The Sad, Strange Family Battle Over Radio Legend Casey Kasem
Amid competing charges of cruelty and neglect and with an $80 million fortune at stake, the "American Top 40" legend's children tell why they have waged a legal war against their stepmother for the right to visit their 81-year-old father, who is frail with Parkinson's.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Department 29 in the Stanley Mosk Courthouse of the Los Angeles Superior Court is a 50-by-50-foot box of dirty-blond wood and fluorescent light and a disheartening place of hard-luck stories and forlorn conclusions. On a Friday morning before Christmas, a long succession of civil cases involving special-needs trusts, disputed inheritances, stricken families and various other probate calamities passed in a dull parade before Judge Lesley Green, who announced her decisions, one after another, with a swift dispatch.
But the courtroom stirred and the spectators sat forward when Case No. BP145805 was called, and no fewer than six attorneys lined up before the judge in the matter of Julie Kasem et. al., petitioner, v. Jean Kasem, respondent, in respect to a "conservatorship of person" -- that absent person being 81-year-old Casey Kasem, the radio legend. For decades, Kasem counted down the weekly hit singles on American Top 40 and its spinoffs, exhorting his listeners to "Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars." Several generations of kids also knew him as the voice of the teenage Shaggy on the Scooby-Doo series. He had taped his last broadcast in 2009, then quietly retired.
The courtroom spectators were primed to witness the latest legal skirmish in a tabloid melodrama that had erupted three months earlier and just kept getting more lurid and sad. On Oct. 1, Kerri Kasem, 41, the entertainer's eldest daughter from his first marriage, along with Casey's 78-year-old brother, Mouner Kasem, and many longtime friends, held a protest outside the Holmby Hills estate where Kasem lives with his second wife of 33 years, actress Jean Kasem, best known for her TV role as the harebrained bombshell Loretta Tortelli on Cheers. Casey met Jean in 1980 when he was 47 and she was 24; today, she is perhaps better remembered for her eye-popping outfits -- often involving headbands, turbans and tiaras -- she liked to wear to galas and awards shows.
It had been an open secret in the music industry that Kasem was ill, but now the family went public with the news that their octogenarian father was suffering from advanced Parkinson's disease, could no longer walk and had lost much of his ability to speak. Holding signs that read, "JEAN, WHY WON'T YOU LET ME SEE MY DAD!?" and "I MISS MY BROTHER," Kerri and the protesters told reporters that for months, none of them had been allowed to see or communicate with Casey. A week later, Julie Kasem, 38, Casey's middle child and a licensed physician assistant with advanced training in palliative and hospice care, and her husband, Dr. Jamil Aboulhosn, a cardiologist at UCLA Medical Center, filed a conservatorship petition in Superior Court, charging that though her father had signed a medical directive in 2007 placing the couple in charge of his care if he were incapacitated, Jean Kasem had blocked them from finding out about his condition since the previous spring. As one leering headline put it: "CASEY KASEM HELD CAPTIVE BY HIS OWN WIFE."
The Kasem kids repeatedly told reporters that they weren't after their father's money -- his fortune has been estimated at $80 million -- but that they desperately missed him and simply wanted to see him again.
At a hearing Oct. 15, Jean Kasem struck back. Although she never appeared in court, her attorney, Marshall B. Grossman, declared that a document signed by Casey Kasem in 2011 had given his wife power of attorney, superseding the 2007 conservatorship. For Jean Kasem, he said, the protest and legal action had been "a sham." In an affidavit submitted to the court, Jean called the situation "a living nightmare," writing, "It is my sincere hope that Casey's physical surroundings coupled with the attentiveness of the medical providers and the love of his own home and wife and child are comforting to him." (Casey and Jean have a 23-year-old daughter together, Liberty Jean.)
In mid-November, Jean Kasem and her attorney filed another written statement with the court, charging that her stepchildren had "single-handedly and irreparably shattered the lives of their father, his wife and youngest daughter. … They are doing so with a professionally orchestrated media and legal campaign that has disgraced their father and vilified their stepmother. … These children falsely claim that their stepmother is wicked and is keeping her husband prisoner in his home behind closed doors and that they no longer have access to him through no fault of their own. … For reasons they know all too well, their presence at this stage would be toxic and extremely distressing for Casey, Jean and their daughter, Liberty, who have had enough of their cruelty."
