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The Daily Beast :Susan Chana Lask Represents Billy Sammeth in Joan Rivers Lawsuit

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The Man Suing Joan Rivers

by Jacob Bernstein

June 25, 2010 | 7:08pm

 

Billy Sammeth talks to The Daily Beast about the suit he’s filed against the resurgent comedienne and why he still loves her despite the whole mess. Plus: Exclusive emails between Rivers and her former manager.

On May 27, Joan Rivers was in New York celebrating the 70th birthday of former talent manager Sandy Gallin. Everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Calvin Klein showed up at Donna Karan’s studio in the West Village to kiss the ring of the man who once helped spearhead the careers of stars like Dolly Parton and Michael Jackson.

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“I saw it and thought I was a heroin addict,” he says of the film, in his first interview since the lawsuit was filed.

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Sometime that night, Rivers was approached by Billy Sammeth, a man once employed by Gallin and also Rivers’ manager for more than two decades, until she fired him a little over a year ago. In a new documentary about her life, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, she alleges that he disappeared on her constantly, until she finally had to let him go.

That evening, he decided to break the standoff. “I hear you’ve been looking for me. Here I am,” he recalls saying to her.

She laughed and they exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes, after which she went on to roast the guest of honor.

But less than a month later, Sammeth is back in Rivers’ face, and this time it’s no laughing matter. On Wednesday, he filed suit against her in federal court in the Southern District of New York, alleging that his famously caustic former client bilked him out of payments he’s owed and disparaged him in the spectacularly reviewed documentary about her life that’s just been released in theaters.

For Rivers, it’s a nasty little headache at a time when she appears to be enjoying a flurry of success. In addition to the documentary, she won Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice last season, beating out contestants five decades younger. On the nights she’s not playing to packed houses with her buddy Don Rickles she’s on Larry King, where she’s been feted by Phyllis Diller and Kathy Griffin. (Of course, when assessing the lawsuit, one also should never underestimate Rivers’ ability to make lemonade from lemons. This, after all, is a woman who reacted to her husband Edgar’s suicide by turning it into a television movie starring herself and her daughter, Melissa.)

No doubt Sammeth has reason to be annoyed. Critics around the country have made reference to the scenes involving her "AWOL” and “unreliable"manager.

Plus, for more than two decades, he was like family—for better and for worse. In an email obtained by The Daily Beast that Rivers sent to Sammeth while she was on tour in Australia last year, she wrote, “What in gods name is going on with Australia? What am I doing on the pink carpet? Why is there no advertising in melbourne? I need someone to stay on top of this. What exactly am I doing for the parade? Noone seems to know. Whxoxoat do I wear? How much am I making. This trip is falling apart? Who is opening? Very depressed. Xoxoxoxoxo.”

An hour later, he wrote back, “You are making $80,000USD for the three shows and the parade commentary. There is no money coming out of that for ANY EXPENSES, which was not easy!...”

Responded Rivers? “I am very happy again. Xoxoxoxo.”

Later she was displeased about her return flight. “There better be tickets home on the earlier flight. I just want to go home. I will never go to Australia again unless I am given enough money to do so.” She then closes out, “If that son of a bitch cancelled [our] tickets… the world will hear about it in the airport. Xoixoxoox.”

“Billy,” she said of him in one interview to promote the film. “I miss him. He was the only person who had been through everything. He was there for my marriage, through Carson, for Edgar’s funeral, everything. He was the only person I had in my life I could turn to and say ‘remember when…’ and that’s all gone now. I have no one to remember things with because they’re all dead.”

If you are a guy whose entire livelihood is about creating the impression that you are willing and ready to do anything and everything for a couple of pampered celebrities, being spoken about this way is not good PR.

“I saw it and thought I was a heroin addict,” he says of the film, in his first interview since the lawsuit was filed.

“He’s a personal manager,” adds his lawyer, Susan Chana Lask. “The last thing he needs is to have a client say he went missing. That’s where it becomes defamation. It’s disparaging.”

Plus, Lask adds, “How could he be missing when he was sitting there in all of that film? That’s the question, right? The guy has email, he has a phone, it’s not hard to get him. She created this theme, ‘Billy’s missing! Where’s Billy?’ That’s editing, you know? In the movie, he’s in London, he’s in New York in her house, how could he be missing? You just have to make that up, and it is disparaging.” (Of course, filming took place over the course of a year. The plot point of his going MIA presumably took place off-camera, later in the filming process.)

Lask says the real reason her client was terminated was because Rivers lives “expensively” and his commission was becoming a pain to stomach.

Moreover, there appears to have been a disagreement over a charity auction on Celebrity Apprentice that Sammeth says he believes was part of the reason for his being fired. He helped raise money for Rivers’ on-screen contest, then refused to turn in the pledge money in the following weeks because the money wasn’t going directly to the charity involved. In emails obtained by The Daily Beast, he explained to Rivers that he was concerned they might be breaking the law by writing it off as a charitable contribution. Rivers wrote back that she was concerned he was going to screw up her chances of winning the show. “This is NOT A GAME and this is truly jeopardizing my career,” she said to him, in another email that was obtained by The Daily Beast. “Please call your accountant and issue the payment—or whatever you have to do. Just please settle this and get this over with. Love, Joan.”

Still, several friends of Rivers’ say privately that Sammeth’s disappearances were something she complained about over the years. They also point out that she didn’t edit the film, and therefore isn’t responsible for how he comes off in it. “She had no approval of anything,” says one friend. “She did not have final cut. It was a movie about her—it was not ‘her movie.’” (Efforts to reach the film’s directors, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, were unsuccessful.)

Sammeth and his lawyer, meanwhile, caution against reading too much into an old lawsuit filed by Sammeth’s other big client, Cher, in which she too accused the manager of not being attentive enough to her needs.

In it, counsel for Cher describes how Sammeth, “unhappy” with life in Los Angeles, relocated to Northern California in the mid-'90s and “attempted to continue the relationship from his home via cellular telephone. Eventually, communications between the parties deteriorated and… Cher terminated the 20-year relationship.”

As Sammeth recalls it, going into the third-person, “With Cher, Billy did not want to become the live-in person in her life. I bought that house on purpose so I didn’t become a prisoner for Cher. You give them almost all of your life, and then as soon as Cher saw that I was going to Northern California, there was a big red flag called abandonment.”

He may have a point. After all, Cher is legendary for firing people, having gone through over half a dozen agents during the 1980s. According to a New Yorker article about Sammeth in 2002, Cher actually fired him once and rehired him four days later. Sammeth thinks the root of the drama between them comes from Cher’s upbringing. “Her mother was married eight times, and twice to the same guy,” he points out.

“Whatever happened between him and Cher, it was settled amicably,” Lask says. “In this business, people get hired and fired all the time. It’s a peculiar business with peculiar personalities with people who say ‘I love you, doll,’ and then terminate you.”

“I love Joan, I love Cher,” Sammeth says. “I do love them. This is not a bitter manager, he’s an upset manager, he’s angry. I got to a point—what is it? The Equal Rights Committee that said silence equals guilt.”

Actually, it was ACT UP, and the phrase was silence equals death.

“Well, that’s what happened to me,” he continues. “I got killed. By remaining silent about this, it became a convenient untruth! The film is bullshit, bullshit, bullshit!”

A rep for Rivers says in an email, “This is the claim of a former personal manager, who was properly terminated over one year ago. Billy Sammeth is now making claims for money to which he is not entitled, and I am confident that the judicial system will dispose of Mr. Sammeth's lawsuit in the appropriate manner.”

 

Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.

Additional reporting by Nicole Laporte.