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The Case of the Missing Encyclopedia Brown Movie

A lot of numbers came up repeatedly in the life of Donald J. Sobol. The author’s most famous creation, amateur sleuth Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown, was forever 10 years old, with each of his books containing 10 short mystery stories. Brown charged only 25 cents for his detective services; Sobol got $25,000 for the film, television, and licensing rights to the character in 1979.

But while Brown never accounted for inflation, always charging a quarter throughout the nearly 50 years Sobol wrote the books, the $25,000 was a different story. “My father was not a businessman,” his son, John Sobol, told The New York Times after the author passed away in 2012. “His contribution was sort of inversely proportional to his financial compensation.”

The ancillary rights holder, a former immigration lawyer named Howard David Deutsch, had plans to capitalize on the immense popularity of the character, who was often referred to as “Sherlock in sneakers." Despite his best attempts, hardly anything materialized.  

That was due in large part to Sobol's growing unhappiness with the deal, which led the author to sue to get his boy detective back. It would become the only Encyclopedia Brown case with the character’s name listed as a defendant.

 

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Sobol didn’t always want to be a writer. Born in 1924, he had his sights set on playing professional baseball. After graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio, he tried out for the Cincinnati Reds but didn’t make the cut. When World War II heated up, Sobol marched into the Pacific as a battalion engineer.

Deposited back in his native New York in 1946, Sobol began a newspaper career, first as a copyboy for the New York Sun and then as a syndicated columnist for the Associated Press. His Two-Minute Mysteries were brief bits of fiction with a solution that appeared upside-down or on another page of the paper, whodunits written with enough brevity to finish at the breakfast table.

Sobol was certainly capable of more substantial work: He had published an adult romance set in medieval times in 1957 and was eager to explore the book market further. The Mysteries, which began in 1959 and lasted nine years, had a format that Sobol thought would lend itself to juvenile fiction. In 1962, he decided to tackle an anthology of short stories with a juvenile detective. Wanting to get across the idea that the boy was intelligent, he first settled on a nickname—“Encyclopedia”—before fleshing out the rest of the formula.

In Idaville, Fla. (named after Sobol’s mother, Ida), Encyclopedia Brown became a child prodigy who could rattle off obscure facts at a moment’s notice. His father, the chief of police, frequently consults with him on cases that are proving difficult for his detectives. In subsequent chapters, Brown usually heads off into the neighborhood to sort out plots involving stolen goods or vandalism. His Watson is Sally Kimball, a pretty classmate who doubles as his bodyguard. She’s able to fend off Bugs Meany, the town bully, with a well-placed right hook. (Sobol, perhaps ahead of his time in the feminist movement, gifted Sally with creditable boxing skills.)

Sobol finished the first book in just two weeks. It was a kind of interactive fiction, with readers able to pick up on clues in the stories that led to a reasonable conclusion. If they were stuck, they could turn to the end of the book for the solution in much the same way Sobol’s newspaper readers flipped the page upside-down.

He circulated the manuscript among 26 publishing houses, all of which turned him down. Finally, Thomas Nelson and Sons was receptive. They offered a contract that eventually stretched to 13 agreements in total by 1976. The first book, Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective, performed well, and Sobol eventually settled into what would become the routine of his writing life: one or two books a year, all bestsellers.

The Dutton publishing company acquired Sobol’s agreement in 1978, which granted them the right to negotiate ancillary opportunities like video games, coloring books, and screenplays. It was through this agreement that Dutton entered into a deal with producer and lawyer Howard David Deutsch. Sobol would later argue Dutton had no right to make a deal without consulting him, but at the time, all parties seemed content with Deutsch handing over $25,000 for the ability to take Encyclopedia Brown into other media.

In time, the Encyclopedia Brown series would grow to more than seven million copies in print in North America alone; it was translated into 12 languages. In Hollywood, that kind of brand awareness was invaluable, and Deutsch had no shortage of suitors. In 1981, Warner Bros. began negotiations to have Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn star in a feature film adaptation. (Whether they would have played his parents or have Chase portray a grown-up detective is unclear.)

