This article was updated at 12:30 p.m. PT on August 28, 2003.
Sheldon Abend, colorful rep of author estates including those of Damon Runyon, George Bernard Shaw and Tennessee Williams, and whose name is linked with a landmark Supreme Court ruling that impacted film copyright, died Sunday in New York. He was 74.
Abend, former owner-prexy of American Play Co. and executive producer of the feature “Original Sin” and the TV version of “Rear Window,” is also known for doggedly pursuing the rights of “Chicago” to make the story into a musical despite a long and convoluted effort.
In a long and eventually successful battle against MCA (as well as director Alfred Hitchcock and star Jimmy Stewart), he won what became known as the U.S. Supreme Court’s “Rear Window decision” and established the “Abend Rule.”
The rule is that continued distribution of a derivative work (in this case the showing of the Hitchcock classic “Rear Window” when it played on ABC Television) during the copyright renewal period of the underlying work on which it is based (in this case the Cornell Woolrich story “It Had to Be Murder”) is an infringement of copyright if the underlying work was created or first published between 1964 and 1977; the author of the underlying work died before the renewal term began; and the heirs of the author did not grant the derivative work’s producer the rights to use the underlying work during the renewal term.
The legal battle and his efforts to win the “Chicago” rights were characteristic of the Runyonesque, Stetson hat-wearing Sheldon, a New Yorker by birth who became a boxer and coal-stoker on tugboats. With little formal education but a lot of chutzpah, he went on to work for American Play Co. in 1957 and became its owner three years later. Also in 1957, he established the Author’s Research Co. He became a literary consultant and rights negotiator for David O. Zelsnick, RKO General, 7 Arts Films, UA, Warners and so on.
He also was a former prexy of American Literary Consultants and was former chair of the Copyright Royalty Co. for Authors’ Heirs. Other estates he or American Play repped included those of Shirley Jackson, John Colton (particularly regarding the staging of “The Shanghai Gesture,” for which he was an associate producer) and Somerset Maugham. He also repped Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape.”
In addition he founded companies including the Million Dollar Movie Sound Track Co., American Concerts Inc., American Theater Collections and so forth. He continued to package, polish or produce various properties by Woolrich, Runyon and others and owned the rights to 53 RKO pics for nontheatrical markets.
Survivors include a son, grandson, longtime friend Renee Stewart and her son.