A Decades-Long History of Hollywood Getting Away With It 

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Hollywood is built on a graveyard of indiscretions that either went unreported or ignored. This was never more clear to me than when researching the notorious Hollywood producer Jon Peters, who has been sued several times for sexual harassment and who’s credited as a producer on Bradley Cooper’s 2018 remake of A Star is Born (Peters, a former boyfriend of Barbra Streisand, also produced the 1976 version). The Producers Guild of America can kick out Harvey Weinstein in the wake of #MeToo and it can deny Peters a p.g.a. mark but the powers that be cannot keep an alleged serial harasser from profiting off a movie in the #MeToo era (Peters was either paid upfront for rights or stands to make residual money from Star’s gross). That suggests it’s going to take a while before Hollywood can fully untangle its past from its supposedly enlightened present.

In a 1996 Los Angeles magazine piece on a lawsuit filed against Tracy Barone, the then-president of Peters’s company, Peters Entertainment, Rachel Abramowitz wrote:

Historically, Hollywood has been tolerant of sexualized abusive behavior on the job—almost anything is permitted as long as the abuser continues to make money. Recently, however, the Industry has been besieged by sexual harassment suits, although most of these cases are settled privately because the accused choose to limit negative publicity and hefty legal fees.

Hollywood history is and will continue to be a book with missing pages. But for the sake of preserving what can be filled in, we’ve gone back and looked at some high-profile entertainment-industry sexual harassment allegations of the ’80s and ’90s, when they were less common. There was a dearth in the ’80s; weirdly, TV Guide was one of the few entertainment outlets to report on sexual harassment in a relatively extensive report titled “Sexual Harassment in Hollywood” in its March 29, 1986 issue.

The “vulnerable starlets” who were interviewed and named in the piece—Falcon Crest’s Ana-Alicia, and Magnum P.I.’s Tracy Scoggins, among them—declined to name names, though. Hollywood stuntwoman Jean Coulter, however, did and filed a lawsuit against Spelling-Goldberg Productions. To TV Guide, Coulter alleged that her job was reduced after she rebuffed the advances of stunt coordinator Roy Harrison (who, like most of the men mentioned in this post, denied the allegations against him). Coulter said she went on to be blacklisted, telling TV Guide: “I went from working 199 days a year to working 12.” TV Guide reported that her lawsuit was turned down because she filed it after the expiration of the statute of limitations. The last listed gig on Coulter’s IMDb is 1987’s Survival Game.

By the ’90s, the Clarence Thomas hearing brought sexual harassment into the mainstream, and accusations of sexual misdeeds against politicians like Sen. Bob Packwood, Sen. Brock Adams, and President Bill Clinton kept them there. The discussion of sexual harassment in Hollywood grew. When asked by Parade magazine in 1992 if she’d ever been sexually harassed, Holly Hunter said, “Of course. I know very few women who haven’t been, and it’s a very confusing thing to be confronted with. It’s rampant, man. It’s rampant… I felt great despair for Anita (Hill) and for the ignorance exposed by the Judicial Committee—their inability to create some sort of narrative out of her story… It will make a woman think a million times before crying, ‘Sexual harassment!’ I was in despair.”

At a symposium on harassment in Los Angeles also in 1992, Christine Lahti (who’d go on to star on Chicago Hope), told the crowd, “I always accepted sexual harassment as a part of life.” Rambling Rose director Martha Coolidge told of a studio head, who early in her career, “ended a meeting in his office by grabbing her, mauling her and sticking his tongue down her throat,” according to USA Today.

Per a 1992 report in People, Kathie Lee Gifford discussed her own experiences with sexual harassment:

Once, she writes, while riding in the car of a man she describes only as a well-known Hollywood player, “he suddenly grabbed my hand and forced it on his lap. He had subjected me to an unspeakably humiliating and disgusting violation.” Asked now win she won’t name the culprit, Kathie Lee responds simply, “It’s not my job to. It’s God’s job.”

But there were powerful men named during the ’80s and ’90s, though few sustained demonstrable career damage and most settled out of court after legal action was taken against them (if the cases got even far enough to settle). Below is a by no means comprehensive list of the boldfaced names accused of harassment in the aforementioned decades, the details of the allegations, and the aftermath.

Bob Barker

Year accused: 1994

Details: The year after her 18-year tenure on The Price Is Right ended, model Dian Parkinson hit Barker with a lawsuit, claiming he made her have oral sex with him by force and using other means of coercion, according to the AP.