It was the last time Jean Kasem has told her side of the conflict.
On Nov. 19, the court upheld the validity of Jean Kasem's role as her husband's conservator and ordered the two sides to iron out a visitation agreement.
From left: Kasem's daughter Julie, Casey, daughter Kerri, Casey's first wife, Linda, and son Mike at Kerri's high school graduation. Says Mike: "Ever since we realized that there's going to be no relationship with our stepmom, none of us has really been expecting anything. We knew that we better go make our own money. It's so much more important to be happy and have family."
Despite her decisive legal victory, Jean Kasem was, as she had seemed to realize, getting crushed in the court of media coverage. Even as the "wicked" stepmother storyline stuck, she steadfastly declined to speak to journalists. Kerri Kasem announced that in honor of her father, she was creating a foundation, Kasem Cares, to lobby on behalf of visitation rights for adult children. In early December, a former maid and caretaker, Hilda Loza, won a $10,000 judgment against Jean in small-claims court after accusing her employer of abusive behavior (Loza alleged that Jean routinely berated her and falsely charged her with stealing such items as silverware and toilet paper). On Dec. 18, Kerri and her brother, Mike, appeared on CNN with Piers Morgan to tell their story. As the host listened sympathetically to their account of Jean's refusal to permit the children to spend time with their father, his umbrage mounted. "It seems to me utterly cruel!" he exclaimed. "It's utterly horrendous." Mike revealed that he recently had been allowed to see his dad for five minutes and had rushed to say everything he needed to, "just in case that was the last time I'd ever see him."
Two days later, the case was back before Judge Green. But it quickly emerged that there would be no further fireworks. The attorneys confirmed that Jean and two of the Kasem children, Julie and Mike, had reached a confidential agreement granting them visitation. Kerri, however, had refused to sign the new agreement.
After the hearing, Mike Kasem told reporters that his father now was in a hospital (he reportedly remains there today) and that all three children -- including Kerri -- finally had seen their father again, briefly, in separate visits. A few weeks later, Mouner Kasem traveled from his home in Michigan and was permitted to see his brother for the first time in more than a year.
Julie Kasem was reluctant to comment on the outcome. "Obviously, we came to our settlement agreement, and that's all that I can really say," she told THR. "It is what it is. I am so concerned about preserving my visitation with my dad, and I cherish it so much that I just don't want to screw anything up. To me, the most important thing is to see my dad."
Mike Kasem, 40, who lives in Singapore, where he is a successful radio DJ, likewise sounded wearily resigned to the situation. "The deal that Julie and I signed, I don't think it would honor our father's wishes," he says. "But there comes a point when you have to decide how far you want to go. We felt things weren't going to get better."
Kerri Kasem, however, was livid and remained determined to fight. She, too, is a longtime radio talker and co-host of the syndicated Premiere Radio show Sixx Sense, with Motley Crue bassist Nikki Sixx.
"I'm not afraid of her; they are," she says of Jean and her siblings. "This visitation agreement not only treats us like criminals, it treats my dad like an inmate. It's about money for her. It's about love for us."
Not that long ago, Casey Kasem's voice was ubiquitous. According to American Top 40: The Countdown of the Century, Rob Durkee's definitive history of the show, Kasem's syndicated franchise "was easily the most listened-to radio program in history" at its zenith during the early 1980s. "The show was broadcast on 520 U.S. radio stations, a record at the time, [and] in many foreign countries as well as hundreds of Armed Forces Radio affiliates, especially in Europe." Kasem also recorded innumerable commercial and cartoon voiceovers (estimates range from 10,000 to 25,000), most famously as the quavering, adenoidal teenage ne'er-do-well Shaggy Rogers in the various Scooby-Doo animated series, a role he owned, almost exclusively, from 1969 until 2009. For several years during the late '70s and early '80s, he was the sole voice of the NBC television network, taping daily promos in a closet-size booth in Burbank. For nearly two decades, he was one of the co-hosts of the Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethon to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
In October, Kerri Kasem protested outside her father's house over having been denied any contact with him.
