Carol Burnett launches trial balloon

By VERNON SCOTT   |   March 22, 1981
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HOLLYWOOD -- The two-week long $10 million libel suit trial brought by comedian Carol Burnett against the National Enquirer, which goes to the jury after closing arguments Monday, is a test case for many other Hollywood personalities.

Miss Burnett objected to the tabloid's portrayal of her in a 65-word item in 1976 as rude, abusive and drunk. She said there was 'malicious intent,' in the column.

In continuing with the suit for a five-year period, Miss Burnett has become an unofficial champion of several celebrities who would like to take the supermarket tabloid to court for a total of more than $62 million.

They include Rory Calhoun who was described by the Enquirer as dying of cancer; Paul Lynde, portrayed as drunken trouble-maker; Ed McMahon, accused of undergoing a face-lift, and Shirley Jones and her husband, agent Marty Ingels.

The tabloid said Ingels cheated his clients and Miss Jones was a 'crying drunk.'

Others -- Hedy Lamarr, Rudy Vallee, Phil Silvers and Dolly Parton -- also have indicated they would sue the tabloid.

The gossip item that appeared in 1976 implied Miss Burnett was drunk and disorderly at a Washington, D.C. restaurant and had an argument with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Testimony in the trial ended Thursday with the Enquirer resting its case without calling a single witness. Attorneys argued motions Friday, including a motion to dismiss the suit entirely, while the jury was absent.

William Masterson, attorney for the Enquirer, asked for dismissal of the case against the editor, writer, and distributor, as well as against the tabloid itself, on the grounds that malice was not proved.

Judge Peter Smith agreed that Miss Burnett's attorneys failed to prove that editor-in-chief Iain Calder acted with malice, and said columnist Steve Tinney had nothing to do with the item in question.

The distributor, ARA services, was released from the case also because it could not be held responsible for the content of the material it distributes.

Those motions were granted on the side of the defense, but Miss Burnett's side also had a major victory. Judge Smith earlier ruled the Enquirer was a magazine and not a newspaper.

If it had been found to be a newspaper it would have been afforded special protection under California's liel law.

Attorneys for the comedian Monday will argue that Miss Burett became physically ill when she read the article and it made her 'paranoid' about laughing and enjoying herself in public.

The article was also particularly hurtful, she testified earlier, because it portrayed her as a drunk. Both of her parents died alcoholics.

The attorney for the tabloid is to argue the item was not malicious in intent, that a retraction was printed and that no actual damage was caused her.

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