The 1991/1992 Primetime TV Season: John Wells, Plagiarism And 'Homicide: Life On The Streets'

It is extremely rare for plagiarism charges to surface publicly in broadcast television. It's even more unusual when the charges are leveled at a successful writer/producer.

In June 1992, writer David Simon issued a statement through his lawyer claiming that the upcoming CBS drama Polish Hill contained an "astonishing number of similarities" to his 1991 book "Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets."

The book was a non-fiction account of Baltimore murder investigators and he and producer Barry Levinson had been working on a series based on the book. But according to Simon, entire accounts, dialogue and characters were lifted from his book by Polish Hill screenwriter John Wells. Simon said he learned of the similarities when Levinson began searching for a writer to work on the pilot for a proposed series based on his book.

According to Simon, an agent sent Levinson's production company a sample of Wells' work, which turned out to be the Polish Hill pilot

Simon, a crime reporter for The (Baltimore) Sun, says entire accounts, dialogue and characters were lifted from his book by "Polish Hill" screenwriter John Wells.

"I called CBS and said, `How can you put this on? This is stolen material,"' Simon said in an interview. "Two of his (Wells') three murders are directly out of the book."

In one scene of the "Polish Hill" script, he said, "Every single line of dialogue was copied verbatim - including vernacular."

While CBS (which had ordered the Polish Hill pilot) declined to comment on the allegations, Warner Brothers Television strongly denied the charges:

"We are really stunned by all of these allegations," said Barbara Brogliatti, a Warner spokeswoman. "Our attorneys reviewed the allegations . . . and it was their determination there are no merits to the plagiarism charge."

While the plagiarism charges made news at the time, not every television critic took the claim seriously. Including critic John Carman, who argued that everyone on television is copying everyone else:

Oh, sure, and I suppose you could find some carping, whining idiot who'd try to tell you that NBC concocted I Dream of Jeannie in 1965 because Bewitched was a hit in 1964.

Close examination proves this is a specious claim. Samantha was a witch. Jeannie was a genie. What could a witch show possibly have in common with a genie show? I rest my case.

A few people thought Man From U.N.C.L.E. ripped off James Bond, just because it was about a suave, lady-killing spy, or that The Monkees were copycat Beatles, because they happened to be mop-top musicians who cavorted nonsensically in fast motion. Sheesh.

To the untrained, indiscriminate eye, Mister Ed the talking horse might have resembled Francis the Talking Mule from the movies, especially because the guy who directed the Francis movies created Mister Ed. A double coincidence!

The book "Homicide: Life On The Streets: The Unofficial Companion" has a deeper look at the allegations, which seem fairly serious:

Levinson turned to his representatives as the Creative Artists Agency for advice on finding a writer to adapt Simon's book. CAA sent a copy of the Polish Hill teleplay by John Wells. Levinson was shocked to discover that Wells' script was seemingly a fairly close adaptation to Simon's book already!

For one thing, the first big case is the abduction of a nine-year-old girl, and the prime suspect is the Candy Man. Levinson saw clear parallels t Simon's tale of an eleven-year-old girl and the Fish Man. Furthermore, Polish Hill used a central motif of a case board with open cases listed in red and closed ones in black, something actually used in Baltimore's Police Department, but rarely found anywhere else. After finding lines of dialogue and descriptions borrowed almost word for word, Levinson decided he had seen enough.

Backed by Barry Hirsch, one of Hollywood's most powerful lawyers, Levinson threatened suit against Warner Brothers. Levinson had paid for the rights to Simon's book and was appalled at the seeming plagiarism. Furthermore, Polish Hill would precede Homicide to the airwaves, making the authorized version seem like a knock-off.

But not much more than a week after the initial accusations surfaced, Warner Brothers Television issued a statement through Barbara Brogliatti, senior vice president for Warner Bros. publicity, promotion and public relations. "What began as an 11-page, single-spaced diatribe of allegations has been reduced to claims about the use of one device found in police stations across the country-a caseload board." Brogliatti also said that some minor editing and looping had been done to the pilot to make the so-called "murder board" less prominent.

"Warner Bros. is willing to make minor changes in its use of the board in a goodwill effort to stop these endless, scurrilous and unfounded accusations," Brogliatti also said in a statement.

For its part, Levinson's production company Baltimore Pictures would only confirm at the time that a settlement had been made and "we consider the matter resolved."

It's a weird shift on both sides. While case/murder boards weren't common before "Homicide," they have been used in nearly every procedural cop show since then. So it seems unlikely that the board was the only issue. Particularly given the aggressive stance of the initial complaint. Some sort of out of court settlement seems to have been made, but even after 30 years it's not clear what happened. I attempted to get someone to discuss the story and if there is any agreement after all of these years, it's that all parties would just as soon pretend it never happened.

When John Wells met with TV critics in August 1992, it was the first question he was asked and he quickly took the Fifth: "I apologize, but the matter's been settled and I really can't discuss it." Looking back, it's surprising to me that the allegations didn't have a bigger impact on the career of Wells, who at the time was best known for his work on China Beach

As for Polish Hill, the plagiarism charges were only the first of its problems. Once that issue was settled, the pilot was apparently extensively reworked and the name changed to Angel Street. The location was shifted from Baltimore to Chicago and several smaller parts were recast.

The premise of the series centered around the only two female cops on a Chicago homicide squad. One white, one was black and surprisingly, they don't get along.

That friction also apparently extended off-camera and at the time there were reports co-stars Robin Givens and Pamela Ridley had a number of verbal confrontations that more than once led to physical violence.

No one associated with the show denied those charges at the time, "The material is very charged. There were take after take of people yelling at each other. I think there was a lot of tension. It's almost impossible with the intensity of this kind of material for the actors to walk off the set and to carry absolutely none of that with them. It was a very emotionally charged shoot," Wells told critics.

Givens told critics that "Being called a nigger is difficult," and while she didn't specify who called her that, co-star Gidley said that the duo "at first had a bit of a difficult time trying to find a kind of happy medium to be able to work in, live in and talk about these issues and situations."

It's worth noting that Angel Street premiered to quite harsh reviews and was off the schedule by October 1992, after airing only four episodes.

The newly titled Homicide: Life On The Street premiered the following spring on NBC and ran for seven seasons.


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Last modified on Saturday, 04 September 2021 22:37