Death reveals behind-the-scenes drama on ‘Real Housewives’

Russell Armstrong had raised defamation threat against producers, cast members

As Bravo execs huddle over the fate of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” they are likely grappling with an issue set in motion long before Russell Armstrong’s apparent suicide on Monday.

While the show’s second season is scheduled to begin Sept. 5, a postponement is a distinct possibility given what sources describe as a disruption to production earlier this summer after Russell Armstrong threatened his wife’s castmates with legal action if they talked about his marital troubles in front of the cameras.

The production company behind the show, Evolution Film & Tape, received a similar warning.

The threats spooked the “Housewives” cast enough to disrupt shooting as the cameras captured the women distancing themselves from Armstrong’s wife, Taylor Armstrong, because they feared they would be sued for defamation. Of particular concern to him were allegations that he abused his wife, who went on to file for divorce in July.

Russell Armstrong, 47, was found dead Monday in a friend’s Mulholland Drive home after having hanged himself. The behind-the-scenes drama at the hit Bravo series that preceded his death was also confirmed by his attorney, Ronald Richards. “He created a because he got really pissed about them calling him an abuser,” Richards told Variety.

While there is precedent for defamation lawsuits in the context of reality television, such claims tend to get little traction in court because show participants essentially waive their right to sue for defamation in many of the contracts people sign to get on unscripted shows. Reality-show contracts give producers enormous latitude to manipulate footage as they see fit, said Andrew White, managing partner at law firm Kelley Drye and chairman of its entertainment and media practice group.

“The protection to the producer for claims like defamation is very strong,” said White, who represented ABC against a similar claim in 2005 filed by a participant on unscripted series “Extreme Makeover”alleged that her sister committed suicide because she regretted making defamatory comments on camera. The footage never aired.

Sources say Russell Armstrong fired off a strongly worded email to Evolution earlier this summer while the series was still shooting episodes for the second season. He requested that his wife’s castmates no longer address his marital strife. And while he did not outright declare that he would sue, he made a vague suggestion about exploring legal remedies.

According to those same sources, an Evolution executive got back to Armstrong, saying the matter would be reviewed. Ten days after he sent the email, Armstrong retracted it for unspecified reasons.

Richards confirmed that Armstrong sent the email over Richards’ objections. He also contends that Bravo reached out to Taylor Armstrong after her husband’s email and made clear that neither she nor he would have any future with the series if he didn’t back down.

“I think she was given the ultimatum that he goes or she’s gone,” said Richards, who said he didn’t know who at the network specifically delivered the ultimatum. “It was implied to me that this was said by the show once Russell started writing letters to the show.”

But a source close to the production strongly disputes that Taylor was told the couple faced expulsion from the series if Russell followed through on his legal threat. What was communicated to Taylor Armstrong was that her fellow cast members had grown uncomfortable talking with her on camera because of her husband’s threat, and that presented difficulties in filming her given that most of the show is devoted to cast interaction.

Richards confirmed that he himself made known to the women of “Housewives” before his client’s death that they faced possible legal action should they say anything on or off the air that suggested Russell Armstrong abused his wife. The Beverly Hills “Housewives” cast includes Adrienne Maloof, Kim Richards, Kyle Richards, Camille Grammer and Lisa Vanderpump.

“I made sure that everyone knew that if stuff got public even out of context, there would be action against them,” he said.

Now, as Bravo executives review the season-two footage of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” sources suggest the net’s execs are concerned about legal ramifications as much as issues of taste, given that the Armstrongs’ marital strife figured prominently in the season’s storylines. Russell Armstrong does make appearances on camera during the season, but Bravo may well leave this footage on the cutting-room floor to avoid criticism that it is exploiting him.

A representative for Evolution declined to make execs available to discuss the production, but the company did release a statement: “We are really saddened by this tragedy and our prayers go out to Taylor and Russell’s family. As producers of the show, we’re merely flies on the wall in capturing what happens in real life: the good and the bad, and in this case, a really unfortunate tragedy.”

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