Universal Sued By 'Frankenstein' Actor's Heirs

Seventy years ago, Lon Chaney Jr. was the face of Universal's horror movies. Now, he's dead, but his family is looking to spook up a million dollars.
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Lon Chaney Jr.

A monster has awoken from Universal Studios' archives.

Lon Chaney Jr. was a star in the film era of the 1930s and 1940s and played some of the most iconic monsters ever, including Frankenstein's Monster (in the Ghost of Frankenstein), the Wolf Man, the Mummy and the Son of Dracula. His face is famous -- although most people likely have forgotten his name since his passing in 1973.

But Chaney Entertainment, a company run by the actor's heirs, is reminding Universal about the Chaney legacy with a lawsuit that seeks $1 million in damages for exploiting the dead star's likeness.

According to a complaint that was filed on Monday in L.A. Superior Court, Universal had deals with Chaney to exploit his name, voice, signature, silhouette (!) and other aspects of his persona. But an agreement whereby Chaney appointed Universal as the exclusive representative over likeness rights expired in 2008.

Read the full complaint here.

Chaney Entertainment says that despite the end of the term of that deal, Universal continues to negotiate licensing agreements that concern his rights with various manufacturers.

The lawsuit goes so far as to accuse Universal of doing a "bait-and-switch marketing ploy" whereby the studio allegedly "enticed prospective merchandising licensees by using Lon Chaney Jr.'s name, voice, signature, and likeness, only to induce the licensees to make merchandising deals for other rights not belonging to Chaney Entertainment Inc."

There have been other lawsuits over the likeness rights of dead stars. Perhaps the most famous litigation concerns Marilyn Monroe. This latest lawsuit stretches back to an even earlier film era and involves some makeup. The complaint doesn't specify exactly the products that are infringing, but with references to "Universal Monsters," there's probably some toy products like this replica of the Frankenstein Monster that could be causing trouble.

Not to mention the licensing of old film archives.

The lawsuit says that in 1994, the parties reached a settlement agreement whereby Universal Studios Home Video was obligated to pay Chaney a license fee of $1,500 every time a third party licensed a film clip containing the dead film star's likeness. The plaintiff says that royalties are owed under that deal.

Represented by attorney Joseph Hart, Chaney is suing for unauthorized use of rights, breach of written contracts and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing

We've contacted Universal and will update with any comment given.

E-mail: eriq.gardner@thr.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner