How Celebs Make A Living After Death

Steve Kroft Reports On The Big Business of Dead Celebrities' Lively Profits

The product endorsements run the gamut from paraphernalia to the pinnacle of postmortem prestige. And Roesler has licensed more than 200 deals with the U.S. Postal Service.

"Here's a boxer, Jack Dempsey. Of course, Jessie Owens. One of the early stamps with Babe Ruth," Roesler explained. "Of course Jackie Robinson, a big part of the baseball series. A very successful stamp with Malcolm X."

They are also Roesler's clients.

The agency has created Web sites for all its deceased clients and maintains and revives their fan clubs.

"We get at least 15 million hits a day that come through this building, for the different clients that we represent," Roesler told Kroft.

It is all part of a legal and entertainment niche that Roesler pioneered more than 25 years ago, after graduating from law school.

Asked where the idea came from, Roesler said, "I thought it'd be nice to be an agent. But I really couldn't, being from Indiana, I really couldn't represent anybody famous because everybody living would have already been represented. So, really, the only opportunity was to represent deceased people. And I happened to notice that deceased personalities didn't have any protection."

Until Roesler came along in the early 1980s, a celebrity's right to control or profit from their good name was buried along with them. Their heirs had virtually no say in how their loved one's image or persona was used and no claim to any of the monies they generated.

So Roesler set about to trying to change that in courts and in state legislatures around the country, helping to establish what is now recognized as the postmortem right to publicity.

"The right to publicity, I don't remember reading that in the Bill of Rights. Where does that come from?" Kroft asked.

"We have the right to prevent our name, our likeness, our image, our signature, our voice, from being used in some commercial fashion," Roesler explained.

Now in a number of states, that right passes on to the heirs, just like a house or a bag of old coins. And one of the first beneficiaries lived right down the road from Roesler in Fairmont, Ind.

Marcus Winslow is the cousin of James Dean, who died in a car accident in 1955 after making just three movies.

But the image of this rebel without cause has become a commercial icon. And 50 years after he crashed his Porsche, James Dean is still selling German cars and Italian shoes.

But when Roesler first showed up at the family farm in 1982, Dean's heirs had no idea how big their Jimmy had become.

Until Roesler showed up, the estate had gotten no money at all from James Dean.

"I don't think he would approve of perfect strangers making money off of his name and his likeness if his family didn't have something to say about it," Winslow said.

Winslow told Kroft his cousin made a lot more money since his death than when he was alive. "He'd be 77 years old. But he'll never be any older than 24," he said.