Soap Trial

03.12.12

Sheridan-Cherry Trial Reveals Ugliest Truth of ‘Desperate Housewives’

Was Nicollette Sheridan unprofessional? Did Marc Cherry get angry enough to hit her? As the ‘Desperate Housewives’ trial wraps up this week, Maria Elena Fernandez reports on what it’s exposed: one of Hollywood’s most hellish workplaces.

Before Nicollette Sheridan learned on Feb. 10, 2009, that the Desperate Housewives character she played for five years was being killed off, many other people knew she was losing her job, according to trial testimony in Sheridan’s lawsuit against the show’s creator, Marc Cherry, and ABC Studios.

Cherry admitted he told at least two of her costars, Eva Longoria and Felicity Huffman, two months earlier. All of the show’s writers, roughly a dozen or more people, had apparently known for weeks or months, depending on whom you believe. ABC and ABC Studios executives, who had to sign off on it, also testified they knew. There was even a publicity plan in place that included divulging the news exclusively to TV Guide the very next day and feeding a “positive quote” from Cherry to Entertainment Weekly.

You can’t sue your bosses for mean-spirited behavior. But the fact that Sheridan, a Golden Globe nominee who helped make the show into an instant phenomenon when it launched in 2004, was kicked off the cul-de-sac in such a cold manner is emblematic of Wisteria Lane’s ugliest truth. The soapy mystery that turned around ABC’s sad fortunes, reinvigorated the careers of its leading ladies (except for then-newcomer Eva Longoria), and changed the cultural perception of 40-something women has always been one of the nastiest workplaces in Hollywood.

Right out of the gate, there was the infamous Vanity Fair swimsuit cover, with Teri Hatcher and Marcia Cross fighting for wardrobe selections and center placement in the photo and Sheridan winding up in the middle wearing a vintage white halter one-piece. All of that played out in front of the magazine’s writer, but behind the scenes on set, there were daily fights about the size of trailers and the prominence of scenes, and it all quickly devolved into a middle-aged version of high school, with the ladies breaking up into cliques. (Incidentally, Huffman moved into Sheridan’s newly redecorated trailer when she left, according to Sheridan’s trial testimony.)

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Nicollette Sheridan on the set of ‘Desperate Housewives’ in 2006 (Toby Canham / Getty Images)

But it wasn’t the actresses’ diva behavior that would transform Desperate Housewives from ABC’s golden child in the first season to a complete creative disaster in the second. Cherry, who reigned with a heavy hand the first season, rewriting all scripts himself, relinquished some control to other executive producers in the second as his new status of media darling proved highly demanding, Cherry testified. As a result, the show lost its magic; Cherry and his top lieutenants, Tom Spezialy and Michael Edelstein, parted ways; and Cherry became more obsessive than ever. According to trial testimony, Cherry made significant changes on set in the third season. He instituted reading of the scripts with all of he writers and actors and began attending all rehearsals, where he routinely gave actors directions on their performances, instructed the camera crew on what shots to go for, and even got involved with lighting. To the media, Cherry was a chatty, funny genius. To many of his employees, he was volatile and rude, and he played favorites, according to interviews with former employees.

But was Cherry capable of becoming so angry that he’d go so far as to hit a woman on the head? A jury in Los Angeles Superior Court will decide that this week, after two weeks of testimony in the civil case Sheridan filed against Cherry claiming that he “hit me hard” during a rehearsal on Sept. 24, 2008, and retaliated by firing her after she complained about it.

The case is a slam-dunk for no one. According to Sheridan’s trial testimony, when she approached Cherry a second time about the omission of a funny dialogue from the script, he became “agitated” and said in a loud, angry tone: “What is it that you want?” When she continued, “Mr. Cherry stepped toward me and hit me upside the head … it was a nice wallop across the head. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe he just hit me. I looked at him, and I could tell he was stunned.”

Cherry testified he “tapped” Sheridan on the head as he was showing her how he wanted her character, Edie, to playfully hit her husband (Neal McDonough). Cherry said he felt “permission was understood” to show her what he meant in a physical manner and that he was not angry with Sheridan. After Sheridan yelled at Cherry, “You hit me! You can’t hit me!” and stormed off the set, according to witnesses, Cherry said he turned to the witnesses and said, “What the heck just happened?”

Jason Ganzel, who was Cherry’s assistant at the time and is now a writer, has not testified in the trial but in an email to his other bosses wrote: “Marc was demonstrating one of the options, which included tapping Nicollette on the head.”

‘I told Marc that I felt the story could be told without bringing Nicollette back, and I felt it was not kind,’ Perkins testified.

