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AFTER DEATH, CELEBRITIES SEEM BIGGER THAN LIFE

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A big new MGM musical featuring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire is playing on movie screens across the country. John Lennon has been reunited with the other Beatles for a new single, due for release this year. James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Carole Lombard are featured prominently in print ads as role models of khaki cool. And a recent Jimi Hendrix's latest album entered the Billboard chart at No. 45 in its first week of release.

What decade is this anyway? Aren't these people dead?In the world of posthumous fame, a celebrity's death need not impinge on his or her marketability. In fact, in some cases, as the saying goes, death is a great career move.

The ubiquity of dead celebrities in popular culture is exemplified by the opening of "That's Entertainment III," a compilation of musical numbers and outtakes from classic MGM musicals; the recording of "Free as a Bird," using a 17-year-old John Lennon master tape over-dubbed by the surviving Beatles and featuring a new verse by Paul McCartney; the Gap's current ad campaign, and the compilation of Jimi Hendrix's previously unreleased "Blues."

The evidence is clear: Nat King Cole's duet with his daughter Natalie on the Grammy-winning "Unforgettable"; the appearance of James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Groucho Marx in commercials for Diet Coke, and Jimmy Dur-ante's comeback as a vocalist last year in "Sleepless in Seattle," whose soundtrack reached No. 1 on the Billboard chart. There may be no second acts in American lives, but after the third-act curtain falls, there is a fourth. And it's big box office.

Most performers become celebrities through one image-solidifying breakthrough that captures the public's imagination. As their careers progress, they are subject to career missteps, personal scandal and the inevitable onset of age, all of which tend to dissipate the glow of that star-making moment.

Death releases image from reality and captures it at its mythic moment. And unlike such recent living examples as Madonna and Michael Jackson, dead celebrities are unlikely to create the sort of media firestorm that will jeopardize a multimillion-dollar ad campaign.

"When celebrities make comebacks, they seem to come back as parodies of themselves," said Barbara Lippert, critic at large for Adweek. "When they're dead, they're no longer parodies. They're at their best. So it's almost better for them to be dead."

Indeed, said George Feltenstein, senior vice president of MGM/UA home video, most home-video companies have posthumous collections devoted to aging stars held in reserve, to capitalize on the publicity that a celebrity's death generally receives. When a star is cut down in the prime of life, the sales results can be even more impressive, as can be seen from the recent suicide of Kurt Cobain, which resulted in albums of his band, Nirvana, shooting up the Billboard charts and the hawking of memorabilia, including T-shirts emblazoned with the New York Times headline announcing his death almost immediately after it was printed.

Of course, sudden death is no guarantee of superstardom. Despite the actor George Sanders' wonderfully in-character suicide note ("Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck."), nobody has rushed to manufacture George Sanders jeans.

The continuing afterlife of entertainment figures is primarily a 20th-century phenomenon. "We have no way of knowing who the great performers of previous centuries were," Feltenstein said. "We know about painters because their paintings are still here, but film preserves the essence of performers." The same, of course, applies to audio recordings.

With the explosion in the 1980s of CD, cable, computer and video technology, the recent cultural legacy is more accessible than ever. Entertainment companies are busily repackaging what was once considered archival material - including outtakes and alternate takes - into potentially profitable vehicles. Add to this licensing and advertising fees, and one finds that many deceased performers are earning more today than they did in their prime.

For the superstars of the dead-celebrity industry, the sums can be many times more. In a recent lawsuit over royalties, Time Warner contended that the Curtis Management Group, which represents the estate of James Dean, has earned more than $30 million from the licensing of products bearing Dean's likeness over the past several years.

Even Bela Lugosi, with his posthumous popularity far below its early '60s peak, generates almost $25,000 a year for his heirs through advertising and licensing deals.

Mark Roesler, the chairman of Curtis Management, said that his most popular "clients" were, in addition to Dean, such enduring icons as Babe Ruth, Humphrey Bogart, Buddy Holly, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Abbott and Costello.

