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'Dukes of Hazzard' Sheriff Sues Warner Bros. for Millions in Royalties

Warner Bros. has told James Best, who played Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane, that merchandising on the "Dukes" franchise amounts to $8 million, but Best says the true figure is more than $1 billion. Needless to say, it's quite a difference.

Roscoe P. Coltrane
CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

James Best, who played Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane in the 1980s drama The Dukes of Hazzard, has filed a lawsuit against Warner Bros. Entertainment for royalties owed under his original agreement to star in the series. According to the lawsuit by the self-described "octogenarian beloved by millions of devoted fans worldwide," Best may be due more than $25 million.

The actor filed a complaint last week in North Carolina federal court that says it will "expose Warner’s scheme to deceive him by means of a plan expressly devised to make it unfairly and deceptively difficult to receive the compensation due..."

According to the complaint, Best has been fighting for 22 years to get a detailed accounting from Warners so he can get a handle on what he is owed. 

Best says his original contract with Warners entitled him to 5% of merchandising revenue from products that featured his identity, or 2.5% of total revenue for merchandise when other cast members were incorporated. The agreement purportedly covers not only the initial run on television, but also is said to give him "financial participation in spinoffs."

The actor admits that 2.5% is a "small percentage," but believes that over the course of three decades, it adds up to significant money.

In 2009, Best says he finally got a financial summary from Warners, and it stated that sales of merchandise incorporating his identity amounted to less than $10 million -- "this, in direct conflict with a published report that sales of merchandise had soared to 'over $190 million per year' during the first 6 years in which the show aired on CBS."

After the actor's reps disputed the figures, Warners allegedly reduced the revenue pot from which Best would be paid out to $3.5 million. 

"Given the accuracy of merchandise sales revenue numbers published, Warner owes James Best not just the relatively small amount paid over the entire 32 year period––averaging less than $6 thousand per year for the period––but an amount reasonably believed to be between $5 million and $25 million for the early years alone," says the complaint.

The original series aired from 1979 to 1985, and the lawsuit points out that Dukes of Hazzard merchandise has remained popular ever since, leading to licensed products including beach towels, kitchen items, trash cans, electronics, timepieces, sleepwear, coloring books, shoes, bikes, cars, etc.

The popular show also spawned in 2005 a movie adaptation as well as various TV specials.

Best claims a piece of that action too. The actor says his contract entitled him to 10% of adjusted gross income from any spin-offs that used his identity. Those purported spin-offs are claimed to have done just that, although the lawsuit doesn't spell out exactly how his identity was incorporated into the recent film and TV shows.

This isn't the first time that Warners has battled those who helped create the original TV series. On the eve of the 2005 movie release, the studio reportedly paid out some $17.5 million to the producer of the 1974 film Moonrunners, which formed the basis of the original TV show. Then, several years after that, Gy Waldron, one of the writers of the original TV series, made his own multimillion dollar claim over spin-off money.

We've reached out to Warner Bros. for a statement on Best's lawsuit and will update with a response. UPDATE: Warners declines to comment but a good source tells us that the amount of money in dispute is actually less than six figures. The case seems certain to test  how to define merchandising and spin-offs deriving from an actor's likeness as the agreement only entitles Best to money when his likeness is used.

In the lawsuit alleging fraud, unjust enrichment, misrepresentation, conversion, breach of contract, misappropriation of publicity rights, conspiracy, and other claims, Best says that entreatments to Warners have been met with word from the studio that his claims are "unwarranted."

E-mail: eriqgardner@yahoo.com

Twitter: @eriqgardner