Response: Barker held a preemptive press conference weeks before Parkinson officially filed her suit, admitting to sex with her but claiming that it was “of her own free will,” according to The Chicago Sun-Times. “She said that I needed some hanky panky in my life, that I was too straitlaced,” the paper quoted Barker as having said. “Her claims that I coerced her are completely false.” Jonathan Goodson, president of Mark Goodson Productions, which produced Price, called Parkinson’s suit an “$8 million shakedown.” (The AP reported that damages were unspecified in Parkinson’s suit.)

Outcome: About two months after filing her suit, Parkinson dropped it because she couldn’t afford to sue, according to UPI (the Los Angeles Times reported that she was too sick to continue). After the case was dropped, Barker said, according to UPI: “If anything positive has come from this whole miserable experience it is the support I have received all over this country from total strangers. People stop me on the street and say ‘Keep fighting, Bob,’ and ‘You’re all right, Bob, hang in there.’ For that, I am most grateful.”

Warren Beatty

Year accused: 1992

Details: Sean Young first vaguely described Beatty’s firing of her from Dick Tracy as “a sexual harassment situation” to USA Today, but she declined to elaborate. Then, in an interview in Playboy’s January 1993 issue, she did:

His firing me from Dick Tracy looked very bad, and he was really callous. He had talked to me about playing Breathless Mahoney, though it turned out to be Tess Truehart by the time we began the movie. He called me for a month before production—incessantly. And then, a week into principal photography, he took me home and tried to kiss me. He put his hands on my ears and tried to force me. I pulled myself away from him and asked, “What are you doing?” and he said, “I was just testing you.” I said, “Well, are you clear on this issue now? I don’t want to sleep with you, I don’t want to suck your dick, I don’t want to have anything to do with you on that level. I have enough problems.” Two days later I got a call from the production assistant, who said, “Warren’s rewriting the scene, you don’t work tomorrow.” I didn’t hear from anybody for five days. Then my agent called and said I’d been fired from the movie and replaced with Glenne Headly. Then Warren issued a public statement about how concerned he is about me. Isn’t he a sweet guy?

Response: In a statement, Disney, which released Dick Tracy, said: “It was a studio decision. She was not right for the part and Warren concurred.” Beatty also denied the allegation, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Outcome: Doesn’t seem like much after that at the time, but then in a 2017 radio interview, Young alleged Barbra Streisand told her during an audition for The Mirror Has Two Faces that she thought it was “disgusting” that Young went to the press with her Beatty allegations. Through her rep, Streisand told TMZ: “I have no memory of ever having interviewed Sean Young, and I do not condone harassment of women under any circumstances.” (Streisand in multiple ’90s interviews was quite outspoken regarding her support of Anita Hill.)

Deepak Chopra

Year accused: 1997

Details: Joyce Weaver, a former employee of Sharp HealthCare’s Center for Mind-Body Medicine (of which Chopra was executive director), sued claiming that Chopra made “‘numerous unwelcome sexual overtures,’ and that she felt harassed by having to answer a telephone call from the San Francisco prostitute and from women with whom Chopra was having extramarital affairs,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Response: Chopra sued Weaver for blackmail, though that suit was eventually thrown out, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. The paper quoted Chopra as saying, “Maybe it is my karma to dismantle the corruption in the San Diego judicial system,” he said.

Outcome: Weaver’s case was dismissed before going to trial, according to Salon.

Tony Curtis

Year accused: 1992

Details: In a lawsuit, Nalani Markell alleged the Some Like It Hot actor touched her inappropriately and made unwanted sexual advances when she assisted him in the production of his paintings, according to Deseret News.

Response: “Ken Robbins, Curtis’ attorney, said his client never admitted to any of the allegations,” according to Deseret News.

Outcome: Deseret News reported that it was settled out of court for a “substantial amount of cash.”

Merv Griffin

Year accused: 1992


Dance Fever host Deney Terrio accused Griffin, who created and executive produced the show, of getting on top of him, removing his pants, and fondling him, on a 1992 episode of Geraldo, to a bemused audience. Terrio alleged the harassment continued for the seven years that he hosted the show. According to Newsday, Terrio filed an $11 million lawsuit against Griffin.

Response: Griffin’s lawyer, Tom Gallagher, told Newsday that Terrio was a “nightmare” and called his charges “a lie from start to finish.” According to the New York Times, Griffin characterized the lawsuit as extortion.

