IT was the perfect cast for an uplifting reality TV show: five orphaned siblings and the loving family friends who took them in.
The story line certainly appealed to the producers of ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” After learning that Phil and Loki Leomiti had opened their doors to the Higgins clan -- their former neighbors and fellow church members -- the show’s executives proposed transforming the couple’s modest Santa Fe Springs house into a nine-bedroom showpiece.
“The Leomitis are an amazing family,” a production document reads. “The home that they offered the Higgins’ is not a temporary one. It is theirs forever, with or without enough space.”
But “forever” proved to be a matter of weeks after “Extreme Makeover” rebuilt the Leomitis’ house, chronicling the project in a carefully choreographed heart-warmer that aired on Easter Sunday 2005.
Shortly after moving in with the Leomitis and their three children, the Higginses were gone. What had begun as a nationally televised goodwill gesture quickly dissolved into a rancorous legal battle marked by allegations of fraud, greed, racism and broken promises.
Though the accusations are disputed, the rift has opened a revealing window on the lucrative world of reality programming -- and one of its most popular shows.
In the last two years, “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” has reaped more than $500 million in advertising revenue, according to research firm Nielsen Monitor-Plus. Consistently a Top 25 prime-time performer, it drew 16.4 million viewers for the Leomiti-Higgins episode.
Without question, the Emmy-winning show has improved the lives of many people selected for its trademark renovations, conducted at warp speed by swarms of workers and volunteers while the families are sent on vacation. Those helped by the show include Hurricane Katrina victims, a wounded Iraq war veteran and a Los Angeles police officer paralyzed by a robber’s bullet.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, “Queen for a Day” host Jack Bailey bestowed appliances and other gifts on women who shared their hard-luck stories on his show. Nowadays, it’s “Extreme Makeover” design chief Ty Pennington unveiling life-changing house renovations for deserving families.
But despite the warm-and-fuzzy nature of such programs, altruism has little to do with their reason for being, said Robert J. Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
“Networks are not in business to be philanthropists,” he said. “The price of a house is small potatoes compared to how successful a show like this becomes. For the most part, philanthropy has nothing to do with it.”
That assertion is at the heart of a Los Angeles Superior Court lawsuit filed by the Higgins siblings against the Leomitis, ABC and its parent Walt Disney Co., “Extreme Makeover” producers and the company that renovated the house.
In their lawsuit, Higgins siblings Charles II, Michael, Charis, Joshua and Jeremiah -- who were 14 to 21 when their parents died and are now in their mid-teens to early 20s -- allege that the producers cynically replayed the episode July 24, 2005, fully aware that its fairy-tale ending had soured.
“Most egregious, not only did ABC retain the ill-gotten gains generated by the fraud, but in an act of unmitigated greed, rebroadcast the episode knowing that the Higgins children had already been ejected from the home,” the siblings’ lawyer, Patrick A. Mesisca Jr., wrote in court papers.
The defense countered that repeating the episode “was neither false nor misleading” and that ABC and the producers were not obliged to report that circumstances had changed.
“The episode airs videotape of actual facts -- that the Higgins family was taken in by the Leomitis, that they ‘nominated’ the Leomitis for a home makeover, that a ‘home makeover’ took place and that the parties were happy and thankful for it at that time,” Mark L. Block, the attorney for ABC and the producers, wrote in court papers.
“The episode does not represent -- much less misrepresent -- what happened to the Leomiti and Higgins families afterwards.”
The trial, set to begin Monday, was postponed Tuesday at the request of the Higginses’ attorney because of an injury.
The difficulty for his clients began in April 2004, when their mother, Charis, succumbed to breast cancer. Their father, Charles, died of heart failure two months later.
With no relatives to help them, the siblings were left all but destitute by their parents’ deaths. The family had to raise $6,000 for Charis’ funeral, according to a production document filed in the court case, the same one that described the Leomitis as “amazing.”
There was no money left to bury Charles, whose cremation was paid for by the family’s pastor, Rex Herndon.
The children were living in a rented apartment in Downey when the Leomitis, who had three teenagers of their own, took them in. News reports sparked an outpouring of support, including thousands of dollars in donations collected by the Norwalk Assembly of God, the families’ church.
Herndon received a flood of calls, including some from “Extreme Makeover” producers, whom he put in touch with the families.
Exactly who promised what remains in dispute, but both families lobbied for the makeover.
“These kids had nowhere to go and we knew as a family we couldn’t let the streets swallow them up,” the Leomitis said in their handwritten application to the producers. “They had nothing, no money to bury their parents, no money to live. To make a long story short, our goal as a family is to give these kids a chance in life.”
In a transcript of a taping for the show, Charles Higgins calls the Leomitis his second parents.
“I’ve had to step up and be a man about everything and take care of the kids, but what’s really helped me a lot is the Leomitis took my family in, so it takes a load off me,” he said.
During the same taping, Loki Leomiti said her children had grown up with the Higginses in Downey, and they remained friends even after the Leomitis moved to Santa Fe Springs.
“We love the kids dearly,” said her husband, Phil, a construction plumber. “They’re like our babies.”
“Extreme Makeover” producers signed the couple and the orphans to agreements securing the rights to their stories. They also contracted with the Leomitis to rebuild their home.
The project kicked off in early 2005, when crews showed up to film a “door knock” sequence, notifying the families of their makeover.
The moment appears unrehearsed on TV but was captured at least seven times, according to the orphans’ lawyer, Mesisca. He said the multiple takes demonstrated manipulation more than surprise.