That voice, oozing with anodyne charm and let's-close-this-deal pheromones, has been described as a "nasal android twang." For millions of radio listeners, Kasem's three-hour Sunday broadcast of the singles countdown on American Top 40 was a unifying communal ritual; like a pop music Walter Cronkite, Kasem was a steady, avuncular companion who helped his youthful audience cope with such events as the death of Elvis, the murder of John Lennon and the Challenger space shuttle disaster.
Through it all, Kasem radiated the pride of the second-generation immigrant who has made it and the gratitude of a man who becomes enormously successful relatively late. He also came to embrace his Arab ethnic roots with intense enthusiasm. He was born Kemal Amen Kasem in Detroit in 1932, the first son of Druze parents from the mountainsides of the Chouf in Lebanon. They ran a grocery store on the corner of Cass and Alexandrine and refused to let their sons learn Arabic, insisting they assimilate.
Obsessed with baseball and radio, Kasem volunteered to read the sports results over the PA at Northwestern High School. While attending college at Wayne State University, he got his first taste of stardom and fat paychecks, landing a series of plum juvenile roles on immensely popular Detroit-based radio shows such as The Lone Ranger and Challenge of the Yukon.
After an Army stint during the early 1950s, Kasem, who was something of a chain-smoking schlub as a young man, spent most of the next 10 years living the itinerant life of a journeyman disc jockey, moving from Detroit's WJBK (where he coined his "feet on the ground/reaching for the stars" catchphrase and dubbed himself "Casey at the Mike") to WJW in Cleveland (where he emerged unscathed after the payola scandal broke) and WBNY in Buffalo, N.Y., before landing at KEWB in Oakland, Calif., during the early '60s. At one point during the late '50s, he spent six miserable months alone and unemployed in New York, trying to gain a foothold as an actor.
In 1963, he was hired by KRLA and drove down to Los Angeles in a beat-up '49 Plymouth -- and into a major radio market at last. In 1965, now slim and dapper, he joined Dick Clark in front of the cameras as a co-host on KTLA-Channel 5's Shebang, a local after-school music show notable for showcasing the TV debut of The Doors in 1967. (His dream of becoming a successful actor eventually died after appearances in low-budget biker flicks and horror movies and a few guest roles on TV.)
As the '60s rolled into the '70s, his radio career achieved liftoff at last. In the summer of '69, he teamed up with a couple of other ambitious top 40 jocks and a fellow Lebanese-American from Detroit to plot the launch of what would become American Top 40. Tom Rounds, a veteran DJ turned festival promoter, and Ron Jacobs, a pioneering packager of radio specials on rock history, had partnered in a company called Charlatan Productions; meanwhile, Kasem and his buddy from the old neighborhood, Don Bustany, now an L.A. radio producer, were convinced that the time was ripe for a national music-countdown show. Nearly a year later, Charlatan had been rechristened Watermark Inc., and American Top 40 broadcast its first show on the weekend of July 4, 1970.
As Durkee relates in his history of the show, AT40 was not an instant hit. Only seven radio stations carried the premiere episode. The partners came close to quitting in 1972, and the show lost money until 1973. But growth was steady --and then meteoric: 75 U.S. stations by the end of 1970, 118 by mid-'71 and 450 by 1977. Amazingly, for 20 years the show was taped and then pressed on multiple 12-inch vinyl records for express shipment to local stations throughout the world.
The show took some time to evolve into its classic format. In the pre-Wikipedia dark ages of the '70s, AT40 hired teams of researchers to fill the tightly scripted three-hour broadcast with fun facts and human-interest stories that tied in with the songs and performers. Along with the current hits -- the show used the Billboard Hot 100 as the source of the rankings during its first two decades -- AT40 churned out chart statistics, where-are-they-now tidbits and other inside-baseball ephemera from the annals of pop music history.
