Hazzard's high sheriff sues for royalties

Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane on "The Dukes of Hazzard" - also known as character actor James Best of Hickory - filed suit this week seeking back payments from Time Warner for using his image on merchandise ranging from Christmas ornaments to trash cans.

Best played the bumbling lawman constantly in pursuit of Luke and Bo Duke and their Dodge Charger "General Lee" on the popular comedy that ran on CBS from 1979 to 1985.

Best, who turned 85 on Tuesday, moved to Hickory about five years ago and is still active in show business.

In the lawsuit, filed here in federal court against Time Warner and Warner Brothers Entertainment, Best said under his 1978 contract, he is entitled to 5 percent of royalties for "Dukes of Hazzard" merchandise that bears Sheriff Coltrane's likeness.

In the 32 years since the series first aired, Best has received about $175,000 in royalties.

"Those payments are simply not consistent with this volume of merchandise sales over the last three decades," Best's attorney, Charles Oswald of Hickory, said Friday.

In the suit, Best said Warner Brothers consistently underestimated the royalties, and he may be due $5 million to $25 million or more for the early years of the show alone. In letters to Best cited in the suit, Warner said his share was significantly less.

Scott Rowe, senior vice president of communications for Warner Brothers, said Friday the studio would have no comment. Best could not be reached Friday.

Another royalties case

"Dukes of Hazzard" was involved in another high-profile royalties case in 1982. Lead actors Tom Wopat and John Schneider, playing the cousins who weekly outwitted Hazzard County political strongman Jefferson Davis "Boss" Hogg, sued the studio claiming they were owed substantial sums for merchandising sales.

They sat out the fourth year of the series - the storyline had Luke and Bo running off to race for NASCAR. Two cousins took their place. Ratings plunged, the dispute was settled, and Wopat and Schneider returned for the fifth season.

Best said in the suit that Warner ignored for 22 years his requests for an accounting of the merchandising sales.

A dog named Flash

Fans of the program would remember Flash, a molasses-paced basset hound who accompanied Sheriff Coltrane on patrol.

Best rescued the dog from a pound and brought it to the set at the beginning of the third season, suggesting the sheriff needed a partner. Producers didn't like the dog, but she got a role anyway.

In the suit, Best said he holds a 50 percent ownership interest in the character and is due payment for her royalties, too.

"Dukes of Hazzard" was a top 10 prime-time show for three seasons, 1979 to 1982, and sired two spinoffs: "Enos," based on one of the show's deputies, and "The Dukes," a Saturday cartoon show, and reunion specials. Reruns air on CMT.

Best had a long career in Hollywood, appearing in such series as "Perry Mason," "Twilight Zone" and "The Andy Griffith Show," where he appeared in two episodes as a Mayberry musician who hit the big time only to be revealed as a down-and-outer.

In 1959, Best starred in a low-budget horror flick, "The Killer Shrews," in which giant shrews go on a rampage during a hurricane. B-movie effects included unconvincing puppet shrews. It became a cult classic.

Best finished work this year on a sequel, "Return of the Killer Shrews," reprising his role as a boat captain who survived the shrew attacks.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer