Twenty-four hours after her court victory, actress Valerie Harper sat beaming in the living room of her Beverly Hills home. The doorbell rang; in came a pastel flower arrangement, congratulating her on winning her bitter lawsuit against Lorimar Television. She put it across from another congratulatory bouquet. The sun streamed in. Calls of congratulations punctuated the morning.
“I don’t know what today would be like had I lost the case,” Harper said.
Harper’s mother, bedridden with cancer, also happily pored over press reports of her daughter’s exoneration. Harper’s young adopted daughter frolicked through the house clutching a colorful bunch of helium-filled balloons.
Clearly, Valerie Harper and her husband, Tony Cacciotti, could sit back, relax and savor the moment for the first time in more than a year . . . for the first time since her legal battle had begun with Lorimar Television over her role in the NBC television series “Valerie.”
On Friday, a Los Angeles Superior Court jury ended their 12-month legal dispute and three-week court battle with the unanimous decision that Harper was wrongfully fired from her role as homemaker Valerie Hogan on Lorimar’s “Valerie” series last fall. The jury awarded Harper $1.4 million compensation for lost wages, as well as $220,000 to Cacciotti, formerly an executive producer on the show, and profit participation that could total $15 million.
“My major plan, desire, wish was that the truth of the situation be exposed and be exposed broadly,” she said happily. “There were so many half-truths, and out-and-out untruths about me, my performing, about my stability as a person, my psychological state. It’s so nice to see wrongfully fired after all I’ve seen is fired, fired, fired.”
The money, she said, was not as gratifying as the chance to clear her name.
Harper hopes that her victory will lay to rest what she calls Lorimar’s “twisted and exaggerated” portrait of her as “a hellish demon” who sought to “submarine the show.”
“I have a sense that winning the case has been an extraordinary panacea in the eyes of the public, in the eyes of the media and in the eyes of the industry,” she said. “The things about my being disruptive and difficult and all of those things--I’ve worked with too many people for that to hold any water. Nobody has ever said that I was troubled or had a drug problem or an alcohol problem or anything like that.”
The case came to a head in the summer of 1987 when Harper and Cacciotti moved out of their offices on the Lorimar lot after a contract dispute in which she sought more money. Harper did not show up to shoot the first “Valerie” episode of the season because of the dispute. After what appeared to be a resolution of differences between her and Lorimar, Harper returned to the set to tape the next episode.
After that episode, Lorimar dismissed Harper and announced that the first episode of the season would explain that Valerie Hogan died in an accident. Sandy Duncan, as Valerie’s sister-in-law, Sandy Hogan, replaced Harper as caretaker of the three Hogan boys, including teen idol Jason Bateman. The show was retitled “Valerie’s Family.” (This season it is being retitled again--to “The Hogan Family.”)
Things got ugly. Lorimar sued Harper for $70 million for breach of contract, saying her erratic behavior, unreasonable financial and creative demands and threats to walk off the show had forced the company to replace her. In turn, Harper sued Lorimar and NBC for $180 million for breach of contract, saying she was ready, willing and able to perform in the series.
“I was willing to come back at any point,” she said Saturday. “There still could have been a sister-in-law. Do you know what I’m saying? But the desire to hurt was so great, I think they wanted their retribution.”
Harper also demanded that NBC stop using the name “Valerie” in the title of the show. NBC won the right to continue to use the title “Valerie’s Family” for the rest of the 1987-88 TV season by agreeing to a speedy court date for the breach-of-contract suits.
Lorimar’s charges that Harper’s behavior bordered on insanity were widely publicized; company executives said that Harper had threatened she would walk off the show if her creative and financial demands were not met and that they feared she was nearing a nervous breakdown that might render her unable to perform.
“Things in print have a great deal of power,” Harper said, thoughtfully. “Only time will tell (if there has been any permanent damage to her career). There are probably people who still believe that here is a greedy actress who quit her show.”
