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'Desperate Housewives' writer, creator give jury differing versions of decision to kill role
LOS ANGELES (AP) ' A former writer on "Desperate Housewives" on Wednesday contradicted testimony by the show's creator that a decision to kill off Nicollette Sheridan's role had been made four months before the actress claimed her boss struck her on the set.
The testimony by Lori Kirkland Baker was the latest twist in Sheridan's wrongful termination and battery lawsuit against "Housewives" creator and executive producer Marc Cherry and ABC.
Cherry and Baker told jurors how plots are discussed months in advance using index cards, brainstorming sessions and assistants taking notes.
Cherry testified that he announced at a writers' retreat in May 2008 that he had received authorization from top studio and network executives to kill off Sheridan's character Edie Britt. He said a photograph of note cards from the sessions that included the coded message "Steven drinks OJ" signaled that Britt's days were numbered.
Hours later, Baker testified that the first time she heard about the decision to kill Britt was in December 2008, the same month ABC cleared Cherry of wrongdoing in his dispute with Sheridan in September 2008.
The "Steven drinks OJ" message was a reference to O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted of killing his wife, Cherry testified. Steven was the name "Desperate Housewives" writers attached to Britt's husband for the fifth season, but the character's name was later changed to Dave.
Baker said she remembered seeing a note card with the phrase "Dave drinks the OJ" to refer to Britt's death after Cherry told writers in December 2008 that Sheridan's role was being cut.
She acknowledged she was not present for all discussions about plot points and that she considered suing Cherry after her contract was not renewed for the sixth season of "Desperate Housewives." She contacted Sheridan's attorney Mark Baute, who declined to take her case.
Baker's testimony also contradicts another witness, former ABC studio executive Mark Pedowitz, who told jurors on Tuesday that he gave Cherry approval to kill off Britt on May 22, 2008. Pedowitz said he learned of Sheridan's accusation that Cherry struck her in the head from a National Enquirer story that ran in October 2008. He said he ordered a human resources investigation and was satisfied when its results cleared Cherry.
He said he wanted the investigation because he knew Sheridan's role would be eliminated and the dispute could cause problems. "I did not want the situation to play out like it is today, in court," Pedowitz said.
Cherry walked jurors through writers' notes that laid out possible plots for the fifth season of "Desperate Housewives." The notes included possible scenarios for Britt's death, which included her being beaten to death by her husband with a baseball bat and suspicion being cast on several major characters.
In the end, Britt's death came after she escaped being strangled and survived a car crash only to be electrocuted by a downed power line. Baute, in opening statements, called it a triple homicide that reflected Cherry's animosity toward Sheridan.
Cherry told jurors that he had contemplated killing Sheridan's character at the end of season three, but studio and network executives didn't approve. As he began to plan season five, he said he wanted to kill Britt as part of a "risky but potentially effective change to the series."
Cherry said he never wavered in his decision to kill off Sheridan's role, but that he acquiesced to requests by the executives to wait until later in the season for the on-screen killing to occur. The notes displayed Wednesday showed Britt's death was originally slated for mid-season, with several episodes dealing with a police investigation.
He said the coded phrase "Steven drinks OJ" was necessary to keep the secret from people passing through the writers room where "Housewives" scripts are contemplated and crafted.
"Mine is a series based on surprise and shock and secrets," Cherry said.
Baker, who won an Emmy Award for her work on "Frasier," said she didn't think Sheridan's role would be cut because her character was popular. If it did happen, she said she expected it would occur right before the season finale.
Britt's death occurs in episode 18 of the 24-episode season.
"It felt like it was just being stuck in any old episode," she said. "It didn't feel like we were building up to anything."
Cherry will resume testifying later in the trial.
"Desperate Housewives," a glossy prime-time comedy/soap opera with an ensemble cast including Teri Hatcher and Eva Longoria, made a pop-culture and ratings splash when it premiered in 2004 but has seen its audience dwindle. It is in its last season.
ABC is owned by The Walt Disney Co.
Anthony McCartney can be reached at http://twitter.com/mccartneyAP