveal how much money a dead celebrity can make, except to say, “It’s modest.”

He approved a Nissan ad with Boris Karloff (its slogan: “Remember what happened to the last guy who didn’t use original body parts?”), a Tyson’s Crispitos ad with W.C. Fields (“I have not changed my position about either Crispitos or kids.  I am in favor of one and against the other.”), and a Christian Brothers brandy ad of Harpo Marx (“Honk for a Fuzzy Brother”).

Not all of his clients are in such demand — for example, Sigmund Freud.  “Freud didn’t create a character,” says Richman.  “W.C. Fields had the high hat, the cravat, the gravelly voice.  Groucho Marx sported the cigar, the mustache, and the leer.”  Still, Richman did get Freud an ad for Prime Computer that ran in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  It may not have wide exposure, but when your clients are dead, you can’t always be choosy.

— Don Lipper