Although Harper said she doesn’t believe that she’s been blackballed in Hollywood for suing a production company, she acknowledged that the litigation affected both the public’s and the TV industry’s perception of her while she awaited trial. “It’s good copy, a hysterical woman--particularly with the sexism that’s rampant out there,” she said.
“There was a lot out there, a (negative) perception in the industry. Radio shows were calling me the ‘Loser of the Week.’ They were saying that I held out for money and was dropped. That is not what happened.”
Harper, who came to prominence on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and her own spinoff series “Rhoda,” recently completed two television movies--one for NBC, in fact--and says she is in the first stages of development on a new series with an “Emmy-winning” producer. She said it remains to be seen whether the networks will show resistance to the idea of picking up a series with her as the star.
Harper said she may have lost job offers because some members of the TV industry wrongfully believed that she legally could not work until her case was settled. “When people would talk to Tony (Cacciotti, who acts as her business manager), they’d say: ‘Isn’t Valerie under injunction?’ People really thought I was enjoined, that I could not work, that I was like Farrah (Fawcett, who was embroiled in a legal dispute when she left “Charlie’s Angels”)), she said. “That was not the case at all.”
Harper said she never considered not taking her case to court to avoid negative publicity. “No, and I’ll tell you why. When I saw (the statements in the papers filed by Lorimar last fall), I couldn’t have been more hurt. It was like someone you really trusted and loved said things that were so untrue and so hurtful, things couldn’t get any worse.
“I think there’s a dark side to all this that makes it really strange. I didn’t know there was any hidden agenda, any repressed anger or any malice,” she continued. “And boy, there was a lot of it, or they couldn’t have done what they did. It was worth it to them to scuttle and endanger the show. They really have to look at their own motives and emotional well-being, and I really mean that. How far do you go, how unfair do you become on the basis of personal feeling?
“They were willing to kill a mother (the Valerie Hogan character) on television! That’s heavy.”
(Don Engle, attorney for Lorimar as well as “Hogan Family” executive producers Tom Miller and Robert Boyette, said Saturday that he was preparing for an appeal. He added that the fact that Judge William Hogoboom dismissed all charges of conspiracy on the parts of Lorimar, Miller and Boyette and NBC early in the trial negated Harper’s statement that Miller and Boyette had a “hidden agenda” to remove Harper from the show.)
To a lesser extent, Harper’s husband Cacciotti believes that his own reputation may have suffered as well, since testimony from Lorimar executives suggested that he lacked the qualifications to executive-produce the show and was on board simply because he is Harper’s husband.
Cacciotti, a health-and-fitness expert who met Harper a few years ago when he was hired to help her lose weight for a movie role, readily acknowledged that his participation in the show grew out of his relationship with Harper and that he is relatively new to producing series television. But, he added, his own extensive stage and screen acting experience, which included roles on Broadway, on television and in “13 or 14" feature films qualified him for duties on the show, mainly in casting and working with actors.
“They used that,” Cacciotti said, referring to Engle’s questioning witnesses about his inexperience as a TV producer during the trial. “I’d look over at the jury, and a couple of times I broke out in a sweat. I watched their eyes look at me and say: ‘He’s Valerie’s husband, that’s why he’s there.’ But Valerie and I started out as actors at the same time in New York. In fact, I probably worked more than her in the beginning. Then, she worked more than I did.”
Added Cacciotti, with a grin: “Of course, it was no contest. I was a terrible actor.”
Had Harper lost the case--she was prepared to appeal--the actress said the verdict might have sent a message to other performers not to take management to court for fear of damage to their careers. Because she won, however, she believes that the opposite message prevails.
“They didn’t get away with it, so there’s a new implication: Let’s take care of our contracts better,” Harper said. “I don’t know if getting a credit as a producer (next time) is necessary, but I’ll tell you what I am going to do is make sure the whole contract is nailed down and clear. Things needs to be very tight.
“I think maybe that is the importance of this case, that managers really start looking at their stars, or supporting players, or writers, and how their deals are made. That may have some impact on the way Hollywood does business in the future.”