Director Larry Shaw testified that Cherry and Sheridan “were going back and forth pretty quick. They were both a bit frustrated trying to communicate with each other to find a solution.” Shaw demonstrated in court how Cherry’s open right hand came into contact with the left side of Sheridan’s face and head. Shaw called it a “tap,” but his reenactment of it matched Sheridan’s, though it was less forceful.

“I decided to go apologize because I needed to get her back to that set,” Cherry testified about visiting Sheridan in her trailer. “I kept one foot at the top of the steps and one below because I didn’t feel comfortable being alone with her.”

On the stand, Sheridan said that she thanked Cherry but did not forgive him, though she allowed him to embrace her.

The lawsuit’s second claim—that after Sheridan complained about what happened, Cherry began making plans to kill off Edie—is also tricky and will leave jurors sorting through the conflicting statements and recollections of some of the show’s top producers. Sheridan’s lawsuit claims Cherry didn’t decide to kill off Edie until later that fall, after a National Enquirer story broke in October and a subsequent human resources investigation quickly exonerated Cherry.

But in addition to Cherry, four senior-level producer-writers have testified that all of the writers began discussing in the summer of 2008 that Edie would die at the end of the fifth season. Cherry, executive producer Sabrina Wind, then–ABC president Steve McPherson, and then–ABC Studios president Mark Pedowitz have all testified about meetings on May 22, 2008, in which they claimed McPherson and Pedowitz approved of the storyline.

Consulting producer Joe Keenan testified that he learned at the writers’ retreat in Las Vegas at the end of May that Edie would die. Executive producer George Perkins testified that Cherry told him about Edie’s death sometime that June or July. “He didn’t specify that it was final, but I walked away believing the decision was final, approved by the studio and network.”

Consulting producer Jeff Greenstein said he remembers that the idea of Edie’s death began floating later that summer, but even then no decision had been made.

“As fall went on, there were a lot of discussions about whether this was a good idea and when it would occur,” testified Greenstein, who worked on the show part time and considers himself a good friend of Sheridan’s for 20 years. “I do recall that in October, November, December this was not a matter [Cherry] was totally at rest with. Because the debates continued, I believe his mind was not made up.”

But co–executive producer Lori Kirkland Baker testified that she first heard about the intent to kill Edie in December 2008, when Cherry announced it in the writers’ room.

“Marc came in quickly, asked the assistants to leave, and shut the door,” she said. “He said he had just gotten permission from Steve McPherson to kill off Edie Britt in the finale. That was the first time I ever heard this.”

Baker testified that she was disappointed Cherry did not renew her contract for the sixth season, despite telling her he would. Asked by Cherry’s attorneys if she was angry with Cherry, Baker replied: “I am mystified by Marc.”

If there is one aspect of the case that is sure to bewilder the jury, it is the so-called human-resources investigation that ABC Studios conducted, a seemingly lazy effort that amounted to what appears to be an exercise in Hollywood taking care of its own. Sheridan never reported the incident to the network or studio, but she did ask her entertainment lawyer Neil Meyer to call ABC Studios executive vice president Howard Davine.

Meyer testified that he told Davine, who negotiated the actor contracts, that Sheridan was “extremely upset, but that she had decided she was going to try to get through this.” Meyer said he did not request an investigation or any action against Cherry because Sheridan “was very concerned about her job. She had told me that Mr. Cherry was a very vindictive man.”

For his part, Cherry immediately told executive producer Sabrina Wind that Sheridan had gotten upset when he “tapped” her during a rehearsal. Wind asked Ganzel to write down what he saw on set. Then Cherry went to the writers’ room, told everyone what happened, and proceeded to brainstorm a new line for Sheridan. He also stopped by Perkins’s office.

“He was quite distraught and gave me his description of what happened,” Perkins said. “He was nervous, spoke quickly.” Asked if Cherry was speaking loudly, Perkins replied: “Yes, he has a tendency to do that.”

Wind testified that she spoke to Lynne Volk of human resources about what Cherry told her, but did not share that there were plans to kill off Edie. “I considered it to be a secret we weren’t telling people,” she said.

That night Perkins sent an email to Volk, two ABC publicists, and Wind describing what happened as a “very minor incident.”

“I don’t expect any repercussions from it,” Perkins wrote. “I would like the loop to be held closely though and not take this wider unless something comes of it.”

Perkins testified he felt comfortable sending the email before hearing Sheridan’s point of view because, after speaking to others, his “gut feeling” indicated it was a “misunderstanding between someone trying to give direction and the actor. I know that Nicollette is emotional at times, and I felt that emotion probably played into that.”

The next day Sheridan called Perkins, whom she considers a confidant.

