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Trying to Get Foxx's Estate Out of the Redd

Mar 7, 2010 – 12:03 PM
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Steve Friess

Steve Friess Contributor

LAS VEGAS (March 7) -- It could easily have been the plot for a "Sanford and Son" episode: a bizarre money-making scheme cooked up by a well-meaning but possibly misguided man that seems destined to go comically awry.

But in this real-life case, it's a county official in Las Vegas who is trying to put the life story of late "Sanford" star Redd Foxx on the block to resolve mammoth debt the actor left behind. Foxx owed more the $3.6 million in taxes to the IRS when he died 19 years ago.

The trouble is, it's not clear that such a thing can actually be sold or what its value might be.
Comedian Redd Foxx, star of the television sitcom 'Sanford and Son' looks to his right in this portrait from circa 1975.
Getty Images
An official in Las Vegas is trying to sell the rights to Redd Foxx's life story to help pay down the $3.6 million the comedian owed the IRS at the time of his death. Here, Foxx is shown in a photo from circa 1975.

Clark County Public Administrator John Cahill, cast in the leading role in this odd drama, has been trying to find out for years. He's a career public servant elected in 2006 to his post. His job includes settling the fiscal affairs of dead people whose estates are in dispute.

When Cahill surveyed the outstanding cases after taking office in 2007, Foxx's name stood out. The performer was a longtime resident of Las Vegas, where he frequently performed stand-up comedy during his career. He died in 1991 at a Los Angeles hospital.

Cahill learned that Foxx's daughter, Debraca Foxx, had been removed in 2006 as the administrator of the actor's estate because she had failed to provide an accounting of revenue received in royalties, residuals and licensing deals since her father's death.

Foxx's fourth wife and widow, Ka Ho Foxx, has accused Debraca Foxx in court filings of pocketing money that should have gone toward paying down the tax debt. As a result of the family squabble, the probate court put the public administrator in charge of managing the estate and resolving the debts.

Since 2007, Cahill's office has aggressively pursued the case, according to public documents, collecting more than $101,000 owed to the estate. Payments include a $5,000 fee from CBS Studios for use of a video clip of Redd Foxx in an episode of "Everybody Hates Chris" and $3,000 from Hallmark for use of Foxx's image on a greeting card.

"The estate had no assets at all at that time, although we've been able to locate some assets, collect some royalties since then," Cahill said. "This was the big-ticket item, the rights to his story. That was an asset to be marketed."

So Cahill kept his efforts to sell the story quiet until last month, when his office issued an unusual press release announcing that it had received offers from $20,000 to $2 million and that Cahill had done lunch and taken meetings with Hollywood types.

A producer even brought along an actor interested in playing Foxx "who was in a popular TV series that had recently ended," Cahill said in an interview. He declined to disclose the actor's name but said the deal fell through, as has every other prospect.

"Who I'm waiting to call, the call that would make my day would be Jamie Foxx," Cahill said. "That would be great for so many reasons. There's the connection there." The Oscar-winning actor's professional name is an homage to Redd Foxx.

The deals may have failed because the concept of selling a life's story is one that doesn't exist, said intellectual property rights attorney Eric J. Goodman, a partner in the law firm of Burkhalter, Kessler, Goodman and George in Orange County. He regularly deals with celebrity cases.

Goodman said Nevada allows for the marketing of someone's "right of publicity," defined in the law as the ability to use a "name, voice, signature, photograph or likeness" of anyone for commercial purposes.

Among the exceptions, however, is "the use in connection to an original work of art" and the use "to portray, imitate, simulate or impersonate a person in a play, book, magazine article, newspaper article, musical composition, film, or a radio, television or other audio or visual program, except where the use is directly connected with commercial sponsorship."

"The issue for the administrator is if they're going to sell bobblehead dolls, great, that can be bequeathed to an estate," Goodman said. "But he's proposing the use of Redd Foxx's name for commercial use. A film is a piece of art. I think the administrator has good intentions and this is a very creative idea, but what he's selling is the Brooklyn Bridge here. Who's to say anybody else can't come along and sell their own biography of him?"

Travis Twitchell, a Las Vegas-based attorney hired by Cahill's office, reads the law differently. To him, the use of Foxx's name or portrayal in a movie would be a commercial endeavor.

But Twitchell's definition presents other problems -- namely that, in his view, a filmmaker could never tell Foxx's life story without participation from and possible compensation for other people in his life. Neither Cahill nor Twitchell can promise any prospective buyer that Foxx's survivors would go along -- thereby undermining the value of the rights.

Debraca Foxx remains under an unfilled court order to account for money received during her years as administrator. She could not be reached for comment. And an attorney for Ka Ho Foxx said she plans to object in court to Cahill's effort to market the rights.

As for Cahill, he plans to step out of the Hollywood arena. At an April court hearing, he expects a probate judge to approve a licensing deal with CMG Brands, a large Hollywood firm that licenses the image and material of dozens of stars.

He realized he was out of his depth, he said, when he dined with the unnamed producer and TV star. It was hardly glamorous, just a quiet meal at a suburban chain restaurant about 10 miles from the seemingly more appropriate setting of the Las Vegas Strip.

"We did joke around about who would play me," said Cahill, sort of a burly, Wilford Brimley-meets-Ed Asner type. "But how Hollywood does what they do is something of a mystery to me. We're about to find out."
Filed under: Nation, Entertainment
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