In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Jerry Lewis was the undisputed king of comedy. His “man child” shtick was known throughout the world and, at age 26, he was quite wealthy and powerful. He and his partner, handsome Italian crooner Dean Martin, were part of the most famous comedy duo in history.
Ever heard of Sammy Petrillo and Duke Mitchell? I hadn’t either until one of my law partners showed me this film trailer from a 1952 movie entitled Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. Take a couple of minutes to watch it, and then read on.
Now you are saying: Wait a minute—that is Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, right? Wrong. It is an obscure film (which also featured an aging and ill Bela Lugosi) that nearly flawlessly captured the look and feel of Lewis and Martin during their heyday.
Sammy Petrillo was ten years younger than Jerry Lewis. He became a bit of a novelty act because of his uncanny resemblance to Lewis and his ability to mimic the better-known comic. (Lewis even had him as a guest performer on his Colgate Comedy Hour Show but later became irritated by Petrillo’s act). Petrillo was teamed up with a handsome Italian singer named Duke Mitchell (who looked and sounded very much like Dean Martin and even had the same initials), and they were cast in this film.
Why didn’t Lewis and Martin take legal action against Petrillo and Mitchell for “stealing their act?” From a copyright law standpoint, the film did not take anything from a Martin and Lewis film that would amount to copyright infringement. Rather, Petrillo and Mitchell “aped” their overall act. So why didn’t Martin and Lewis sue for unlawfully misappropriating their professional personas? Simple. The law regarding the right of publicity (the right to control the commercial exploitation of one’s name, likeness and persona) had yet to be recognized as a property right in the United States. That would occur just one year after the release of the film.
Prior to the landmark decision in Haelan Laboratories, Inc. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 202 F.2d 866 (2d Cir. 1953) (in which the issue of the commercial exploitation of baseball players’ images on trading cards was at issue), the “right of publicity” had been viewed by the U.S. courts merely as a subset of the right to privacy. In essence, it was the right to be left alone—a tort—not a separate property right. However, the Topps case (decided under New York law) was the first instance in which the “right of publicity” was recognized as a separate property right—the right to commercially exploit one’s name and likeness. While the law varies from state to state (see http://www.gurwinskeyboard.com/video-game-battle-ground-fight-right-publicity/), it is now recognized in 38 states in one form or another. The entertainment industry, no doubt, would be greatly impacted by the court’s decision.
Had the law in New York in 1952 recognized the existence of the right of publicity as a property right, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin may have had a very valid case against Petrillo and Mitchell and the producers of Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. As it stood then they were left with little legal recourse to stop the rip off of their act (although I have read that they and their studio did put economic pressure on Petrillo and Mitchell in an effort to blackball them from future film projects.) That approach must have had a practical impact–Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla would be the only major film project by Petrillo and Mitchell.
After the release of the film, Sammy Petrillo spent a lifetime of working on the fringes of show business. One of his ventures was a successful comedy club, called The Nut House, in his hometown of Pittsburgh. In that capacity, he launched the standup comedy careers of both Richard Pryor and Dennis Miller. Sammy Petrillo died in 2009. Duke Mitchell, who passed away in 1981, had a few minor roles after the film, but never really had much of a career thereafter.
As for Lewis and Martin, they would break up as a comedy team in 1956. Dean Martin went on to enjoy great success as a singer, actor, member of The Rat Pack, and television performer. Jerry Lewis continued as an actor (and, at least according to the French, a comedy genius) and became a famous director who innovated several new techniques in filmmaking and, of course, became synonymous with the annual Muscular Dystrophy Telethon that bore his name.