The survivors of a New York lawyer who died of AIDS in 1987 filed a $ 10 million suit Monday against producer Scott Rudin, director Jonathan Demme, TriStar Pictures and others connected with “Philadelphia,” claiming the hit film was based on personal information they provided six years ago.
According to the suit, filed in federal district court in Manhattan, Rudin failed to honor a verbal contract he made with the family and legal representatives of Geoffrey Bowers for the rights to Bowers’ story.
“Geoffrey wanted a movie to carry his message beyond New York City,” his brother, Charles, said. The “Philadelphia” producers “betrayed” his brother by failing to acknowledge him as the film’s source. Geoffrey Bowers died at age 33 on Sept. 30, 1987.
In addition to Rudin, Demme and TriStar, the suit names “Philadelphia” producer Edward Saxon and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner as defendants.
All of them referred questions about the suit to TriStar, which said, in a prepared statement, that the film “is a fictional story which addresses the regrettably recurring theme of AIDS discrimination in this country.”
“‘Philadelphia’ is not the story of Geoffrey Bowers,” the statement continued. “There is no merit to the lawsuit.”
The suit alleges that Rudin contacted Bowers’ lawyers, Robert Balsam and Daniel Felber, in 1988 to express interest in making a movie based on Bowers’ story. Balsam and Felber had represented Bowers in a 1986 discrimination suit against Bowers’ former employer, Chicago-based law firm Baker & McKenzie, for firing him because he had AIDS. Last month, the New York State Division of Human Rights ordered the firm to pay the Bowers estate $ 500,000 in damages.
Rudin didn’t produce the film, but according to the suit, sold his rights to the Bowers story to Orion Pictures, where the project, then called “Probable Cause,” went into development under exec VP Marc Platt. In December 1991, per the suit, TriStar acquired the rights to the story in bankruptcy court. Platt later joined TriStar.
Bowers’ lawyers contacted Rudin in 1992 after reading about “Probable Cause” in the press. They claim Rudin acknowledged that the film was based on the Bowers story, but that he had sold the rights to Orion. They then approached Platt, whom they say refused to discuss the matter.
TriStar has said that the film was based on several cases. Another AIDS-related firing of a lawyer that has received some attention was the dismissal of Clarence Cain, who worked for Hyatt Legal Services in Philadelphia. Cain was fired seven years ago after telling his employer he had AIDS. He sued for discrimination and won $ 157,000 in 1990, and died two months later.
To Balsam, the deal he claims Rudin struck with Bowers’ family is what distinguishes the two.
And though Bowers’ legal battle is public record, the story that Rudin and Nyswaner got came from Bowers’ family and friends. “They didn’t get it from the public domain,” Balsam said. “They got it from us.”
Through last weekend, “Philadelphia” has grossed $ 36.6 million.