At some point, Warner backed out of the deal, leading Deutsch to file a breach of contract suit against the studio. It wasn't the first time Encyclopedia was listed in court documents, though: Sobol had filed a $20 million lawsuit of his own against Deutsch and his Encyclopedia Brown Productions shingle in 1983, contesting Deutsch's claims over the character.

While Deutsch and Sobol tried to reach some kind of resolution, the rights to Brown were still in considerable demand. Both Johnny Carson and Aaron Spelling were looking to secure an agreement to bring the character to television; Hanna-Barbera was interested in animating him. Deutsch had what amounted to a Harry Potter-level property, but the ongoing litigation with Sobol made closing a deal difficult.

Finally, Deutsch reached a deal with HBO in 1988. The network that put Fraggle Rock on the map was interested in expanding their children’s entertainment brand and ordered a live-action Encyclopedia Brown special that led into a recurring series. Producers filmed the pilot in Provo, Utah, and the episodes were well-received.

Deutsch then did something unexpected. After just six episodes, he insisted on breaking away from the network, which puzzled them. “The idea of a producer taking his show off the air that was successful, that was so good, and so far ahead of its time that it made my career is [mind-boggling]," show co-producer Ned Kandel told The New York Times in 2005.

By way of explanation, Deutsch later sued HBO, claiming they had failed to properly publicize the series, and maintaining that they had exhibited the pilot outside of a contractually-ordered two-year window. The court ruled in Deutsch’s favor.  

Deutsch and Sobol were eventually able to settle their own dispute, though the court records are sealed. With newfound freedom to pursue a feature film, Deutsch spoke with Anthony Hopkins, who considered directing. In 2005, Deutsch put together a package in conjunction with Ridley Scott and sent it off to studios in the hopes of inciting a bidding war. But before an agreement could be reached, Deutsch withdrew the package. Encyclopedia Brown had been foiled once more, this time by French hair stylists.

When Deutsch began shopping the property to studios, it became known that he had been convicted of immigration fraud in 2000. According to The New York Times, Deutsch was accused of identifying French hair stylists as executives in order to obtain visas for them: their salon company was looking to expand into the New York market, but to do so quickly, they misrepresented the stylists as high-level managers. Deutsch was sentenced to three years in prison, served 14 months, and was disbarred from practicing law.  

Sources told the Times that it made the situation more “complicated” but that no studios backed out as a result of the discovery, which Deutsch said he had never made a secret of and held no relevance to any potential deal.

That was the last anyone had heard of an Encyclopedia Brown film until 2013, when word got around that Deutsch and partner Ray Lee (The LEGO Movie) were nearing an agreement with Warner Bros. The project has yet to move forward.

By some estimates, 50 million copies of the book series have been sold since it debuted in 1963. They rewarded a reader’s attention and intellect—the puzzles were not easy to solve—and imparted values without preaching, something Sobol actively worked to avoid. Whether Brown finds his way into theaters at some point was probably immaterial to the author, who only wanted to sharpen the problem-solving and observational skills of his readers.

And Encyclopedia Brown's generations' worth of fans certainly do pay close attention. In 1990, Sobol had gotten a fact wrong in one of the books, and numerous kids wrote in to make sure it would be corrected in future editions. They had learned a lot from their kid detective hero.

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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The Time Freddy Krueger Became a Nightmare for Will Smith
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Fans of Will Smith’s music career may think they’ve heard every album and seen every music video from the actor’s days as one half of the hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. Thanks to one ill-timed and poorly conceived effort, however, there’s one performance that aired only a handful of times before being permanently pulled. It has never resurfaced on compilations, on MTV, or even on YouTube. And the fault lies solely with Freddy Krueger, who used something even more dangerous than his razor-fingered glove: a small army of lawyers.

A promotional image of Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger
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Back in early 1988, Smith and his musical partner Jazzy Jeff (a.k.a. Jeffrey Allen Townes) released their second album, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. It would eventually go platinum, selling 2.5 million copies through 1989 and spinning off the duo’s most successful single, “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

In late 1987, Townes composed another single, “Nightmare on My Street,” that played with the premise established by the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. In the song, Smith’s dreams are haunted by a scarred bogeyman named “Fred”; a voice modulator mimics the raspy delivery of actor Robert Englund, who portrayed slasher movie icon Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street films. After his run-in, Smith tries calling Jeff to warn him of the threat but it was too late: The killer has gotten to his partner.