Casey and his wife, Jean, attended the 17th annual Night of 100 Stars Gala Oscar Party in 2007.
The crowning element of the mix was the "Long Distance Dedications," introduced in 1978, that cued up sentimental tunes ("The Wind Beneath My Wings" and "The Greatest Love of All" were repeat favorites) with heart-tugging epistles from sweethearts, military husbands and wives, parents and kids. Like the trivia-heavy patter, this was a trademark bit Kasem had been honing for years; his KRLA show included listener dedications he called "Letters From the Sweetheart Tree." AT40's "Long Distance Dedications" sometimes highlighted issues such as drunk driving, abuse or runaways, and Kasem offered toll-free numbers for listeners looking for help.
While kids heard Kasem in various animated shows, their parents could hear him touting the primetime TV lineup on NBC and hawking products in radio and TV ads. (According to Don Pitts, Kasem's longtime agent for his voiceover work, for several years his client was making more than $1 million a year -- at scale -- for the NBC promos alone.) By the time his star was added to the Hollywood Walk of Fame in April 1981, Kasem was the most famous radio personality in the world.
Just as his professional life was approaching maximum velocity, his private life underwent a dramatic sea change. His first marriage, to actress Linda Myers, the mother of Kerri, Mike and Julie, had lasted only seven years. Doubtless his crushing schedule didn't help. The divorce was final in 1980.
Meanwhile, Kasem bumped into Jean Thompson when she was delivering documents to a Hollywood office. Recently divorced herself, she was studying acting and supporting herself with clerical jobs when she met Casey. After a whirlwind courtship, they were married Dec. 21, 1980, at the Hotel Bel-Air by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whom Kasem had met at Sammy Davis Jr.'s home.
With American Top 40 riding high -- after ABC purchased Watermark and AT40 in 1982, the host was earning more than $1 million-plus a year from AT40 alone -- Casey and Jean Kasem embraced a conspicuously public show-business lifestyle with a vengeance. Jean started landing a few TV guest parts, and in 1984, she appeared in the recurring role of Loretta, trophy wife of sleazeball Nick Tortelli (Dan Hedaya), on the sitcom Cheers. The comic incongruity of statuesque, blond Loretta next to short, dark Nick had its odd real-life counterpart as Casey and his much taller wife Jean became red-carpet fixtures at Hollywood awards shows and benefits.
According to Kerri and Mike Kasem, though their relationship with their father was a close and loving one, Jean, they say, never embraced the role of stepmother and friend to her husband's children.
Strikingly beautiful in a Marilyn-meets-Anna Nicole mode, Jean subverted her classic looks by adopting a highly eccentric fashion sense that exaggerated her 5-foot-10 height and earned her repeat mentions on various worst-dressed lists. With Casey beaming beside her, she wore her hair in towering top knots, mountainous ziggurats of curls and dreadlocks and donned alarming white wigs and assorted headdresses. She once sported a top hat adorned with a Barbie doll.
Having started over with Jean, Casey Kasem also embraced a newfound passion for political and social activism during the '80s and early '90s, though he was careful never to inject his liberal convictions into AT40. "I now have the celebrity status to do effectively what I want to do with changing the world," said Kasem, and he contributed time, money and his famous voice to a host of causes: animal rights, world peace, vegetarianism, anti-smoking and homelessness. In 1984 and 1988, he and Jean hosted fundraisers and campaign events for the quixotic presidential campaigns of Jackson.
But the two issues that consumed him more than any others were continuing violence in the Middle East and discrimination against Arab-Americans. In speeches and articles, he took Hollywood to task for "the vilification and defaming of Arabs in motion pictures and television." Although not a Muslim, he denounced negative stereotyping of the Islamic faith and became a staunch defender of Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian struggle. He loudly opposed the 1991 Gulf War and attended the signing of the Oslo Peace Accord in Washington in 1993.
He could afford to spend the majority of his time on activism. The music industry seemed unassailable as the '80s rolled into the '90s, and so did Casey Kasem's brand. After ABC fumbled contract negotiations in 1988, Kasem jumped to Westwood One and a five-year, $15 million package. Kasem celebrated by buying a $6.8 million, 2.4-acre gated estate as a birthday present for Jean. Casey and Jean began throwing lavish holiday parties to benefit homeless support groups, a Druze cultural center and other causes. In 1990, they invited 750 friends, including Martin Sheen, Harold Robbins, Valerie Harper and Danny Thomas, to a gala baby shower for Jean, who gave birth to Liberty (they planned to name the infant Justice if it had been a boy) in May.
"I don't know what [Jean's] thinking. I don't know why she hates us," says Kerri Kasem, photographed Jan. 24 in Los Angeles.
Jean reveled in motherhood and viewed Liberty's birth as a medical miracle, telling People that over 10 years she had had eight miscarriages, until an innovative immunological therapy developed at UCLA had made a viable pregnancy possible. She went on to start a business, the Little Miss Liberty Round Crib Co., eventually registering a dozen U.S. patents for her designs, and bestowing on deluxe baby-bed sets the same over-the-top decorative embellishments she had once displayed in her awards-show ensembles.
"I look forward to doing this probably until the day I die," Casey Kasem observed in a 1997 Billboard tribute that lauded him as "a constant on an ever-changing dial."
In fact, the world in which Kasem's countdowns and American Top 40 and its clones had ruled was disintegrating. AT40's lifeblood, the pop single, was dying. More than 130 million vinyl singles had been sold in 1984. A decade later, that market had been vaporized, and CDs, such as they had been, were all about albums. By the time digital singles became dominant in the early 21st century, the music business had become an unrecognizable landscape strewn with rubble.
Radio was becoming a balkanized, fragmented market of incompatible and even mutually hostile formats. "We believed in the universality of American pop music," said AT40 co-creator Ron Jacobs, looking back at the end of the 20th century. But there no longer was one universal Casey Kasem. Casey's Top 40 for Westwood One, like American Top 40 before it, had depended on the market power of the so-called CHR (Contemporary Hit Radio) format, but CHR stations were dwindling amid the Babel of proliferating formats. So two other shows were spawned: Casey's Countdown, launched in 1992 for adult contemporary stations, and Casey's Hot 20, created in 1994 for hot adult contemporary stations. In 1998, Kasem parted ways with Westwood One and signed with AMFM, which announced the reunion of the American Top 40 brand and its original host with great fanfare.
The tension inherent in Kasem as buttoned-up superego serving up the id of pop was nothing new. His discomfort had been palpable while introducing Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" way back in 1972, and he refused to announce the title of George Michael's "I Want Your Sex" in 1987. In the final years of Kasem's countdown reign, there was a complete disconnect between the man and the hits, and in 2004, Ryan Seacrest took over American Top 40 from the 72-year-old host.
"I've never loved listening to music," Kasem admitted in a Mother Jones profile in 1989. Nor had he ever possessed the drive to build a business or create a music-business empire; unlike Seacrest, his footprint is absent from the hitmaking machinery of reality TV competitions like American Idol. He had wanted to change the world, but his vision now seemed to encounter disappointment. Even before 9/11, the outbreak of the second Palestinian Intifada in the Occupied Territories had dealt a severe blow to the Jewish-Arab comity he had worked so hard to foster in Southern California.
After his Parkinson's diagnosis in 2007, Kasem rarely was seen in public. He had continued hosting the American Top 20 and American Top 10 spinoffs as his health declined, but his speaking voice was weakening. The final recording session for his last broadcasts, which aired on the 39th anniversary of the AT40 premiere, reportedly took 11 hours to complete.
The two mysteries of this final, sorry chapter of Casey Kasem's life are how he allowed the two sides of his family to become so irremediably estranged and what Jean Kasem is thinking.
Casey, Jean and their daughter, Liberty, in 1996.
She did not respond to repeated requests for an interview for this article. Grossman no longer is representing her. Her attorney, Amy McEvoy, a tax and estate-planning specialist who conveyed the interview requests to Jean Kasem, said in early January that her client is "a very private person." She bridled in response to the suggestion that Jean's reclusiveness and silence, apart from her court affidavits, might have left serious allegations and negative characterizations of her behavior unanswered.
