Friday, July 11, 2003 | 10:57 a.m.
Two years ago in a casino in Atlantic City, a star of the creepshow comedy "The Munsters" made what he called a frightening discovery.
That's when Al Lewis, who played a folksy vampire named "Grandpa" on the 1960s TV series, discovered his character on a slot machine.
"He said, 'What am I doing here?' " said Lewis' Las Vegas attorney, Dirk Ravenholt. "He was upset that he was associated with a slot machine."
Lewis, who is anti-gambling, has joined "Munsters" actors Pat Priest and Patrick Lilley in a lawsuit against slot making giant International Game Technology, Universal Studios and Monaco Entertainment Corp.
The suit, filed last month in Clark County District Court, claims the companies failed to obtain the necessary licenses from the actors to use likenesses as well as film clips that are featured on the slot machine.
The actors are seeking an injunction that would remove an estimated 7,500 "Munsters" machines from casinos nationwide as well as unspecified damages.
The suit is similar to previous litigation in Las Vegas targeting slot themes or slot promotions involving Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator character and the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle and Beanie Baby trademarks.
"The Munsters" actors claim they were never contacted about licensing their images for the slots.
IGT declined to comment on the suit. Vivendi Universal-owned Universal Studios, which owns merchandising rights to the TV show, declined comment. Chicago-based Monaco, which helped develop the game for IGT, also declined comment.
IGT has a staff of licensing experts who strike deals with actors, their estates, or other entities to avoid such disputes.
"We are meticulous about licensing measures," Vice President of Marketing Ed Rogich said. "We make every effort to make sure we have obtained all the appropriate licenses."
Only three of the five central actors on the show are named in the suit. Fred Gwynne, who played family patriarch Herman Munster on the show, died several years ago. His wife on the show, Lily Munster, played by Yvonne De Carlo, decided not to join the suit, Ravenholt said. Priest played Marilyn (Lily's "normal" niece) and Lilley, who went by the stage name Butch Patrick, played the family's son Eddie Munster.
The suit is an effort to grant the actors what they are owed under licensing contracts struck with Universal nearly 40 years ago, Ravenholt said.
Ravenholt said he notified the three companies in writing two years ago that they needed to contact the actors about negotiating a licensing agreement.
IGT maintained the issue rested with Universal, the licensing entity from which IGT purchased the rights to the images, he said. A few months after the notification, Universal began granting Lewis a cut of merchandising revenue from the slot machines, he said.
All three actors still are entitled to an additional percentage of revenue under a separate contract with the Screen Actors Guild, Ravenholt said. The union requires licensing entities to pay its actors a fee based on the use of video clips in advertisements, shows or other venues, he said.
Old publicity rights contracts are especially subject to lawsuits because they were written with more specific uses in mind, Las Vegas intellectual property attorney Mark Tratos said.
"The parties did not fully contemplate this extent of exploitation and use."
Recent contracts, on the other hand, incorporate much broader language that can encompass a wide variety of merchandising opportunities, he said.
Actors who are inextricably linked with their characters -- as were many actors of "The Munsters" classic TV era -- may be able to convince a court that they have some intrinsic rights to their image beyond what is spelled out in a contract, he added.
Studios and other licensing companies, on the other hand, also have a convincing argument in that their contracts can give rising actors a shot at stardom and lead to hefty acting fees, he said.
"They may say ... 'we are entitled to find every way we can to maintain a public interest in our film,' " he said.