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Temptations' battle: Whose life is it anyway?

Ruffin's family battles to stop 'Temptations' film

Tuesday, August 25, 1998

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Arguing that her father David Ruffin was the "quintessential Temptation" and his image is being used without his estate's permission, a Detroit woman is suing the makers of a miniseries on the Motown legends being shot here.

  The current Temptations pose for a promotional taping in the dressing room at Star Lake Amphitheatre where the group performed July 24. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr. Post-Gazette)

Her attorney also is asking the court to order the filmmakers to pack up their cameras, costumes and actors and shoot some scenes in Detroit, rather than Pittsburgh, where filming started late last month. NBC is scheduled to air "The Temptations," which is based on a book written by original member Otis Williams, in November.

The lawsuit, filed in Michigan on behalf of Ruffin's daughter, Cheryl Ruffin-Steinback, spells out a list of demands, including that: Ruffin be deleted from the movie; his estate and beneficiaries be consulted about the miniseries; some scenes of "The Temptations" be filmed in Detroit; all materials such as scripts, photos and recordings be handed over; and monetary damages be awarded.

Attorney Gregory J. Reed is suing producer Suzanne de Passe; de Passe Entertainment; Williams; NBC; Motown Record Co.; Jobete Music Inc.; Polygram Holding Inc.; and Seagram. A show-cause hearing on the case is scheduled for later this week.

Ruffin, the voice of "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" and "My Girl," was bounced from the group in 1968 after missing a concert. In 1991, the 50-year-old singer overdosed on cocaine and died in a Philadelphia hospital - a death his daughter Nedra Ruffin attributes to foul play, despite a medical examiner's ruling to the contrary.

Singing a far different tune about the project is Los Angeles attorney Richard Trugman, representing de Passe, Williams and the current Temptations.

In a phone interview yesterday, he charged that if Reed had done his research, "He would have found docudramas about famous people in retelling newsworthy stories are protected by First Amendment rights."

He pointed to HBO's weekend debut of "The Rat Pack" and added, "We've seen biographies of Elvis and Priscilla on television. We've seen biographies of politicians in movies and on television. That's because the public has a right to know and the First Amendment right overweighs whatever rights to privacy exist."

Trugman said he was especially puzzled by Reed's effort to force the production to the Motor City. Unless there are questions of public safety involved, "I don't think there's a court in the country that has the right to stop filming in one city and move it to another."

He suggested Reed was pursuing that angle to drum up publicity. "This is not a football game. This is not a college rivalry. ... I do not believe a lot of people [in Detroit] are offended or even know about this situation."

"The Temptations," starring single-name actor Leon in the role of Ruffin and Charles Malik Whitfield as Williams, is based on Williams' 1988 book, "Temptations," co-written with Patricia Romanowski. That source material is just one of the family's objections, according to the suit.

Reed says that viewers will assume the portrayal of Ruffin is the culmination of research and interviews "when, in fact, it is based upon the memory of one man."

Nedra Ruffin, second oldest of Ruffin's four children, told the Detroit News earlier this month she worries about how her father will be depicted. "I don't feel too good about the movie because as far as I'm concerned, a lot of things in [Otis'] eyes were probably the worst things about my father."

Ruffin's family also is concerned that the NBC miniseries will dilute interest in their own project, a televised biography about the singer.

The suit also charges, "In each agreement David Ruffin granted Motown Record Corp. the right to exploit his name, image and likeness in perpetuity only for the purpose to promote his recordings, not for any movie or a life story of the Temptations."

Williams, who performed in July with today's Temptations at Star Lake Amphitheater, says the story begins with him at 13 dreaming of one day becoming the new Frankie Lymon. However, Lymon died in his mid-20s while Williams and the Temptations continue to thrive even though the players have changed. Lymon's life, coincidentally, will be dramatized in a movie called "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" opening in theaters Friday.

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