“If you’re passing a program along as a reality program and representing it to be real, live emotions that are being displayed at any particular time, but you have to keep reshooting it, there’s something very not real about it,” he said.
Whether there were multiple takes is beside the point, said Patricia L. Glaser, one of the show’s attorneys.
“The reality is that people who do need help are getting help,” she said, noting that “one of the reasons the show is successful is that the American people like to see people get help.”
ABC declined to comment on the lawsuit but said it stood behind the show.
“We’re extremely proud of ‘Extreme Makeover: Home Edition’ and the positive impact the show has on people’s lives,” the network said in a prepared statement.
When construction began on the Leomitis’ home, the families were sent to the Bahamas on a Disney cruise. While they were gone, hundreds of people worked nonstop on their house for five days.
Bobby Flores, who lives across the street, remembers it as an exciting but chaotic time for the residents of Shade Lane.
“All day and all night, people were standing in my frontyard and there were even some people trying to stand on my roof to get a look,” he said. “People were so anxious to see what was going on.”
When it was finished, the Leomitis’ three-bedroom, two-bath house had more than tripled in size, to nine bedrooms and six baths in 4,267 square feet. Kids who had slept on the floor or in the garage now had their own rooms. The energy-efficient house also had a new Polynesian-themed backyard to celebrate the Leomitis’ Samoan heritage.
The house, its mortgage paid by the builder that did the makeover, was presented at the “reveal” in February 2005. Videotape rolled as the families pulled up in a white limo, greeted by throngs of neighbors and well-wishers, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
With the new digs came a slew of other goodies, including two years’ worth of groceries, audio and video equipment, laptop computers and six Ford compact cars -- three for each family.
But that day’s feeling of Kumbaya was short-lived. Within weeks, the two eldest siblings, Charles and Michael, then 21 and 19, had moved out of the house, and they were followed in short order by the others.
By August, the orphans had hired a lawyer and sued the Leomitis, ABC and other defendants. The lawsuit sought unspecified damages on allegations that included fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress and breach of contract, although that last count has since been dismissed.
The lawsuit charged that the Leomitis’ generosity soon gave way to greed and deception as part of an “orchestrated campaign to degrade and insult” the siblings. The Higginses, who are black, accused the Leomitis of calling them “lazy” and “stupid” and making “raced-based remarks” about their hair, clothing and hygiene.
“Defendants Leomitis made these remarks to insult and offend plaintiffs and convey the message that African Americans are dirty and smelly,” the lawsuit alleges.
The Leomitis declined to comment, citing the pending trial. “We’re just going to wait -- and let the truth prevail,” Loki Leomiti told The Times.
The Leomitis’ lawyer, Robert English, denied the allegations, describing the couple as caring people who ran a tight ship. He said the Higginses left of their own accord because they wanted “more freedom and privileges” than the couple’s rules allowed.
“I think that after the show, maybe the Higgins children were sort of mini-celebrities for a while and didn’t agree with the strict household,” English said.
The lawsuit accused ABC and the producers of fraudulently securing releases for their story rights and promising what they couldn’t deliver.
“I believed that a house would be built for my brothers and sister and I to permanently live in,” Charles said in court papers. “It was my understanding that we would win the home with the Leomitis.”
Lawyers for the network, the producers and the home builder contend that the case should be dismissed. The show contracted to build a new home for the Leomitis, not for the Higginses, they argued, so the orphans had no legal claim even to live there. Nor had the show harmed the orphans, they said.
“The producers found plaintiffs living in the Leomitis’ home as guests. The producers left plaintiffs living in the Leomitis’ home as guests,” they wrote in court papers. “The producers left plaintiffs in a better position, since the home was bigger and plaintiffs were given a number of valuable items.”
However, the siblings contend that the producers left them high and dry -- and homeless. The orphans turned to the producers when they were evicted, the complaint alleges, but the producers refused to help after briefly looking into the dispute. The siblings have had to separate and are living with friends, their lawyer said.
Glaser, the show’s lawyer, said producers “went far beyond what they needed to do” by trying to mediate a resolution with the families and consulting with a county children’s services worker.
Field producer Matt Fisher met with both families shortly after all but one of the Higginses had moved out. In a May 2005 e-mail message to another producer, submitted as an exhibit by the Higgins side, Fisher said, “The truth lies somewhere in between” the orphans’ claims of verbal abuse and the Leomitis’ contention that they had misbehaved.
Herndon, the pastor, wrote in court papers that problems arose when the elder Higgins brothers balked at getting jobs to help support their siblings.
“There was also a problem between the Leomitis and Charles and Michael because they were unwilling to abide by the house rules established at the time they began living in the Leomitis’ house,” he wrote.
Flores, the neighbor, said he wasn’t sure what happened, but he thought the relationship soured when the older Higgins siblings “started giving some attitude” to Phil Leomiti.
“It’s a sad thing,” he said. “The kids were good kids and Loki and Phil are great people and we’re glad to have them as neighbors. It’s too bad the way it turned out.”
It’s also predictable, said Thompson, the Syracuse University professor.
Reality shows “in some ways are really dangerous social experiments” that can backfire on those they ostensibly help, Thompson said. They “may be giving people the American dream” of a huge, new house, he said, but such instant, artificial good fortune can have negative effects, such as straining relationships.
“In reality TV, it’s dropped upon you like a safe full of money on the coyote in the ‘Roadrunner’ cartoons,” he said. “That kind of thing is going to come fraught with difficulty.”
Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.