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A Long-Ago Actress And A ‘Modern Family’

Even the most affectionate relationships can get pretty complicated - a fact well known to millions of fans of ABC's top-rated sitcom, Modern Family.

Add a little Hollywood ego and a lot of money to the mix and you might wind up with Family Feud. As one of the show's many admirers, I was a little disconcerted this week when most of Modern Family's adult cast went to court seeking to void their contracts. The actors filed suit on Tuesday, just as they were supposed to gather for their first table read in preparation to film the show's fourth season.

But after a little reflection, I'm not worried. Like any good family, the two sides will realize, even amid the shouting and tears, that they need one another. They'll work things out.

In case you don't own a DVR and your job requires you to man the North American air defense command post on Wednesday evenings, suffice to say that Modern Family follows the everyday lives of Jay Pritchett (Ed O'Neill), his second and much younger wife Gloria (Sofia Vergara), Gloria's son by a prior husband, Manny; Jay's daughter by his first marriage, Claire Dunphy (Julie Bowen), her husband Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell), their three children; and Claire's brother Mitchell Pritchett (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), who is married to Cameron Tucker (Eric Stonestreet), with whom he has adopted Lily Tucker-Pritchett, a little girl who was born in Vietnam.

The series has been a major critical and commercial success, domestically and overseas, since its 2009 debut. It is scheduled to go into syndication in the autumn of 2013. The ensemble cast is contracted for seven seasons, but there is already talk of extending the show's run to at least nine years.

But, as often happens when a new show blossoms into a long-term hit, the cast and the production company - in this case, Twentieth Century Fox - are at loggerheads over money. While the actors are likely to get future film and television roles, history cautions that they may never again be part of anything as big as Modern Family. This is their moment. On the other side of the bargaining table, the financial types are doing what financial types are paid to do, which is to indicate the comparatively modest pay scales in the actors' current agreements, offer a modest bump as a token of appreciation, and solemnly intone that a contract is a contract.

This is true - except when it isn't. Which is why the cast has hired attorney Jeff McFarland to argue, with suitable dramatic flair, that these particular contracts are null, void and of no consequence whatsoever.

McFarland is relying on Section 2855 of the California Labor Code, also known as the “de Havilland” law.

Olivia de Havilland, who recently marked her 96th birthday, was to movies what Curt Flood was to baseball: a star who challenged the system. In de Havilland's heyday in the 1930s and '40s, actors were tied to individual Hollywood film studios under long-term contracts that prohibited them from selling their services elsewhere without their home studio's consent. An actor effectively belonged to his or her studio.

California had a longstanding law, which exists today as Section 2855, that specified that a contract for personal services could not extend beyond seven years. Studio lawyers had an answer: the seven years had to constitute actual working days. Since actors sometimes have lengthy breaks between films, and since films are rarely shot on weekends and holidays, the studios insisted that their contracts legally bound actors for decades. For women in particular, this often meant that by the time actors were free to work elsewhere, high-profile roles were no longer available to them.

De Havilland sued her studio and won. Since then, California courts have recognized that the seven-year limitation means seven calendar years.

McFarland seems to be trying to push the law further, however, for the benefit of his clients on Modern Family. The show was not even conceived seven years ago. None of the contracts in question have been in force for more than four or five years. McFarland's complaint, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, glosses over that fact and asserts that the contracts are already void.

That does not seem to square very well with the plain language of the statute, which states that a contract “may not be enforced against an employee beyond seven years from the commencement of services under it.” It would seem that the actors' only recourse might be to walk away from the program - and, quite possibly, from the biggest paychecks they will ever have - until the seven-year period expires. This would hurt not only the actors, but also the many other people, from writers to stagehands, who work on the show.

That's the kind of scorched-earth scenario you might see in a particularly nasty divorce. But these sorts of disputes happen regularly in Hollywood, and the worst-case outcomes almost never occur. In the end, everyone agrees to kiss and make up.

So, even though I am curious to know whether a court would let the actors out of their contracts before the seven-year window expired, I realize that this case will almost certainly be settled before any ruling can be issued. And that's okay with me. My professional interest is outweighed by a family concern: I want to see what all those talented people, on both sides of the camera, plan to show us in the adventures of the Pritchetts and the Dunphys this season.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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