Agent Roger Richman had a ton of celebrity clients — James Cagney, Mae West, Maria Callas, Albert Einstein, the Marx brothers, Sigmund Freud, Gypsy Rose Lee and W.C. Fields, to name a few. Contrary to expectations, none of them were overly demanding.
“I don’t have people calling me in the middle of the night saying there aren’t enough red M&Ms in the Green Room,” he told The Times in a 2001 interview.
The reason was simple: By the time he began advocating for them, they were long dead.
Richman, who represented the heirs of the rich and famous and fought successfully for a California law giving them the right to control the use of their loved ones’ images, died Oct. 9 of complications from pneumonia, his wife, Diane Shulman, said. He was 69 and had been in failing health for some time.
The law is one way that celebrities’ relatives can prevent the unauthorized tackiness that Richman rattled off so readily: Judy Garland pornographic greeting cards, John Wayne toilet tissue, supposed snippets of Marilyn Monroe’s bedsheets.
“These people are the most exceptional personalities of our time,” Richman told an interviewer. “They should be cherished as national treasures and not subject to abuse by being used to sell scatological products or worse.”
With the 1985 California Celebrity Rights Act, Richman “left his mark on the body of law,” said Los Angeles entertainment attorney Bela G. Lugosi Jr., son of the late film star known for his role as Count Dracula. “It really protects celebrities and their heirs as far as the commercial use of their names and likenesses.”
Pushing for the law, Richman flew to Sacramento hearings with the sons of John Wayne, Harpo Marx, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. He persuaded Elizabeth Taylor and Burt Lancaster to make an appearance, he told the Washington Post.
To illustrate just how tasteless the unregulated market in celebrity paraphernalia could be, he brought along an assortment of offensive items — like a vial of Elvis Presley’s purported sweat, with the message: “His many years of perspiration can now be your inspiration.”
The coup de grace, he told Los Angeles magazine in 2004, was a sex toy, wrapped in white paper, bearing the likeness of President Reagan.
“That’s what got my law passed,” he said.
Similar laws have since been adopted in at least 12 other states.
In 2005, Corbis, a digital image company set up by Bill Gates, bought Richman’s business. At the time he represented more than 50 “legends,” as he called them and, over the years, retained as many as 14 law firms at a time to scout out cases of suspected trademark infringement.
Born on Jan. 18, 1944, and raised in the Washington, D.C., area, Richman was the son of a rabbi father and an artist mother. He graduated from Mt. Union College in Ohio in 1965 and three years later received a law degree from Vanderbilt University.
After trying his hand as a sculptor in the Spanish seaside village of Nerja, Richman worked for a few years with a cousin in the film business. He wound up in Los Angeles, licensing posters of ABBA and Brooke Shields, when representatives of W.C. Fields’ estate called.
“They wanted me to be their agent,” he told an interviewer. “I said, ‘What agent? He’s been dead for 32 years!’”
Fields’ estate wanted Richman to do something about posters that had popped up featuring the comedian in diapers. At the time, nothing could be done.
But Richman stuck with it. Several years later, he got the U.S. Postal Service to pay a fee for using the actor’s image on a stamp.
One key change was a California Supreme Court decision in the case of the younger Bela Lugosi who sued Universal Studios over profits made from his late father’s image.
The court turned him down, but also ruled that stars who merchandised themselves while alive could pass control of such publicity to their heirs. Fields, like many stars, had sold his image far and wide.
Richman soon represented other stars’ estates. In 2004, he mounted his successful celebrity rights’ campaign at the state Legislature. The resulting law grants heirs their licensing rights for 70 years from the time of death.
One of his firm’s biggest moneymakers was Einstein, who was perhaps the only “client” Richman had actually met. In his office, he kept a photo of himself as a baby in the arms of the great physicist. The picture was taken during a meeting between Einstein and his father, Paul Richman, who headed the Anti-Defamation League.
While licensing Einstein’s image to companies such as Disney and Microsoft, Richman repeatedly turned down offers from gyms, hair-replacement businesses and others seeking to evoke laughs from the Nobel winner’s image.
In 1997, he told an interviewer he had four attorneys “who work nothing else but Albert.”
Revenue from the Einstein licensing ventures were directed by his estate to Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Likewise, John Wayne’s revenue went to the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica.
Richman represented Marilyn Monroe from 1983 to 1995, allowing her image on ads for vodka and cosmetics, as well as T-shirts and dolls.
Steve McQueen was also at the top of Richman’s list, with Ford in 2001 quickly selling all 5,000 of its “Bullitt” Mustangs, special-edition models fitted with the same features as the one McQueen’s character used to careen down the hills of San Francisco. McQueen died 21 years before the Bullitt hit the road.
In addition to his wife, Richman is survived by a son, Alexander Steenbakkers-Noffke, and two grandchildren.
Times staff writer David Colker contributed to this report.