“She was upset. She used the word ‘hit’ and told me her perspective,” Perkins testified. He did not tell Sheridan about the email he wrote to human resources. When Sheridan asked Perkins to talk to Cherry and ask him to apologize again and send her flowers, he agreed because he thought it was a “reasonable request.” But Cherry disagreed.

“It was a sincere apology that I had inadvertently offended her,” Cherry testified. “I had upset her, and I don’t like upsetting my actresses. But when George informed me that now she wanted flowers, I said, ‘No, that’s saying something more,’ so I declined.”

Although Sheridan was upset, she continued to report to work. Then all hell broke loose in October, when the National Enquirer broke a story claiming Cherry hit Sheridan on set. Pedowitz testified he was taken aback by the article while standing in a grocery checkout line and immediately made calls to find out why no one had informed him.

Because plans were in motion to kill off Edie, Pedowitz said, he was very worried and called for a meeting with several executives the next day. He did not call Sheridan or Cherry, because he didn’t feel it was appropriate.

“I read the article. I realized it was going to be an issue and asked for HR investigation,” Pedowitz testified. “I did not want the situation to play out like it did today in court.”

At Pedowitz’s request, Davine asked Volk to look into the matter. Almost a month later, on Nov. 14, Volk arranged interviews with Ganzel, Shaw, and script supervisor Linda Leifer, who did not witness the incident. She did not request to speak to Cherry or Sheridan.

Satisfied that Ganzel, Shaw, and Leifer were all telling the same story, Volk concluded the matter was resolved. On Dec. 5, Davine wrote Meyer a letter that stated in part:

“Marc simply gave her a light tap on the side of her head for the sole purpose of providing direction for a scene they were rehearsing … while you did not seek any action on ABC’s part, I did want you to know that … we found no reason to take any action based on our findings.”

Meyer testified that he didn’t reply to Davine’s letter because he considered it a “self-serving whitewash.” When Sheridan told him in February that she was fired, Meyer said he was “it struck me as retaliatory.”

Five days later, at a party to celebrate the show’s 100th episode, Cherry announced that ABC had renewed Desperate Housewives for two more years. Sheridan toasted the news and said she was excited about the show going forward, which Baker testified made her feel bad, because it seemed Sheridan was the only one who didn’t know her job was ending. Indeed, Cherry revealed the storyline to Longoria and Huffman after the party, when they told him that Sheridan had approached them about negotiating their next contract as a group.

About a month later, Cherry announced he was moving up Edie’s death, and it would now take place in the 18th episode, airing in March. The decision surprised Baker.

“It felt like it was just getting stuck into any old episode,” Baker said. “It didn’t seem like we were building toward something special.”

That is perhaps not surprising, considering how Cherry and Sheridan’s relationship had deteriorated—even after Cherry convinced the studio to raise her salary by $65,000 an episode in the third season and fought for her to become a participant in all of the show’s profits, according to copies of her contracts displayed in court. When she left the series, she was earning $175,000 an episode.

But Sheridan had grown unhappy with the direction of her character and was not shy about voicing it. Over the years the writers told Sheridan that they were “frustrated,” because they’d write funny scenes for Edie and Cherry would nix them, she testified. Sheridan said she approached Cherry “very gingerly and very tentatively, because it’s a touchy subject with Marc sometimes. He would coldly cut me off. He had a very different demeanor with the boys than he had with me.” According to Sheridan, Cherry had once apologized for his “aggressive behavior” toward her when she criticized the scripts.

Before the Sept. 24, 2008, incident, “things were already difficult,” Perkins conceded in court. Sheridan had often arrived late to work from the first season and frequently did not know her lines.

“She would often tell me that she felt her call time was too early and she wasn’t needed as early as we called her.” But Perkins said other actresses were late, too. Cross, for instance, is late to work 25 percent of the time, he testified.

Although Cherry testified that his primary reason for killing off Edie was creative, Sheridan’s professional performance came into play. “I observed egregious examples of unprofessional behavior at read-throughs,” Cherry testified. “While reading the script, Miss Sheridan would make insulting comments about her dialogue. It was highly rude and upsetting to the writers present.”

When Cherry finally broke the news to Sheridan, she took it well, by all accounts. Perkins even sent Sheridan a handwritten note later complimenting her on the “classy” way she handled herself.

Then, Cherry got the idea to bring her back for a 15-second ghost scene for the finale, which Sheridan couldn’t turn down because she was under contract for all episodes that season.

“I told Marc that I felt the story could be told without bringing Nicollette back, and I felt it was not kind,” Perkins testified. “I just personally felt as though we were not being as gracious as we could be on the show.”

Cherry stuck to his plan.

This week in court, after Cherry finished testifying, Sheridan mouthed, “Bastard!”