Alvin Deutsch, the attorney who represented singer Peggy Lee in her landmark victory over Walt Disney Productions and more recently tangled with Broadway producer Scott Rudin and the estate of author Harper Lee over rights to a stage production of To Kill A Mockingbird, died Oct. 6 at his home in New York City. He was 89.
The Deutsch family announced his death just yesterday, shortly following his win, in arbitration, against the Lee estate. The Deutsch family says it chose to wait until the Lee verdict was rendered before making his death public.
An internationally renowned expert in copyright law, Deutsch also represented a lengthy roster of entertainment and cultural figures throughout his career, including author Tom Wolfe (a client for 50 years), the Broadway composing team of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams (Bye Bye Birdie, Applause), librettist Michael Stewart (Bye Bye Birdie, 42nd Street, Hello, Dolly!), songwriter Irving Burgee (“Day O – The Banana Boat Song”); theater producers Stuart Ostrow, Larry Kasha and James Nederlander), playwrights Charles Gordone and Jon Marans, Sweet Valley High author Francine Pascal, Broadway lighting designer Ken Billington, opera singer Sherrill Milnes, singer Margaret Whiting and actors Marian Seldes and Tony Randall, among others.
Deutsch also served as legal counsel and board member for the Johnny Mercer Foundation, and in the same capacity for nearly 50 years for Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House, for which he wrote a crucial contract for theaters that originate new musicals. The contract would allow Goodspeed to create an endowment from the substantial residuals it earned after producing the first staging of the musical Annie, including NBC’s recent television event Annie Live!
In his most recent victory, Deutsch represented Dramatic Publishing, a theatrical publishing company that for decades has licensed playwright Christopher Sergel’s stage adaptation of Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Published in 1990, the play version was, for many years, the sole stage adaptation sanctioned by Lee’s estate, and was frequently performed by students and community theaters.
But a year before her death in 2016, Lee gave the go-ahead to Rudin to produce the new adaptation (Dramatic’s agreement had never included Broadway stagings), and in 2018 – the year the Sorkin version, starring Jeff Daniels, arrived on Broadway to critical praise and huge box office – the estate served cease-and-desist letters to eight small theaters planning to stage the Sergel version. Dramatic Publishing and its president Christopher Sergel III (grandson of the earlier version’s playwright) claimed that Rudin and the Lee estate had successfully threatened the stock and amateur companies into canceling the planned productions, despite Dramatic’s right to license performances of all “non-first class” stagings.
The case, with Dramatic represented by Deutsch and law partner David Blasband, went into arbitration, and just yesterday the January ruling by the American Arbitration Association in favor of Dramatic Publishing was made public. The arbitrator ordered the Lee estate to pay a reported $2.5 million in damages and fees to Dramatic, the bulk of the amount intended to reimburse Dramatic’s legal fees and costs. The Lee estate has filed a motion to overturn the award.
(In perhaps the strangest turn of events throughout the contretemps, Rudin, in 2019, publicly apologized to the community theaters that had been served with cease-and-desist letters, offering them the option of staging Sorkin’s version. None of the small venues took him up on the offer, with Greg Mancusi-Ungaro, a spokesman for Mugford Street Players in Marblehead, Massachusetts, telling Deadline at the time, “My cast already knows their lines” from the Sergel script. “These are not commercial ventures. It’s a labor of love. We just try to break even.” He said the Sergel Mockingbird production budget was around $10,000 – “real money to us.”)
Among Deutsch’s other high-profile cases was one on behalf of playwright and Deutsch-Blasband client Alice Childress, who sued her longtime friend, the Cosby Show actress Clarice Taylor over a mid-1980s stage production of a one-woman play about the groundbreaking comedian “Moms” Mabley. Childress and Taylor, who had known one another since the 1940s when both were associated with the American Negro Theatre in Harlem, had worked on developing the Mabley bio-play before Childress withdrew from the project. After Taylor, adding what a court would later deem minor changes to the work, later took sole credit for the play, Childress (whose unrelated 1955 play Trouble In Mind was staged on Broadway this season) won her bid for a co-writing credit on the Mabley play and a share of the royalties. The case is regarded as an important development in copyright law for detailing precisely what contributions are necessary to make a work a joint work.
But perhaps the highest-profile case of Deutsch and Blasband involved their client Peggy Lee, the singer and actress who had voiced various characters in Disney’s 1955 classic Lady and The Tramp. As the sultry Pekingese named Peg and the diabolical twin cats Si and Am, Lee contributed two of the animated film’s most popular and widely known songs: Peg’s “He’s a Tramp” and the felines’ “Siamese Cat Song.”
When Disney released Lady and the Tramp on VHS in 1987, Lee, who had reportedly been paid a modest $4,500 by the studio back in the ’50s, hired Deutsch and Blasband in the claim that her 1952 contract barred Disney from making “phonograph records and-or-transcriptions for sale to the public” without her consent. After considerable and lengthy legal wrangling, the Los Angeles County Superior Court ordered Disney to pay what would eventually amount to more than $3 million to the singer.
Born in New York City on February 9, 1932, Deutsch graduated from Johns Hopkins University and earned his law degree at Yale Law School. He was a founding partner of Linden and Deutsch (subsequently Deutsch, Klagsbrun & Blasband) and then partner in McLaughlin & Stern (2001 to 2021). He also served as adjunct professor of copyright at Cardozo Law School and served on numerous boards including the Johns Hopkins Sheridan Libraries.
Deutsch is survived by wife Davida Tenenbaum Deutsch. A memorial service is planned for April 28 at Congregation Shearith Israel, The Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue in New York City.
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