'Sopranos' lawsuit brings up question of idea ownership
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Robert Baer dreamed of becoming a Hollywood writer and producer and thought he had caught his big break in 1995 when he met the man who would become famous for creating "The Sopranos."
But Baer didn't make it in show business, and last week he failed on another front: a lawsuit against David Chase, the series' creator. Baer had been seeking compensation for a tour of Mafia sights around New Jersey he gave Chase and for arranging meetings with mob experts that Baer claimed inspired many of Chase's ideas for the HBO hit show.
The trial offered a behind-the-scenes look at how Hollywood writers turn their ideas into successful television and the way the industry often revolves around friends doing favors for friends.
"It's about talent but also about relationships and reliability and loyalty," said Lauren Gussis, who worked as a story editor and staff writer for the Showtime hit "Dexter" before the writers strike.
"When I was starting out, if David Chase had spent five minutes with me, let alone read my material, I would have probably sent him a gift basket," she said. "I certainly wouldn't have sued him."
While the jury found that Baer did help Chase, it ruled that he was not owed anything for assistance he provided while Chase wrote the early draft of the "Sopranos" pilot because he did not prove he had a reasonable expectation of being compensated. The jury also found Baer may have been hoping that Chase would help open doors in the entertainment business.
The weeklong federal trial that wrapped up in Trenton last week may have showed that Baer really didn't understand how Hollywood works.
Baer, a former prosecutor and aspiring screenwriter, met Chase through a mutual friend. The two had lunch in June 1995 at the Ivy, a favorite restaurant in Hollywood with movie and television bigwigs.
Chase, who had a longtime interest in organized crime from watching "The Untouchables" with his father, wanted help understanding the business aspects of the Mafia.
Looking for a new twist on mob stories, Chase was hoping to create a "satire of American corporate life," and he wanted to learn what new techniques organized crime bosses were using, he testified.
Baer took Chase to alleged Mafia sites in North Jersey in October 1995 and arranged meetings with detectives and others believed to have knowledge of the mob.
But when Chase needed a "true Mafia expert," he turned to Dan Castleman, chief of the Manhattan district attorney's investigations division, not Baer. Castleman was never paid for helping Chase during the writing of the pilot, but after "The Sopranos" was picked up by HBO, he worked as a technical consultant for the cable network.
Baer continued looking for compensation and recognition of his role and sued in 2002. But Chase's lawyers said the Emmy-winning writer and producer had many sources of inspiration.
For example, Baer claimed credit for showing Chase a meat market he said became the famous "Satriale's" market where the television mobsters hung out. But Chase said the idea came from a childhood pork store in Newark his mother took him to every Saturday.
"Mr. Baer never quite understood how minimal his contributions were," said Chase's attorney, Peter Skolnik.
During his testimony, Chase said he read Baer's first-ever script and gave the former prosecutor some advice. "The Sopranos" creator said he receives "quite a bit" of scripts but reads only about five or six per year.
Chase painted a picture of Baer as a man who wanted to become a Hollywood bigshot but wasn't willing to put in the time or effort. He said he would have been willing to read more of Baer's scripts if he showed progress in his writing.
"The guy tried to be a writer, and he failed and he took it out on me," Chase said.
Baer is still claiming a "moral victory" because the jury determined he had performed services for Chase. His attorney, Harley Breite, still contends he gave Chase the idea of writing about the North Jersey mob.
"This case was always a matter of principle and truth, and one day the world will know how 'The Sopranos' was actually created," he said. (Janet Frankston Lorin, Associated Press)
Richard Rossi, a North Allegheny High grad who hosted a talk show on Pittsburgh's WPIT-FM, is a contestant on "Merv Griffin's Crosswords" at 1:30 p.m. Friday on WPXI.
First Published December 27, 2007 12:00 am