"Those questions have been addressed and answered by the court," said McEvoy, "and I think that would be the best authority."
In April 2013, two months before the Kasem children say their visits with Casey were blocked, the Holmby Hills estate that Casey and Jean bought in 1989 was put up for sale for $42 million. A few weeks later, Jean Kasem told a TMZ videographer that she was in talks to join the cast of Bravo's Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. In September, just before the feud became a media sensation, the unsold house was taken off the market. Together with the statements introduced in court by her lawyers, that is the sum of Jean Kasem's recent public profile. The rest is an avalanche of speculation, gossip and bad publicity, along with a scattered chorus of sympathy for her plight.
It's difficult to discern premonitions of these sorrowful events in Casey Kasem's personal life. His parents divorced when he was young and still living at home; his father died in 1955 after a car crash on the way to see Casey act in a play. His dignity and rectitude -- apart from a pair of infamous and profane AT40 outtakes, involving a dog named Snuggles and the band U2 (see YouTube) -- were celebrated throughout his years of fame and political advocacy, but his painfully ethical character may have failed him in private, allowing the predictable collision of two medical directives and the festering estrangement between his wife and his older kids to escalate into open and messy conflict.
Whatever role Casey Kasem's fortune might play in these events, Mike and Kerri both maintain emphatically that their battle with Jean Kasem is not a proxy fight over money or inheritance.
"My dad set up a trust for us with our mom when their marriage ended," says Mike. "We don't know much about it. Ever since we realized that there's going to be no relationship with our stepmom, none of us has really been expecting anything. We knew that we better go make our own money. It's so much more important to be happy and have family."
Kerri, unbound by the confidentiality her brother and sister had agreed to, is scathing and unforgiving when she talks about their history with her stepmother. "Jean always made herself very scarce when we were around," says Kerri, adding that she and her siblings were invited to Casey and Jean's parties in Holmby Hills only a handful of times. "I love my dad, but I'm very happy we didn't go and live with Jean. I think it destroyed him, trying to make everybody happy, trying to make peace."
Continues Kerri, "He told me that Jean was very insecure. He always told me, 'It's going to get better, I promise.' It never did. To Jean, anybody who truly loved my father was an enemy, a sworn enemy.
"When he found out he had Parkinson's, he wanted Julie and her husband to be in charge of his medical care if he was unable to make decisions. My dad signed when he was completely coherent and knew exactly what he was doing -- a conservatorship over health, not estate, no finances, and a durable power of attorney over health. We were pushed out. She didn't want us knowing anything."
Linda and Casey Kasem with their children Kerri (left), Mike and Julie.
Regarding Jean's assertions that she blocked their visitation "for reasons they know all too well," Kerri vehemently denies that the three of them have any idea why it happened. "I don't know what she's thinking," says Kerri. "I don't know why she hates us."
Kerri's darkest suspicions -- that her father was receiving inadequate, neglectful care -- emerged during the summer of 2013, she says, during the period when she and her siblings were unable to see him. "We knew that he was not getting the care he needed," says Kerri. "We just knew it. Many people came to us, alarmed. More than once." Kerri and Julie reported their suspicions to Adult Protective Services. The authorities found no evidence of abuse or neglect. During the court proceedings, Jean, through her then-attorney Grossman, bitterly denounced the inspection as a demeaning intrusion.
In an echo of her father's many causes and campaigns, Kerri's nonprofit foundation, Kasem Cares, has been raising funds to lobby for changes in California law that would provide greater protection for the visitation rights of adult children and mandate notification if a parent is hospitalized or dies. State Assemblyman Mike Gatto, a Democrat, has agreed to introduce the bill.
"Nobody, nobody should go through what we're going through," says Kerri. "This should be illegal. And I'm not saying that every kid deserves visitation. There may be kids where the parents don't want to see them, or if they've done harm. I get it. But if we prevail, at least it would allow a judge to rule on visitation. Not finances, not money, not the will, not the estate. Just visitation."