Workplace issues on trial in 'Housewives' case

As the jury started deliberating in Nicollette Sheridan’s wrongful termination trial, her attorney Mark Baute did what he has done on at the end of most days during the trial: He stood before a thicket of cameras and microphones, answering any and all questions from the potpourri of TV, print and digital media outlets.

On Wednesday, the media ran out of them. So, in a flash of irreverence, he started talking basketball and the Huskies.

By contrast the attorney for Marc Cherry and Touchstone, Adam Levin, then gave a short statement, didn’t answer any queries, but he did say he was off to do yoga.

The trial may be tailor-made for the tabloids, yet another celebrity case that is now just a routine part of Los Angeles County courts. At the same time, it actually has illuminated real workplace issues inherent in Hollywood’s largely freelance culture, where fear of continuing to be able to find employment pervades, from the crew to the upper echelons. Jurors heard testimony of assistants jockeying for promotions and others intent on keeping their heads low, with full knowledge that the steady work of a one-hour drama wouldn’t go on forever (indeed, the show wraps its eight-season run on ABC on May 13). Behind the testimony of the many witnesses are motivations, in particular the knowledge that in showbiz careers can have short shelf lives.

Baute certainly drove that point home to the jury, making note that Sheridan was 45, a perilous point for any middle-age actress, at the time that Cherry allegedly hit her and she complained. Roles haven’t exactly been flowing her way since, Sheridan said.

But Cherry’s legal team made sure to highlight his own career arc, as a struggling writer and performer who managed to find a staff scribe job in the waning seasons of “The Golden Girls” only to enter years of drought before finally catching steam in the past decade.

At one point, the dangle of jobs started to sound more like bait. The show’s construction coordinator showed up as a surprise witness, testifying that he may have gotten an accidental email suggesting that unnamed higher ups were going to destroy evidence after Sheridan filed her suit. His testimony proved inconclusive, but he did say that, while on the phone with Baute days earlier, he told Sheridan’s attorney that he feared he was committing “career suicide” by coming forward, and acknowledged that Baute offered to find him work. Baute denied it, but it underscored the currency that is in the mindset. A rep for Cherry said at one point outside the courtroom, the “Desperate Housewives” creator got handed a resume.

Both sides have tried to jazz up what is otherwise a long slog through an employment claim, hours and hours of testimony that challenge attention spans.

Anxious to prove that it wasn’t out of the ordinary to kill characters off the show, Touchstone’s team showed clips of all of the series’ 48 deaths so far. Executive producer George Perkins let it slip that James Denton’s character would be killed off, spoiling the surprise for last Sunday’s episode. Baute later accused the studio of orchestrating the tipoff to bolster its case.

For its part, Sheridan’s side may very well be mindful of the conventional wisdom that in celebrity cases, it’s the celebrity who has the advantage, particularly when it is against a studio (Disney) or even a producer (Cherry). As jurors have entered the tight courtroom quarters after each break, the person staring straight at them is Sheridan, impeccably dressed, with statuesque posture and offering an occasional slight smile.

Her attorney Baute is the standout, charismatic and slightly Clooney-esque, and for the performance of his closing arguments, he brought his two kids in to watch. At one point, he took to doing a short mocking imitation of one of Touchstone’s witnesses, Cherry’s producing partner Sabrina Wind, before Levin objected.

Judge Elizabeth Allen White also drew the line at veering too far away from the trial and into another era of television, when the business perhaps wasn’t so desperate (pardon the pun). Cherry’s attorney attempted to ask him what it was like to work with Betty White and Bea Arthur, but curious as the jurors may be, Judge White refused to allow the answer.

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