Zomba, the parent company behind the album's label, decided the song might be of interest to New Line Cinema, the studio behind the Nightmare film franchise. With the fourth installment, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, due to hit theaters in August 1988, Zomba executive Barry Weiss approached New Line with the possibility of collaborating and forwarded a tape of the song.

Weiss’s timing was spot-on. New Line had recently conducted research that indicated that 40 percent of A Nightmare of Elm Street's audience was black, and they felt that tying Krueger into the burgeoning rap and hip-hop industry would help cement his appeal to the demographic. But New Line and Weiss couldn’t come to a financial agreement. Instead, the studio went with The Fat Boys and granted permission for the song “Are You Ready for Freddy?” The video, complete with an appearance by Englund (in character), was released just a few months prior to A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 to raise awareness of the sequel.

Although New Line found their collaborators, Zomba didn’t appear willing to give up on the idea of a Freddy takeoff. “Nightmare on My Street” remained on the album, and Smith and Townes recorded a video intended for distribution on MTV. In it, Smith is stalked by a Freddy-like character who appears in a trench coat and has a wrinkled face. Smith’s lyrics make overt reference to a Krueger-esque appearance. (Fred is “burnt like a weenie.”) The eerie house Smith calls home even bears a passing resemblance to the house in the original Nightmare film.

If Zomba thought they could declare the song and video a parody and be safe from legal action, they were mistaken. Almost immediately, New Line's legal team sent a stern letter demanding the music label recall all copies of the song. When that didn't happen, the studio next sought a preliminary injunction to prevent “Nightmare on My Street” from being aired on MTV or elsewhere, citing copyright infringement and a concern that the video would detract from their collaboration with The Fat Boys.

"We own both a character, Freddy Krueger, and the theme music from Nightmare on Elm Street, both of which are protected under the copyright laws," Seth Willenson, New Line's senior vice president of telecommunications, told the Los Angeles Times in August 1988. “By using Freddy in the Jazzy Jeff song, they've infringed our copyright. We're protecting our rights the same way that George Lucas does, because as far as we're concerned, Freddy Krueger is the Star Wars of New Line Cinema."

Weeks before the release of the film, a judge in New York’s United States District Court would have to decide whether Zomba was entitled to a fair use exemption over a fictional child murderer.

Will Smith appears at the Grammy Awards
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To Zomba’s dismay, judge Robert Ward didn’t buy their argument that “Nightmare on My Street” was nothing more than a Weird Al-style satire. Screening the entire first installment of the film series and the music video, Ward noted that the latter drew considerable influence in tone, mood, and characteristics from the feature. Fred’s voice was scratchy like Englund’s; his glove, though it featured phonograph needles instead of razors, was obviously meant to invoke Krueger’s weapon of choice. Where Zomba saw parody, Ward saw little more than a derivative work of a copyrighted property.

“It is in this month that many individuals will make their decision whether Nightmare IV is a film that they are interested in viewing,” wrote Ward in his decision. “Thus, the telecast of the lower quality DJ Jazzy Jeff video with the somewhat silly and less frightening Freddy could dissuade an unspecified number of individuals from seeing the film.” The injunction was granted, with a full hearing to be held at a later date.

That didn’t happen—both parties settled out of court. While the song remained on the record, it began to ship with a disclaimer that it wasn’t associated with New Line; the video, which had aired only briefly on MTV, was pulled, and the court ordered that all copies be destroyed. Whether or not that happened is hard to substantiate, but if the video is lurking in storage somewhere, it has never been excavated. “Nightmare on My Street” has never resurfaced.

If Smith and Townes were bothered by the outcome, they didn’t voice it publicly. Smith even dressed up as Krueger in a 1990 episode of his sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But there is one additional bit of film trivia to come out of the case: In seeking to resolve the issue, New Line offered DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince a two-film option. If they accepted the roles, their salaries would be deducted from the settlement payout. One of those projects was 1990’s House Party, which the two declined. The roles eventually went to Kid ‘n Play.

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