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Underage stars of the 1968 version of 'Romeo & Juliet' sue over nude scene

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The stars of the 1968 blockbuster "Romeo And Juliet" are suing Paramount Pictures for child sexual abuse over a nude scene filmed when they were teens. Now in their 70s, their complaint was among the last ones filed under a California law that temporarily suspended the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse claims. Here's NPR's Neda Ulaby.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Actor Leonard Whiting was only 16 years old when he played Romeo. His Juliet, Olivia Hussey, was 15.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROMEO AND JULIET")

OLIVIA HUSSEY: (As Juliet) If that thy bent of love be honorable...

LEONARD WHITING: (As Romeo) Yes.

HUSSEY: (As Juliet) ...Thy purpose marriage...

ULABY: The movie, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, was a box office smash, the "Titanic" of its day. It saved Paramount Pictures from financial ruin. But school kids for generations have been impressed by more than the beauty and splendor of the Shakespeare adaptation.

TONY MARINOZZI: I remember being in school, I had to get a permission slip to watch that movie from my mother.

ULABY: Tony Marinozzi knows he remembers how scandalous it was to see Hussey topless and Whiting's rear end. Now he's a business manager representing both actors. The movie was not a moneymaker for them as it was for Paramount, and neither went on to A-list careers, which they blame in part on the film. Their lawsuit alleges negligence, appropriation of name and likeness and unfair business practices, as well as child sexual abuse.

MARINOZZI: The evidence is in the film.

ULABY: Marinozzi is talking about the nude scene, which Hussey has defended over the years. But according to the lawsuit, both actors now say they were coerced into the nudity and tricked about camera placement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Do you think the scene is improved by it being played in the nude?

HUSSEY: Yes.

ULABY: Even in 1967, when teenaged Hussey and Whiting were promoting the film, you can hear their uncertainty in an interview on the British Film Institute website.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WHITING: Yeah, I think - because it was always played on the balcony anyway, the whole scene, and I think - was it Franco that decided first to do it in the bedroom? I think so. Yeah.

ULABY: Director Franco Zeffirelli died in 2019. He also never responded to accusations of sexual assault decades ago by the young actor who played Benvolio. And it's hard to imagine 16-year-olds being filmed this way at a major studio today. But Tony Marinozzi says this lawsuit, which seeks millions of dollars in damages, is not about making deep changes. It is, he says, about closure.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTÍNEZ: Paramount Pictures has not responded to NPR's request for comment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Neda Ulaby
Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.