Norm and Cliff Fight Cheers Robots

ByABC News

October 2, 2000 -- The U.S. Supreme Court apparently has no interest in one of America's most-loved TV comedies.

Justices rejected a review of a dispute between the actors who played Norm and Cliff on the former bar comedy Cheers and the show's producers Monday. Actors George Wendt and John Ratzenberger sued over the creation of two robots, "Hank" and "Bob," which were displayed at airport bars and which they claim resemble them.

The justices, without any comment or dissent, let stand a ruling by a U.S. appeals court in California that reinstated the lawsuit by Wendt and Ratzenberger after a federal judge in Los Angeles had dismissed it.

Wendt, who played alcoholic accountant Norm, and Ratzenberger, who played Cliff, the factoid-obsessed mailman, claimed that Host International Inc. (licensed by Paramount Pictures) was exploiting their identities without their permission by using two life-sized, talking robots at a chain of Cheers-type airport bars.

We can see it now … Scene: Cheers watering hole at O'Hare Airport, Chicago. Robot Norm: Afternoon, everybody. Airport passengers: Nooooorm! Robot Cliff: He is not Norm. Who. Is. Norm. Does not … compute. (Sparks fly) Robot Norm: Afternoon, everybody. (Terrified airport passengers run away.)

The actors filed suit against Host in January 1993, just before the hit series ended its 11-year run on NBC. Host was licensed by Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom Inc., to create the Cheers bars in several airports across the United States and in New Zealand.

Wendt and Ratzenberger said the beer-friendly robots were an unauthorized use of their likenesses and therefore violated a California right-to-publicity law. The law bans the sale of a product by using "another's name, signature, photograph, or likeness in any manner" without said individual's permission.

The Paramount studio argued that as the creator of Cheers and owner of its copyright, it has exclusive rights to market the show (and its lovable drunkards) any way it pleases. After the appeals court ruling, Paramount asked the Supreme Court to hear the case. Since the justices rejected the appeal, the case will return to the judge in L.A.

Reuters contributed to this story.

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