A lawsuit claiming that actor Christopher Reeve lifted the idea for the "Superman IV" plot from two part-time screenwriters has been scheduled for a jury trial April 16, after languishing in Los Angeles Superior Court for nearly three years.
The writers--Barry E. Taff, a parapsychologist and biomedical researcher, and pediatrician Kenneth P. Stoller--are suing Reeve, Cannon Films, which produced the picture, and Warner Bros., which financed it,for a reported $45 million.
Renewed action on the suit comes in the wake of humorist Art Buchwald's victory in a similar case against Paramount, in which he claimed that the concept for the hit movie "Coming to America" arose from a treatment he sold to the studio--not from star Eddie Murphy, who received story credit on the film.
"Each case has to be tried on its own facts," said Raphael Metzger, the plaintiff's attorney in the "Superman IV" case. "But perhaps there will be a slight impact (from Buchwald) in that the studios will take these cases seriously. From my discussions with the general counsel of Warner Bros., I believe they are taking this case seriously."
But a defense attorney in the case, Louis P. Petrich, dismissed the lawsuit as "pretty frivolous. . . . They're trying to pester (Reeve). It's ridiculous."
Taff and Stoller maintain that in 1985 they wrote a treatment--or a plot summary--for "Superman IV," in which Superman saves the world from nuclear destruction and disarms the nuclear weapons of the superpowers.
Taff and Stoller sent one unsolicited copy to Reeve at a time when he was deciding whether to star in another "Superman" sequel, according to court documents. They submitted another copy to him through the actor's ex-secretary, whom they claimed to know through a mutual friend.
According to the plaintiffs, Reeve later called Taff to tell him how much he liked the treatment, and promised to try to obtain a development deal for the pair so they could turn the plot summary into a screenplay. Taff has claimed in court that during that conversation, Reeve went into detail about his thoughts on the treatment, including expressing concern about the cost of the special effects.
But Taff never heard back.
Reeve has put forward a much different version of events. "When he got the treatment, he set it aside," said attorney Petrich. "Then they started pestering him, calling a secretary of his. To get them off his back, he called them."
According to Petrich, Reeve never read the treatment. But to be polite, he told Taff over the phone that the treatment was interesting. During the conversation, he picked it up to go over some of the scenes with Taff. Later, Petrich claimed, the pair "misrepresented what (Reeve) had said to Warner Bros."
Taff and Stoller also sent the treatment to Warner's chief of development, Bruce Berman, and to Cannon--after both companies requested copies.
Reeve was inspired to create the story for "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" after narrating a public television show on world peace, Petrich said.
A mandatory settlement conference in the case is scheduled for March 27, but Petrich insisted that the studios have no intention of settling, and will seek to have the case thrown out before it goes to trial. "This case won't settle," Petrich said. "Our people just won't put up with this stuff."
But defense attorney Metzger insisted that his clients have a solid case. "There are vast inconsistencies in the testimony of (Warner production chief) Mark Canton, Bruce Berman and Chris Reeve," he said. "They all have extraordinarily different recollections of who came up with the story for 'Superman IV.' "