When Michael Jackson died last summer, he had nearly a half a billion dollars in debts. Since then, it's been a great year for him career-wise. He's had a successful concert film, a huge bump in record sales, and been given a new contract worth $250 million from the Sony Corporation.
It's not that unusual. Decades after their demise, some departed stars continue to work on new projects and draw more income than they ever made while drawing breath. And there is a growing legion of agents and managers willing to represent them.
As 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft first reported last September, dead celebrities can be just as lucrative as many live ones, and in some cases, a lot less trouble.
No other agent in the world represents more famous people than Mark Roesler: stroll down Hollywood Boulevard with him and he'll point out 62 of his clients who are immortalized with their own stars on the "Walk of Fame," stars such as Errol Flynn, Gloria Swanson, and Marilyn Monroe.
His client list includes some of the biggest names of the 20th century: actresses like Ingrid Bergman and Bette Davis, baseball legends Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and singer Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.
All have one thing in common besides their greatness, as Roesler explained: "We're a business agent for about 250 entertainment, sports, music and historical clients. But most of those are deceased."
"Dead," Kroft noted. "They're working stiffs."
"I guess you could say that," Roesler replied.
You could call Roesler's business a William Morris agency for the departed, the CAA of the DOA.
The business is called "CMG" and it is headquartered far from the glitter of Hollywood in an office park on the fringes of Indianapolis, distinguished only for the orange wind sock for Roesler's helipad and his green Bentley.
Inside is a multi-tiered office, lined with memorabilia from his departed clients. First stop, a suit worn by one of the Blues Brothers.
"I've represented the family of John Belushi. His widow, Judy, for almost 20 years," Roesler said.
It is all tastefully done and quiet as a morgue - a shrine of sorts for legends whose time on Earth has ended, but whose career still has a pulse strong enough to produce a stream of revenue.
It is part of their legacy now and may be the ultimate show business compliment: they may be dead, but they still have an agent who is finding them work.
Asked what he does for them, Roesler told Kroft, "Well, it's really not that much different than if they were alive."
"You can't book them for personal appearances," Kroft pointed out.
"That's correct. We can't talk to them, we can't get their approval, but we'll
get somebody's approval," Roesler explained.
His real clients are the heirs and estates of the dearly departed, who ultimately approve or reject the merchandising deals that CMG puts together.
"This is our basement, where we have kind of the archives of the past 27 years of the company. A lot of the different samples," Roesler explained during a tour of the office.
Products range from low-end tchotchkes like trashcans and handbags, to the mid-range items like "Marilyn Merlot."
"Rated as one of the best California Merlots, consistently," Roesler pointed out.
Also for sale are playfully prurient outfits inspired by the late pinup queen, Bettie Page. They are marketed as Halloween costumes, but Roesler says they seem to sell all year round.
For example, there is a devil costume; whip, tail and horns included.