Friday 27 February 2004

Pact brings peace to the Seinfeld cast

Resolution of a bitter conflict over royalties clears the way for the release of a DVD collection

Special to The Globe and Mail
Friday, February 27, 2004 - Page R2

JERUSALEM -- Amultimillion-dollar dispute over royalties between Jerry Seinfeld and the three co-stars of his long-running television comedy series has finally been settled, allowing the release of an official DVD collection of the show's 180 episodes, plus newly filmed interviews and other material.

In an exclusive interview with The Globe and Mail, Jason Alexander (who played George Costanza on Seinfeld) said a deal "has very recently been worked out" after months of tension.

Describing the comedy star's behaviour over money as "inappropriate," Alexander said that he, Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Elaine) and Michael Richards (Kramer) had refused to provide extra material for the DVD collection because Seinfeld and Castle Rock Television, which produced the series for NBC, refused to pay them or offer a share in the royalties.

He said the Seinfeld producers have now agreed that the three co-stars will also earn royalties from the DVD collection.

"We are currently in negotiations so that we are participants in the DVD and that's a happy arrangement because we didn't really want to create this sort of negative impression of our experience," said Alexander, who has just ended a nine-month run in a theatre production of The Producers in Los Angeles.

Michael Richards broke ranks in December and agreed to work on the DVD.

"I innocently asked a question, 'Is there some compensation?' I don't believe there is," Richards told The New York Times.

A similar dispute nearly scuttled the last series of the nine-year-long show. The three co-stars have no share in the royalties, which have netted Seinfeld more than a billion dollars.

Alexander said the three co-stars decided to get tough during negotiations for the final series in 1997. They told NBC Entertainment chief Warren Littlefield that Jerry Seinfeld's decision to cut them out of the show's massive royalties had created an unacceptable gap between the actors.

They did manage to raise their fee for the final series to the same level as Seinfeld himself -- about $1-million an episode -- but Alexander said it was done with a heavy heart.

"We made a deal that was acceptable to us. We got paid very handsomely for our final season," he said. "It was in the pool of profit for NBC to give us those salaries.

"We weren't asking for something that wasn't there, but it was still inappropriate. It drove the cost of production of a TV show sky-high.

"I remember saying to Warren Littlefield: 'We're not kidding and we deserve this, but you're an idiot if you make this deal. It'll destroy television.' "

Alexander said the three co-stars would have greatly preferred "back-end participation" -- a share in royalties from future profits, rather than taking such huge salaries up-front.

"Julia, Michael and I, during our big renegotiation for the final year, asked for something that I will go to my grave saying we should have had, and that is back-end participation in the profits for the show.

"It was categorically denied to us, which forced us to then ask for ungodly salaries," he said.

"We make very little, standard Screen Actors Guild residuals for the reruns," he said.

"I'm not ashamed to talk numbers. I would say in the years that we've been in syndication, Julia, Michael and I have probably individually seen about a quarter of a million dollars out of residuals, whereas our brethren have seen hundreds of millions of dollars. Seinfeld has a profit of over a billion dollars."

"When the DVDs came up, we were being asked to provide new services," he said. "We had no problem with the DVDs being released, but then they said, 'We want you to perform new services. We want to do interviews and create additional footage and additional material.' Why would we do that? They said, 'Because of the legacy of the show.'

"Well, the character of George is not a millstone around my neck but I had to turn to my former bosses and say, 'I'm not invested in the longevity of the show. The longevity of the show actually is a detriment to me right now. It keeps me from getting certain kind of work. You have not made me a participant in the life of this show, therefore I am not inclined to give you these services.'

"It took a while for them to understand. Frankly, I think they were well prepared to proceed without our services until the audience said, 'Don't do that.'

"I said to Jerry when he made the decision years ago to not let us in, 'The day will come when you regret this decision, only because it's going to put us in a position eventually of seemingly tainting the wonderful impression of what this was for the four of us.

"You have created a rift between you and the three of us, and while we are in no way, shape or form looking for parity with you, you have created a chasm that is also inappropriate,' " Alexander recalled.