Rival TV Treatments of Liberace's Life Fuel a Nasty Little War Over His Estate

updated 09/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In the dining room of a garishly appointed Spanish-style house in Palm Springs, a haggard Liberace, dressed in a velvet bathrobe, is talking to his publicist, Jamie James. He is tired of the persistent rumors that he is suffering from AIDS, he says. They simply must dispel the gossip by announcing some upcoming concert dates....

"Cut!" yells director Billy Hale. Off the set of this TV movie for ABC, the real Jamie James shakes his head in astonishment. "That was so eerie," he says. "It was like Lee was really here."

A continent away, in Montreal, similar scenes are being played out by a cast and crew for CBS. Actor Victor (Godspell) Garber, swathed in faux-Liberace finery, is walking the Flamboyant One's walk, singing his songs, flashing his megawatt smile. Seymour Heller, Liberace's friend and personal manager for 37 years, is the script consultant on this set. When Heller first met Garber, "He felt kind of spooky," the actor says. "He said 'Gee, I feel like Lee just walked into the room.' "

He might as well have. Though Liberace died a year and a half ago, felled at 67 by the acquired immune deficiency syndrome he consistently denied having, the glitzy entertainer has made news in recent months nearly as often as he did while he lived. In April there was an auction of some 22,000 of his belongings: cars, furs, assorted baubles fetching some $2 million. Then came the lawsuit in which Heller and other disgruntled members of Liberace's entourage tried to oust Joel Strote, 49, Lee's attorney for 17 years, from his position as executor of the Liberace estate. Now there are rival TV docudramas—both tentatively set to air this fall and both claiming to be an authoritative version of His Gaudiness's days on earth. The CBS film, endorsed by Heller, is in danger of being halted. Strote, executive producer of ABC's film, has filed suit against it.

While the star dubbed Mr. Showmanship would no doubt applaud his postmortem turn in the spotlight, the man born Wladziu Valentino Liberace, noted for his generosity, would surely be horrified at the greedy backbiting that is keeping him there.

The infighting began even before Liberace's death; 13 days previously he had signed a new will. The basic provisions remained the same: To his sister, Angie, 75, would go more than $500,000; to his longtime companion, Cary James, 25, $250,000 and two cars; to his cook, Gladys Luckie, a house and a car; to his maid, Dorothy McMahon, $5,000; to Seymour Heller, $60,000; to the score of dogs he called "my children," $50,000. The rest, an estimated $18 million, was earmarked for the Liberace Foundation, a trust that provides college music scholarships. But the dying Lee changed his executor. The man who would oversee his financial legacies would be lawyer Joel Strote—and not, as previously stipulated, manager Seymour Heller.

Outraged, Heller, in his mid-70s, and the other beneficiaries brought suit. Lee must have been "brain dead" when he made the new will, their lawyer, Harold Gewerter, claimed in a Nevada court. Why else would Liberace have given such power to a man who subsequently auctioned off his belongings and forced his friend Cary James (no relation to Jamie) to move from Liberace's sumptuous Palm Springs mansion to the caretaker's quarters? Strote argued that Liberace had acted purposefully, that the Heller faction simply couldn't face losing its meal ticket. Strote claimed he had only the best interests of the estate at heart. All proceeds from the auction, he pointed out, went directly to the Liberace Foundation. True, he had received a reported $450,000 fee for his services, but, he assured the court, he had earned every penny.

After a 21-day trial filled with tears, recriminations and intimate details from the notoriously private Liberace's final days, the judge ruled in Strote's favor. But the battle lines remain fixed. Heller and company have vowed to appeal; Strote vows to continue his crusade to prevent CBS from completing its film. "By going to another network," says Strote, "Heller is in direct competition with the estate and averse to it."

Strote has other reasons for believing his film, starring Andy (Dirty Harry) Robinson, is the version the public should see. He alone has access to Liberace's inimitable museum pieces: furs, jewels, costumes, cars and pianos. And the ABC script is discreet about its subject's personal life. "We show Liberace as the wonderful, magnanimous, caring, sensitive, kind human being he was," Strote says. "We don't say he was patently homosexual—that would be gross. I hear CBS is taking a more negative approach." And profits from the ABC film—guaranteed in excess of $100,000—will, of course, go to the foundation. "My fee is being donated too," Strote says. "I'm such a nice guy."

Seymour Heller has remained tight-lipped about the CBS production. "Mine's not negative—Strote's is," he says. Restricted access to Liberace's objets has made the production more difficult—and expensive. Large chunks of the movie have been filmed in Canada to cut down on costs. Still, says producer Murray Shostak, "Our movie is just as real as theirs." Fans can certainly look forward to a zestier plot. "It is the story of the intimate relationships Liberace had with the people close to him," says co-executive producer Linda Yellen. "That includes his love relationships. But it is not at all exploitative."

Heller's lawyers will maintain just that when Strote's suit ultimately goes to court. If Heller wins, viewers will be able to assess both films for themselves. But what would Mr. Showmanship himself say if he were to catch a glimpse from the beyond? Jamie James, who has remained resolutely above the fray, believes his friend would prove an infinitely better sport than those he left behind. "He'd get a kick out of it all," says James. "He's probably laughing at us right now."

—By Kim Hubbard, with Vicki Sheff, Kristina Johnson and Lois Armstrong in Los Angeles

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