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Who owns the rights to Homer Hickam’s life story?

The Rocket Boys author is suing Universal and others over a 2015 Chicago-area musical adaptation.


Universal Stage Productions’ 2015 performance of October Sky at The Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. - LIZ LAUREN
  • Liz Lauren
  • Universal Stage Productions’ 2015 performance of October Sky at The Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire.

As any memoirist knows, the past can grow sweeter over time, but it can also turn bitter. And so it is with the gratitude former NASA engineer and author Homer H. Hickam Jr. expressed for his agent in the acknowledgments that preface Rocket Boys, his richly recalled account of a mid-20th century boyhood in a West Virginia mining town.

The agent was the first person Hickam thanked.

"I extend my infinite appreciation to Mickey Freiberg," Hickam wrote, "for recognizing the value of the work from its first glimmering. It was his belief in the story, and his confidence in my ability to write it, that gave me the opportunity needed to proceed."

Rocket Boys was a huge critical and popular success, named one of the great books of 1998 by the New York Times, picked as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection by Literary Guild and Doubleday, excerpted in Life magazine, and published in 12 languages. An instant classic, it was made into the 1999 Universal Studios film October Sky.

But in a civil lawsuit filed in June in Los Angeles, Hickam charges that Freiberg, who died in 2012, breached his "fiduciary duties" to the author by conspiring with the film's producer, acting on behalf of Universal, to offer the story only to them, when Freiberg was supposed to be shopping it around competitively. In return for this betrayal, and unbeknown to the author, Hickam claims, Freiberg "worked out a deal to receive a percentage of the producer's fee." 

Universal Pictures, Universal City Studios, and two Universal executives—president Jimmy Horowitz and vice president Christopher Herzberger—along with as many as 100 "John Does"—are named as defendants in the suit, which seeks at least $20 million in damages.

According to the allegations, the film was released with "little fanfare" by Universal, and was initially a box office disappointment. It went on to become "recognized as one of the most inspirational movies ever made," in steady demand for home viewing and school showings—not because of any support from Universal, Hickam claims—but because he's worked "diligently" over the years to promote it at community and library book events and on his website. And, he charges, in recent years, Universal has not been paying him the 5 percent of net profits on the film that he's supposed to be getting.

But never mind—the movie's not even the main bone of contention in this lawsuit. The fight is over something much less well-known: a pair of fledgling musical theater pieces adapted from Hickam's story. One, Rocket Boys the musical, was developed by Hickam and a trio of collaborators; the other, October Sky, was created by a respected Chicago-area team and produced last year at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, in association with Universal Stage Productions. (According to the lawsuit, the studio's Herzberger, a Naperville native with ties to the Marriott, attended a performance of the Rocket Boys musical in May last year.)

The Marriott show, written by the theater's artistic director, Aaron Thielen, with a score by composer Michael Mahler, was directed by Rachel Rockwell. Maybe you saw it? I did, and enjoyed it—as did the critics. The production "couldn't be more powerful or moving," wrote the Reader's Jack Helbig.

But, no doubt like most of the audience, I was unaware that October Sky had no connection with Homer Hickam, or that he'd been working on his own musical since 2006 (co-written with Carl Tramon, with a score by Dan Tramon and Diana Belkowski). Or that their show had already been through numerous readings and two productions and was set to open off-Broadway, when, according to the lawsuit, Universal "pulled the rug out." In June 2015, Universal informed Hickam by letter that it would not approve any additional productions of Rocket Boys "at least" until after October Sky had completed its run at Marriott, which Hickam says frightened off his investors. According to the complaint, a subsequent letter sought an agreement from Hickam that he would never again produce any live stage production based on his life story.

Universal says it has no comment on pending litigation. But according to the lawsuit, the company says that its original contract with Hickam gives it the motion picture, other media, and live stage performance rights to anything he ever writes about his own life or his family, including any Rocket Boys sequels or prequels (such as a recently published novel about his parents, Carrying Albert Home). (You can read Universal's full response to the suit here.)

In his lawsuit, Hickam maintains that he doesn't need Universal's approval, that his agreement with the studio only gave it the rights to the Rocket Boys story for a single movie, and never included live stage production or any of his other work.

And among the many other allegations in Hickman's 39-page, ten-count complaint: the Marriott show copied elements of the Rocket Boys musical.

Besides the monetary damages, the lawsuit seeks to shut down October Sky, or to keep it from utilizing Hickam's name, and to clarify Hickam's agreement with Universal. The play is set for a run at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre this fall.

In a brief phone interview last week, Hickam said he can't discuss the lawsuit, but he's fighting for the Rocket Boys musical because it "lifts up people and makes them think that they can reach their dreams."

As for the agent to whom he was infinitely grateful: "I loved Mickey like a brother," Hickam said, "so this is heartbreaking." v

Read the full complaint here, and Universal's response here

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