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05.03.11

Nicollette Sheridan's Desperate Housewives Lawsuit

Actress Nicollette Sheridan, who claims she was fired after the hit show's creator punched her in the face, will get her day in court, a judge decided Tuesday. Maria Elena Fernandez reports.

Far more compelling than any Wisteria Lane plot of recent years, the behind-the-scenes showdown between former Desperate Housewives actress Nicollette Sheridan and creator Marc Cherry has been slated for a juicy, public trial that will cover everything from an actress' diva behavior to a producer's extremely controlling ways (and possible on-set violence).

Sheridan filed a lawsuit against Cherry and ABC Studios in April 2010 claiming essentially that Cherry struck her in the face during an altercation on set and, after she complained to his bosses, retaliated by killing off her character, Edie Britt.

During a 23-minute hearing in Los Angeles Superior Court Tuesday, Judge Elizabeth Allen White ordered that the case go to trial on June 8 because of the many "disputed issues of fact"—but she tossed out the $20 million lawsuit's sexual-harassment claims.

"It's clear that this needs to go to a jury," White said, rejecting the Cherry legal team's contentions that Sheridan's wrongful-termination lawsuit should be dismissed.

Sheridan, who spoke briefly to reporters afterward, said this case marks the first time she's been in court and, "I'm very happy that I'm being treated fairly."

Whether she will still feel that way when this is all over remains to be seen. The case will not only offer a rare glimpse into the off-camera tensions and demands of producing a hit television show, but also an unusual probe into the personalities of the writers, producers, and actors of a show that is notorious for its divas. Sheridan's team will depict Cherry as an "abusive" and "overly aggressive" boss. Cherry's side will claim the actress was difficult to work with, rude to crew members, and had trouble remembering her lines.

Even more, the lawsuit is forcing key players to take sides. Already, according to court documents, executive producers Sabrina Wind and Bob Daily have vouched for Cherry in their depositions. But executive producers Jeff Greenstein and George Perkins and former producer Lori Kirkland Baker are standing by Sheridan. Wind, Daily, Greenstein, and Perkins still work with Cherry on the show, which is in its seventh season. (With two sides of a lawsuit working together in a writers' room, we suggest a reality-show spinoff, please.)

“He lost his temper, he punched her in the face,” said Sheridan’s lawyer in an L.A. court on Tuesday.

In the suit, Sheridan is alleging that Cherry struck her across "the head and face" on Sept 24, 2008, during a rehearsal. The actress immediately reported the incident to ABC, but Cherry's hostility toward her continued. In February 2009, Sheridan was informed that her character was being killed off the show, which the lawsuit claims was an "act of revenge" on the part of Cherry and ABC.

"There's more than enough here to support a very simple story," Sheridan's attorney, Mark Baute, said in court. "He lost his temper, he punched her in the face. She had the audacity to complain and he found a way to write off [her character], kill [her character] and hurt her very, very much."

But Cherry denies the physical assault, and he and ABC allege through their lawyers and court documents that the decision to kill off Edie was made on May 22, 2008—months before the alleged on-set incident. Cherry was not in court Tuesday.

According to attorney Adam Levin, executive producers Wind and Daily, along with Mark Pedowitz—who was the head of the ABC studio at the time, but is now the president of The CW—have testified in depositions that they met with Cherry on that day and decided to kill Edie, one of the five lead characters on Desperate Housewives. Levin said there were four different meetings held on May 22, 2008, but Wind and Daily were the only executive producers invited to three of them.

But Greenstein, who attended one meeting that day, said in his deposition that he doubts killing Edie came up in the other sessions: "As an upper-level writer on the show… I've been involved on every major creative decision on the show. If that were under discussion and I did not know about it, I would be flabbergasted."

Levin said Cherry and ABC "deliberately" kept the group small "because they wanted to keep the death of Edie under wraps. They didn't want it leaked to the press and they didn't want the surprise to be ruined."

In his deposition, however, Cherry said the elimination of Edie was a "cost-cutting" measure. But, as Baute pointed out in court, the studio was forced to pay "hundreds of thousands of dollars" to Sheridan for cutting her episode order short. At the time, Sheridan was earning $175,000 per episode.

"If cost-cutting was your motive for writing off a character, you wouldn't write off a character in an abrupt, poorly written episode in the middle of the season and have to pay the actress hundreds of thousands of dollars for the remainder of the season," Baute added.

In her sworn statement, Kirkland Baker, who worked on the show from 2007 to 2009, said Cherry had expressed “increased frustration” with Sheridan to the writers around the time the actress claimed he slapped her. Then, in December 2008, Cherry told the writing staff that he met with then ABC chief Steve McPherson and had decided to kill off Edie at the end of the fifth season but changed his mind a few weeks later and to kill off the character sooner. Edie was killed in an episode that aired in April 2009.

The judge was left with little option—“It’s not as clear-cut as you would have me believe"—she said to Levin, and ordered the case to go before a jury next month.

Which is exactly why this courtroom drama might just be this summer's big hit.

Maria Elena Fernandez is a senior entertainment reporter for Newsweek/The Daily Beast. She previously covered television and nightlife for The Los Angeles Times and spent many years on the crime beat, writing for The Washington Post and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She also worked at the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, where she covered the AIDS epidemic. Her children's book, The Secret of Fern Island , was published in 1996 under a pseudonym so that she wouldn't be stalked by screaming children.

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