In a groundbreaking challenge to Hollywood’s power to dictate how an actress must look, a Los Angeles jury found Monday that the producers of the television show “Melrose Place” were wrong to fire Hunter Tylo because she was pregnant and ordered them to pay her nearly $5 million in damages.
The 10-woman, two-man jury gave Tylo nearly double the $2.5 million that she had sought. Jurors agreed that even when pregnant, Tylo was capable of playing the scheming seductress she was hired to be, and that her bosses’ emphasis on the character’s sex appeal was little more than sex discrimination in disguise.
Defense lawyers vowed to appeal. They maintained that the producers had the right to fire Tylo because her pregnancy and ensuing 47-pound weight gain were a “material change” in her appearance, a violation of her contract. Because of her pregnancy, attorney William Waldo argued, Tylo couldn’t play what he called a “vixen, seductress and adulteress” with any dramatic credibility.
Tylo attended the trial daily, dressed in suits and long jackets that concealed the fact that she was in the third trimester of another pregnancy until she disclosed it on the witness stand. Spectators in the courtroom gasped with surprise.
“Even if she gained 47 pounds or whatever, she’s still a beautiful person,” juror Pete Ortiz said after the verdict was announced. “She’s still a working mother, she’s still an actress, pregnant or not.”
The case raised emotional issues involving beauty, sex appeal and the suitability of pregnant women to play sultry parts on prime-time television shows. It also put studios on notice that contracts detailing how actors and actresses must look to keep their roles--commonplace in the entertainment industry--are vulnerable to legal challenge.
“If nothing else, this decision will cause producers to pay even more attention to the wording of their contracts [with actors],” said attorney Louis Meisinger, who represents Warner Bros. and other top film studios.
Tylo, now appearing in the daytime soap “The Bold and the Beautiful,” contended that the producers of “Melrose Place” wrongfully fired her in March 1996, when she told them that she was pregnant. She had been hired just a month earlier to play the part of a scheming, husband-stealing temptress.
Although the verdict set no legal precedent, Tylo is believed to be the first actress to successfully sue her employers for being fired because of pregnancy. State and federal laws bar discrimination against pregnant women and prohibit terminating a person’s employment because of pregnancy.
Pregnant actresses have posed special challenges to television studios ever since Lucille Ball practically invited viewers into the delivery room for the 1953 birth of little Ricky. More recently, Julia Duffy hid her pregnancy behind laundry baskets on “Newhart,” Shelly Long stood behind the bar in “Cheers” and Julia Louis-Dreyfus completely ignored her expanding waistline on “Seinfeld.”
This season, actress Lisa Kudrow’s pregnancy is being written into the script of “Friends.”
The difference, entertainment attorneys say, is that these actresses were established stars while Tylo was not.
After a monthlong trial, jurors agreed that Spelling Entertainment Inc. and Spelling Television Inc. should pay Tylo $4 million for emotional distress and $894,601 for lost wages. They found that she was not entitled to punitive damages.
“She took on an entertainment industry giant when many, many actresses would have given up,” said Gloria Allred, one of Tylo’s lawyers.
Stan Goldman, a Loyola University law professor who sat in on parts of the trial, said the amount of the verdict indicates that the jurors felt very strongly about the case. Goldman and other legal experts said they believed that the damages were excessive and probably would be reduced on appeal.
“I think they were trying to send a message,” he said. “It’s pretty clear that these jurors found that if you can’t be fired from your everyday, non-glamorous job for being pregnant, you can’t be fired from a glamorous job on a television show.”
Tylo, who is 34 and nine months pregnant with another child, broke into sobs as the verdict was read.
“I wanted to hear that yes, indeed, I could have done that job,” Tylo later told reporters.
And that is exactly what the jury found.
“The majority of jurors felt she could still play a vixen,” said jury forewoman Freddie Moore of Los Angeles. “We all agreed that Ms. Tylo was fired because she was pregnant.”
Juror Ortiz said: “I think women are a lot prettier pregnant. They have a glow about them.”
Jurors said the deliberations did not follow gender lines until monetary damages were discussed. Some of the women were willing to award damages as high as $7 million, juror Marilyn Caldwell said. One of the men had argued that Tylo should only be compensated for the amount of her contract, she said.
The jurors were not unanimous in their findings, but in civil cases only nine of the 12 panelists need to agree.
One of Tylo’s lawyers, Nathan Goldberg, had urged the jury to send a message to Hollywood that such discrimination would no longer be tolerated. He said his client had been treated like a “a piece of meat in Aaron Spelling’s butcher shop.”
“This case has an impact on the entertainment industry in its entirety,” Goldberg said. “If Spelling can get away with it in this case, they can get away with it in every other case.”
But Spelling lawyer Waldo maintained that the producers had the right to fire Tylo when she changed her appearance. And, in television work, Waldo said, appearance does matter.
Actresses, he said, fall under an exception to the pregnancy discrimination laws because of the need for dramatic believability.
At times, the trial itself seemed a soap opera, with appearances from stars of the popular show--among them Heather Locklear and Lisa Rinna, the actress who replaced Tylo.
Rinna testified that the role required her to wear revealing outfits and strike seductive poses--and was far more rigorous than she could have imagined. She testified that she is now expecting, and that the show will be written around her pregnancy.
Locklear was pregnant last season, and the jury saw scenes from the program that showed how her condition was hidden behind cleverly draped leopard-print sheets, bathrobes, furniture and other props, including a picnic basket.
Jurors said her testimony had little impact on the case.
Tylo’s attorney argued that the producers had discriminated against his client by firing her instead of accommodating her pregnancy, as they had for Locklear and plan to do for Rinna.
Executive producer Frank South had testified that Locklear and Rinna were established stars on the show when they became pregnant, while Tylo was an unproven newcomer.
“She wasn’t hired to be hidden,” said Waldo, the Spelling attorney. “She was hired to use her body.”
Aaron Spelling, recovering from gall bladder surgery at his Holmby Hills home, did not appear at the trial, but a sworn statement was read to the jury.
“When people start gaining weight, we say watch it, it’s changing your appearance and they stop,” Spelling said in the deposition. He also said he found his wife, Candy, no less “enticing” when she was pregnant.
Times staff writers Marla Matzer and Robert W. Welkos contributed to this story.