"You wouldn't believe the numbers if we told you," he said. "They're just staggering with someone like James Dean. I can't mention exact numbers, but you can be sure they're in the seven figures."

Until the 1980s, many heirs to celebrity estates saw their famous forebears generating millions of dollars from beyond the grave without realizing a penny of it themselves. They also saw the images of loved ones cheapened and degraded by manufacturers of such items as greeting cards containing vials of "Elvis Presley's sweat" and posters that grafted W.C. Fields' head onto the body of a naked chubby man in a centerfold position.

It was the Fields poster that gave rise to the California Celebrity Rights Act, passed in September 1984, five years after Fields' heirs sued to stop distribution of the poster. Not every state has a law protecting the rights of dead celebrities. But Roger Richman, the lawyer for the Fields heirs, said:

"The law under American jurisprudence says the law of the place where the celebrity died is the law that would be applied in federal court. So if someone was selling Steve McQueen T-shirts in Nebraska and there's no specific Nebraska law, we file a lawsuit in Nebraska federal court, and they're compelled to apply California law."

Richman's firm, the Roger Richman Agency, also represents the estates of Marilyn Monroe, Louis Armstrong, the Marx Brothers, Albert Einstein, Audrey Hepburn, Steve McQueen and Boris Karloff.

He said that in his efforts to protect the image of his most popular client, Monroe, he had turned down requests from a Japanese company to produce toilet paper with the actress' likeness on every square.

Still, the flow of products is staggering, ranging from Humphrey Bogart eye wear to Marilyn Monroe wines.

In many such cases, the marketing after death simply continues what the stars began while alive. The brightest stars shaped larger-than-life defining images that were the key to their hold on the public's imagination. Think John Wayne. Think Fred Astaire. Think Joan Crawford.

Uh-oh.

Crawford was most famous during her lifetime for her role as the abused mother Mildred Pierce. But after allegations of child abuse by her adopted daughter Christina in the book "Mommie Dearest" and the subsequent 1981 film, that image was reversed.

Surprisingly, this disparity between public persona and private life actually fueled her popularity, transforming her image from kitsch to camp. Both Feltenstein of MGM/UA and a spokesman for Block-buster Video said she was one of the 10 best-selling deceased stars on videocassette.

Singer Karen Carpenter has undergone a similar change of image. Once the reigning diva of all-American easy listening, she is now a symbol of the pursuit of ideal beauty that leads to anorexia. In a stroke of casting genius, she was portrayed by a Barbie doll in Todd Haynes' animated movie "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story."

Because Haynes neglected to clear the rights to the Carpenters' music, the film is currently not in general release. But her real claim to fame - her music - continues to sell well.

Whatever the circumstances, early death usually provides performers with a mystique they might not otherwise possess. Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Jean Harlow, Bruce Lee and even Rudolph Valentino continue to encapsulate both an image and an era in the public's imagination, in part because they never suffered the ravages of time.

As Roesler of Curtis Management said: "Marlon Brando is certainly a legend, but if I think of Marlon Brando today, I think of this 325-pound guy, and I think, `Was he really that cool guy that used to ride the motorcycle?' It changes your image of him."

This is especially true in rock 'n' roll, where albums by performers like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Elvis Presley, Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley sell millions of copies years after their deaths.

"Everything is young about rock: the audience, the fans, the sell," said Danny Fields, a longtime music industry commentator. "When you get very old and get tiresome, that's a problem. And I think `What might have been' is a very big factor in determining the romantic viability of any performer."

The verdict is not yet in on whether recent victims of premature celebrity death, like River Phoenix, John Candy, Brandon Lee and Kurt Cobain, will take their places alongside stars for the ages or join the gone but nearly forgotten Big Bopper and Thelma Todd in the dim recesses of public memory.

The smart money seems to be on Cobain. As Lippert put it: "I definitely think he's going to have legs. While he was alive, he hated being a symbol for a generation, but now that he's killed himself he's the easiest symbol for a generation there is. As a media move it was great."