Outcome: The lawsuit was dismissed, according to the Times. In a controversial op-ed declaring Griffin gay after his 2007 death, The Hollywood Reporter cited Terrio’s lawsuit (as well as another dismissed lawsuit from former assistant Brent Plott, who sought $200 million in palimony), while acknowledging that Griffin evaded the question of his sexuality during his life.

Wynonna Judd

Year accused: 1996

Details: Judd’s fired farmhand Andria Surles filed an $800,000 lawsuit against Judd and her husband Arch Kelley, claiming Judd told her she had a “cute butt,” and invited Surles to her bedroom for fondling, according to the Boston Herald. Surles also claimed that Kelly told her he was well-endowed and tried to measure her butt with a tape measure, said the Herald. Additionally, the paper reported that Surles claimed she was paid less than her farmhand predecessor, a man.

Response: According to a press release issued by KSA:

Wynonna is shocked and saddened to learn of the allegations made against her. She categorically denies all charges. Wynonna’s lawyers are in the process of filing counter claims against Andria Surles, whose claims are completely without merit.

Outcome: Unclear—there’s no record of the case in the archives of Williamson County, where the suit was reportedly filed.

Martin Lawrence

Year accused: 1997

Details: Tisha Campbell, Lawrence’s co-star on his Fox show Martin, filed a lawsuit accusing Lawrence of “‘repeated and escalating’ sexual harassment, sexual battery and violent threats,” according to the Chicago Sun-Times. This was a counterclaim to a suit filed by HBO, which produced Martin, that attempted to get Campbell to return to the show pending a union investigation on the harassment claims.

Response: Lawrence denied the charges and claimed he was a pawn in HBO and Campbell’s dispute.

Outcome: The Orlando Sentinel reported that they reached a settlement and Campbell returned to the series. According to People, an agreement was struck with the producers that Campbell would only film her scenes when Lawrence wasn’t on set. “It was, perhaps, a Hollywood first—and definitely a challenge to the show’s writers and editors, who, for Martin’s final, one-hour episode that aired May 1, had to make the pair seem like a loving couple though they never stood in the same room,” the magazine wrote.

John J. McLaughlin

Year accused: 1988

Details: Linda D. Dean, a former executive assistant at McLaughlin’s Oliver Productions, which produced the political talk show The McLaughlin Group, alleged in a $4 million suit that she was fired from her job in “retaliation for her protests of sex discrimination and sexual harassment toward herself and other women” co-workers, according to The Washington Post. The Post also reported that per Dean’s suit, McLaughlin told her that “he ‘needed a lot of sex’ and that he ‘needed a mistress’ but that a man in his position had to be careful,” and that he touched her “intimately and against her will.”

Response: McLaughlin’s lawyer issued this statement to the Post:

John McLaughlin and Oliver Productions emphatically deny these bizarre and outrageous allegations, and will seek swift disposition of this matter through the judicial system. We will have no further public comment on these allegations or on the possible motivations of the plaintiff until that time.

Outcome: The suit was settled out of court in 1989, according to the Post.

Eddie Murphy

Year accused: 1989

Details: According to USA Today, actor Michael Michelle’s suit claimed that “Murphy made consistent, personal overtures” that “became more and more aggressive, including attempts by Murphy to fondle and otherwise caress her” after she was hired to appear in his 1989 movie Harlem Nights. (Michele was eventually fired.) The report states that she also claimed that when she refused Murphy’s advances, he had her fired. Her suit was for a reported $75 million.

“This man has told half of Hollywood already that I’m a troublemaker,” Michele told USA Today. “I’m not – unless (trouble is) going to work to do your job. He has already slandered my name all over the place. I don’t feel I have a choice except to come out and tell my story.”

Response: Through his publicist, Murphy gave this response to USA Today:

Michael Michele’s accusations are absurd and totally false. The whole situation makes me angry and sad because people will hear about these accusations and think there actually may be some truth to them. My integrity and professionalism are being attacked here. I have worked incredibly hard to get where I am today; it simply makes no sense that I would do anything to jeopardize that.

In an interview that ran in the February 1990 issue of Playboy, Murphy reiterated his denial, adding, “If I were trying to fuck her, I would do it before I gave her a job.”

Outcome: Multiple sources, including the Chicago Sun-Times, reported that the case was settled out of court.

George C. Scott

Year accused: 1996

Details: Julie Wright, Scott’s former personal assistant, sued the actor for $3.1 million, claiming he had “touched her breasts, tried to kiss her and made such remarks as, ‘I want you to have my baby,’ ‘I want to suckle you,’ and ‘Why won’t you sleep with me?,” according to the AP.

Response: Through his publicist, Scott said the charges were “absurd and completely untrue.”

Outcome: Scott’s lawyer claimed the actor could not testify because he was in desperate need of an operation to repair an aortic aneurysm, according to the Baltimore Sun. People reported that the case was settled out of court. Scott died in 1999.

Richard Simmons

Year accused: 1993

Details: QVC’s Lori Pastore filed a lawsuit seeking more than $150,000 in damages that alleged Simmons made “lewd, lecherous, wanton and lascivious comments” during a 1991 visit to the QVC office, according to the AP (here’s an aggregated version of the AP report via the Orlando Sentinel).

Response: “It happened almost two years ago, and I assumed it was all over with,” is what Simmons’s spokesperson, Elijah Jones, told the AP. “I would never intentionally hurt anyone,” Simmons said in a statement, according to Desert News. “And I am surprised and disappointed to hear of this lawsuit.”

Outcome: Unclear—Jezebel found no reports of it going to trial or being settled.

Anna Nicole Smith

Year accused: 1994

Details: Former housekeeper/nanny Maria Antonia Cerrato claimed in a lawsuit that Smith forced her to have sex with her and imprisoned her, according to the Dallas Morning News. Additionally, the Orlando Sentinel reported that “Cerrato says when she accompanied Smith to Las Vegas to care for Smith’s son, Smith insisted that Cerrato go with her for a night on the town, then sexually assaulted her when they returned to Smith’s hotel room.”

Response: According to the Sentinel, Smith countersued, claiming Cerrato attempted to kidnap her son.

Outcome: Smith failed to comply in her countersuit (she didn’t show up for depositions), according to the AP, and was eventually ordered to pay Cerrato $800,000 according to City News Service. Additionally, a judge awarded Cerrato $250,000 in punitive damages and $350,000 in emotional distress for her own lawsuit. However, in 1996, Smith filed for bankruptcy, which put a stay on Cerrato’s efforts to collect the $856,184.59 judgment.

It wouldn’t be a story about Smith if it didn’t end with something bizarre and tasteless, though. Smith’s 1998 softcore flick Exposed portrays Smith as lusting over a maid whom she eventually is depicted having sex with.

Montel Williams

Year accused: 1996-7

Details: At least five employees of Williams or The Montel Williams Show sued Williams (all via the same lawyer, W. Randolph Kraft, according to E!), among them associate producer Stacy Galonsky and executive assistant Mahri Feldman, according to Variety. Galonsky and Feldman alleged they were fired when they objected to Williams’s sexual remarks and propositions, said Variety, which also reported that he held meetings in his underwear (E! listed groping among the accusations as well).

Then, in 1997, a former executive assistant from a few years before named Ernesto Medina filed a suit claiming “Williams made fun of him for being gay, gave him embarrassing sex toys, and grabbed his butt,” according to E!

Response: On Entertainment Tonight, Williams said the initial lawsuit was rooted in an extortion attempt. “Anybody who knows me, and anybody who knows what I stand for, understands that very clearly that this is something that is not only foreign to me, but something that I would never do,” he said.

Additionally, the Miami Herald reported that another ex-staffer named Nancy Feldman filed a police complaint against the plaintiffs’ attorney, Kraft, for calling her over a dozen times and showing up at her door. “I keep telling this guy that I don’t know anything,” Feldman said. “He said I was suffering from stress because I had worked in a sexually abusive environment and didn’t know it.”

Outcome: All of the cases were either dropped or dismissed, according to Variety. After Feldman’s, the last one, was dismissed with prejudice in 1998, Williams said of the experience of these multiple lawsuits: “It was merciless, sometimes, but my name will be my name for the rest of my life.”

This is just a small sampling of some of the bigger (at the time) names accused of harassment. There were cases filed against ABC, Nightwatch, Jon Peters’s longtime producing partner Peter Gruber, and a whole slew of music-industry execs. Cases in the ’90s filed against Fred Savage, Steven Seagal (who has been accused of rape), and Gary Shandling have been reexamined in the press as a result of #MeToo. (Linda Doucett, Shandling’s ex and a former writer on The Larry Sanders Show, detailed her legal ordeal in an essay that ran last year in The Hollywood Reporter.)

And what about Rob Lowe, who said the ensuing scandal from an incident in which he recorded sex with what turned out to be a 16-year-old girl “the best thing that ever happened to me”? What about all the remember-whens that never were as far as the public was concerned because they weren’t allowed to go public?

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