In what may be an unprecedented step, Gore Vidal has taken legal action against the Writers Guild of America West and author Steve Shagan over the writing credit for a new movie, “The Sicilian.”

Vidal, a 30-year member of the guild, has filed suit here claiming he wrote the script that was used for shooting and asking the court to overturn the guild’s decision to give sole credit to Shagan.

“The Sicilian,” a Gladden production directed by Michael Cimino, is based on the best seller by Mario Puzo. The movie, about the life and times of Sicilian bandit Salvatore Giuliano, is due to be released by 20th Century Fox in June.

In an arbitration proceeding, employed regularly to resolve disputes over writing credit, the Writers Guild has ruled that the sole credit for “The Sicilian” will go to Shagan, who wrote the screenplay for “Save the Tiger” and has written six novels.


Such disputes normally would end there. But in this case, Vidal argues that the guild has proved “intransigent,” so he is seeking to reverse the decision in court.

The action, filed Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court by Vidal’s attorney, Bertram Fields, claims that the arbitration award was secured “by fraud and mistake (in that) at least one fundamental document . . . was withheld from the arbitrators.”

“Said document would have demonstrated that Shagan’s reported contribution to authorship of the screenplay was far less than was represented to the guild arbitration panel and that, in relation to Shagan’s contribution, the contribution of plaintiff (Vidal) was far greater than was represented,” the lawsuit says.

Shagan, a former member of the guild’s board of directors, responded: “We live in a country where anyone can sue anyone (but) I wrote the screenplay and that’s the end of it. Gore Vidal was third writer, and I guess Cimino wrote a draft. All those drafts go in to the guild and they make a determination as to who did the majority of the work. . . .”


Vidal’s complaint alleges that “before submission to the guild for the arbitration, Shagan’s name was placed on the cover page of the final screenplay written by (Vidal) in a manner indicating that Cimino, as director of the picture, signed an acknowledgement that Shagan rather than (Vidal) had written the screenplay. In fact, this notation was added over Cimino’s signature without his authority and after he had signed the cover page, without the notation, for an entirely different purpose.”

The action also states: “In conducting said arbitration, the guild failed to follow and apply its own arbitration rules, which require that the producing company file a notice of intended writing credits. . . . Only when a writer protests such a designation by the producing company will there be an arbitration. In the case of ‘The Sicilian,’ Gladden did not file a notice of intended writing credits, there was no protest, the writing process was (and still is) not completed and yet the guild on its own initiative purported to hold an arbitration to make a binding determination of the authorship of the picture.”

Reached at his home in Italy, Vidal, who spent last week in Los Angeles seeing a rough cut of “The Sicilian” and consulting his attorney, said:

“I have been defrauded of my work, which is grounds for court intervention in what is essentially an inside labor dispute. I was defrauded by the arbitrators of the guild and by Mr. Shagan. We are asking the court to satisfy this arbitration.”


Vidal said that at a meeting with the guild, in order to avoid legal action, he said he would agree to the credits reading “Screen story by Steve Shagan. Screenplay by Gore Vidal"--"but this was not acceptable to them.”

He said he wrote the “Sicilian” script last April, May and June, spent five days in Palermo, Sicily, doing a polish while the movie was being set up, and did a further polish on what became the shooting script at his home in Ravello, Italy. He said he helped make revisions and other contributions last week--"including making marginal notes on how actors should read the lines when they do the looping.”

“I might add that Michael Cimino has said in front of my lawyer that he wants me to have full credit for the screenplay and is willing to be deposed for the court hearing,” Vidal said.

Cimino, reached by telephone in Paris, where he is dubbing the picture, declined to comment on the case while it is subject to legal action.


Brian Walton, executive director of the Writers Guild, said:

“Although we have not been formally notified, we are informed by the Los Angeles Times that Mr. Gore Vidal, one of our members, has filed a lawsuit in which he seeks to have a court overturn the determination of writing credits made by the guild on ‘The Sicilian’ screenplay by Steve Shagan.

“We cannot, of course, respond with specificity as we have not seen the complaint. But, if the report we have received is correct, we will regret that Mr. Vidal has not seen fit to abide by the terms of his individual employment contract and the Writers Guild minimum basic agreement (in which writers agree to abide by the guild’s determination of credits).”

Said Vidal: “As far as I know, no writer has ever sued the Writers Guild. I’m doing this for a principle. I don’t need a screen credit or money or publicity. But it’s my script and I like it and I want my name on it.”