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Judge: 'Coming to America' based on Buchwald story

By MICHAEL D. HARRIS

LOS ANGELES -- Paramount Pictures Corp. based its hit Eddie Murphy movie, 'Coming to America,' on humorist Art Buchwald's story concept and must now pay him breach-of-contract damages, a judge ruled Monday.

In a 34-page decision, Superior Court Judge Harvey Schneider said that the amount of damages would be determined during 'a subsequent accounting phase of this case.'

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Buchwald, however, is not entitled to punitive damages because Paramount did not act with fraud or malice in breaching its March 1983 contract buying the rights to Buchwald's story, 'King for a Day,' the judge ruled.

Buchwald, 64, a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated newspaper columnist, sued the studio for $5 million for breach-of-contract and fraud in 1988.

'The court concludes that 'Coming to America' is a movie that was 'based upon' Buchwald's treatment, 'King for a Day,'' said Schneider, who presided over a two-week non-jury trial that provided a rare public glimpse into the inner workings of Hollywood deal-making and creative processes.

'While the court rejects Paramount's contention that 'Coming to America' is not 'based upon' 'King for a Day,' the court is unable to conclude that Paramount's conduct was in bad faith, let alone fraudulent, oppressive or malicious,' Schneider wrote.

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In Washington, Buchwald said he was 'really happy to win. I wanted to win very badly and I think it's not only good for me, but it's awfully good for writers.'

Pierce O'Donnell, his lawyer, said, 'This is a landmark decision in the motion picture industry. I think it's a sweeping, stunning victory not only for plaintiffs but for all writers who are commonly victimized by the studios in misappropriating their ideas.'

The judge also rejected arguments from Paramount that Buchwald may have come up with his story by plagiarizing an 1957 Charlie Chaplin film, 'A King in New York.'

'The court rejects the contention that Buchwald's treatment was not original and that it was in any way 'based upon' 'A King in New York,'' Schneider wrote.'

Buchwald denied the plagiarism charge at the trial.

Schneider, a self-described film buff, had been mulling his decision since Dec. 29, when he listened to final arguments from attorneys for Buchwald and the studio.

A Paramount spokewoman said the studio would appeal the decision.

'We don't agree with the judge's decision,' the spokeswoman said. 'We are confident that the appellate court will find that 'Coming to America' was created without any contribution from Art Buchwald.'

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Buchwald claimed in his lawsuit that Paramount stole his story, 'King for a Day,' and turned it into 'Coming to America.'

The film, which starred Murphy and talk-show host Arsenio Hall, became the third-largest box office hit of 1988, eventually grossing $300 million.

Buchwald sold his story to the studio in 1983. But Paramount, after spending $500,000 to develop three scripts from the humorist's idea, dropped its option on Buchwald's and producer Alain Bernheim's 'King for a Day' in 1985.

The columnist claimed that although his story later formed the basis for 'Coming to America,' he and Bernheim were not financially compensated by the studio. Buchwald testified the studio contracted to pay him and Bernheim 19 percent of the net proceeds of any film developed from his story.

O'Donnell argued that there are at least 14 similarities between Buchwald's original story and 'Coming to America.'

Both stories are modern comedies dealing with a young African prince who comes to a large American East Coast city, winds up in the ghetto and becomes humbled, then falls in love with an American woman and takes her back to his homeland.

Paramount attorney Bob Draper argued that those similarities were 'too generic' and that the two stories differ significantly in character and plot.

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Murphy, in a sworn deposition, said that he and Hall formulated the idea that became 'Coming to America' several years after Buchwald sold his story to the studio.

Murphy, who received story credit for 'Coming to America,' stated he had never read Buchwald's treatment, but was aware of its basic story line and liked it.

Murphy, a major box-office draw and star of such films as '48 Hours,' 'Beverly Hills Cop' and the current 'Harlem Nights,' was not a defendant in the lawsuit and did not testify at trial.

'The court wishes to emphasize that its decision is in no way intended to disparage the creative talent of Eddie Murphy,' Schneider wrote. 'It was Paramount and not Murphy who prepared the agreement (with Buchwald) in question.'

Buchwald testified that while watching 'Coming to America' last year, he became very upset when he realized that Paramount had misappropriated his story.

'I feel my property was stolen, invaded, raped, whatever you want to call it,' Buchwald testified. 'I was very upset. I felt I had been shafted.'

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