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No Laugh-In Matter

by on October 14, 2011


“Sock it to me!”  That is, in a way, what happened to Richard Havilland.  And he never got to utter that phrase on the television show that made it famous, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.  He did, however, fight back and socked Playboy with a lawsuit.  The case provides a fascinating look at not only the entertainment and television industries but how an injury can harm a person’s livelihood.

The saga is found in a civil case at the National Archives at Chicago.  Amongst Record Group 21, Records of the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, Chicago, Civil Case File 69 C 818 concerns a comedian who sued Playboy Clubs International and Croydon Hotel Company in 1969 for similar reasons: injuries sustained during two separate accidents.

While in Chicago, in December 1968 and June 1969, Havilland had fallen.  In the first instance, while performing at the Playboy Club, he had to take the stairwell between the third floor rehearsal area, known as the “Play Room,” back downstairs to his dressing room.  The complaint alleges there was only a left-side handrail; the stairs were narrow, slippery, and dangerous; and there were “diverse pieces of furniture and other objects” on the landing below.  This area, according to the suit, was in violation of the Municipal Code of Chicago.

For this fall, where Havilland injured his shoulder and leg, he wanted remuneration of $225,000 to cover not only the medical expenses but also lost future income.  What made this accident particularly serious was the performer had only one good leg; his right leg had been amputated at the knee in 1967 after a car accident.  So with the new injuries, it was very painful for him to use crutches like he had previously.

Although he lived in Miami, Havilland was staying for a few months at the Croydon Hotel beginning in December 1968.  In June 1969, his toe became caught in a hole in the floor.  Since he was on crutches, he fell and injured himself.  Claiming the hotel was careless and negligent, the plaintiff sued for $75,000.

One part of the case that is unique is personal testimony and letters from a television star.  Mr. Havilland had claimed that he may have been hired to appear on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In prior to his injuries. But after the accidents, he was no longer a viable performer for the job.  Laugh-In began in early 1968, becoming a big hit for NBC, and aired until 1973.

Dan Rowan Letter

1969 letter between comedians Dan Rowan and Richard Havilland included in a 1969 Civil Case File.

Dan Rowan’s testimony, given at a deposition hearing while in Las Vegas in March 1971, gives insight into his work as a producer and performer.  The lawyers on behalf of Playboy objected frequently to the speculative nature of whether Havilland would have been hired and how much money he would have made if he had worked on Laugh-In.  Rowan provides examples not only of pay scales for performers but also about the hiring of Goldie Hawn and Judy Carne, among others, which illustrate how he and partner Dick Martin found acts and went about obtaining them.  Rowan is quite knowledgeable about the entertainment industry.

Rowan tells his skeptical questioner that he remembered Havilland’s act well and would most likely have recommended him for Laugh-In.  Included in the exhibits are two type-written letters Rowan sent to Havilland, and they showcase his comedic sensibilities and his entertainment acumen.  However, before the case went to trial, the judge granted the defendants’ motion to strike the deposition of Rowan.

Besides the show business aspect, another interesting element is the number of judges associated with the case.  One was Julius J. Hoffman, renowned for the Chicago 7 trial following the 1968 Democratic National Convention.  Another judge listed on several memos and docket sheets was Abraham Lincoln Marovitz, who had been appointed to the federal court by President Kennedy in 1963.  Marovitz is distinguished for his longevity as well as for overseeing numerous trials.  In an odd coincidence, one of his nephews, William Marovitz, married Christie Hefner, former CEO and daughter of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.  The case was ultimately heard in court by the Honorable Frank J. McGarr.

In the plaintiff’s long deposition, Havilland is asked about his military service, his medical history, his booking agents, his income tax returns, and, of course, a detailed account of how he fell down the stairs. Havilland’s attorney, David Alswang, objected numerous times to the questions asked of his client; it is interesting how testiness can come across in the written word.  Other testimonies include one of Havilland’s doctors; the general manager of the Playboy Club; a maintenance man for the club who installed a handrail a couple weeks after the accident; and the vice president of the Associated Booking Corporation which had Havilland as a client.  The latter’s deposition has questions about the record-keeping practices of his company such as how long contracts are kept and how they are organized, certainly subjects of interest to archivists.

The case went to trial in April 1971.  In the end, the jury found in favor of the plaintiff on both counts.  It awarded Mr. Havilland $95,000 from Playboy Clubs International and $5,000 from the Croydon Hotel Company.  This was far less than what was requested since Havilland had to pay for his medical expenses and was not able to work for some time because of his injuries.

Although there is no documentation in the case file about what happened to Havilland in subsequent years, it is known that he passed away in Florida in 1987 at age 71.  Hopefully his sense of humor remained intact after the trial and he was able to perform again.


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