The Desperate Housewife, the series creator and a court case stranger than fiction

Nicollette Sheridan was the British star of Marc Cherry's suburban soap opera. Now she's suing him for punching her in the head – and then sacking her

There are two ways to gain access to the Stanley Mosk courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. One is via a discreet underground car park; the other requires you to cross a pavement laden with paparazzi, before marching through a set of glass doors.

It's standard practice, among the celebrities whose legal disputes are often settled in this building, to use the private rather than the public route. Charlie Sheen did, during his recent custody battles with Brooke Mueller. So did Halle Berry before ugly family court hearings with ex-boyfriend Gabriel Aubry.

But this week, things were different. Each morning, around 9.30, a black Cadillac Escalade swept up to the courthouse's "grand entrance." As police held back the crowds, and camera shutters whirred, a blonde, middle-aged woman, in sunglasses, skirt-suits, and towering high-heels would stride confidently across the pavement, with a phalanx of lawyers. The woman was Nicollette Sheridan, Hollywood actress and former star of thetelevision series Desperate Housewives. Her destination, on this very public catwalk, was a jury trial that is proving to be as juicy, as polarising, and as downright bizarre as any of the show's plot twists.

For five years, the British-born Ms Sheridan played Edie Britt, one of the original "housewives". Now she's suing the makers of the programme over the decision to kill off her character, in 2009, saying she was sacked in retaliation for complaining about a backstage dispute in which the show's creator, Marc Cherry, allegedly struck her in the face.

The case is throwing a revelatory light on both the real-life dramas of Wisteria Lane, and the surreal world of successful television franchises, where tens of millions of dollars rest on fragile artistic egos. At stake is $6m, the amount Ms Sheridan, whose salary of $4m equated to an eye-watering $175,000 per episode, is seeking for unfair dismissal.

So far, it's been a bloodbath. In evidence this week, Ms Sheridan was portrayed as diva of monumental proportions: habitually late, impossibly sensitive, and "hugely rude" to junior staff. She often failed to learn her lines, alleged Mr Cherry, who recalled once being called to a furious meeting with co-star Teri Hatcher, who complained that: "She only had five or six lines... and she didn't know any of them!"

For Mr Cherry, a rotund television power broker who describes himself as a "somewhat conservative, gay Republican," things are scarcely better. He is, after all, alleged to have lost his temper and punched a woman. The human resources department of his employer, ABC Television, is meanwhile accused of trying to hush the whole thing up.

The dispute revolves around a delightfully petty altercation that took place in September 2008, when Ms Sheridan discovered that one of her character's jokes had been cut from a script. She asked Mr Cherry to write a funny line to replace it. In response, he recalls suggesting some "stage business" in which Edie Brit would give her husband "a pinch, or a thing on the head."

What happens next is the subject of debate. Mr Cherry says he "reached out and tapped [Ms Sheridan] on the side of the head," to illustrate his point. Ms Sheridan claims he instead gave her a "nice wallop" to the temple. "It was shocking, humiliating, demeaning," she told the court. "It was unfathomable to me that I'd just been hit by my boss."

After a few moments stunned silence, Ms Sheridan shouted "You just hit me!" Then she walked off the set. Mr Cherry ran to her trailer, and issued a grovelling apology: "I'm on bended knee, seeking your forgiveness." Ms Sheridan told him to send her some flowers. Mr Cherry says he refused: "I thought, 'No, no. That's saying something more [happened] and that's not true."

Ms Sheridan later complained to ABC's PR department. An internal investigation found no wrongdoing. Several months later, she learned that Edie Britt was to suffer a fatal electrocution after first being strangled and then escaping from a car crash.

Her lawyers call this a "triple homicide," saying it illustrates the fact that Edie's departure was inspired by animosity.

Mr Cherry says otherwise, claiming the decision to kill her character off was taken months before the alleged assault happened.

The jury, which will consider its verdict after closing arguments next week, must ignore this noise and instead consider a straightforward question: was the Desperate Housewife's sacking motivated by revenge? If so, would it represent a breach of employment law?

Whatever they decide, the most bizarre part of the case is perhaps the fact that it ever came to court. Given the embarrassment it has already caused both sides, legal experts are amazed that no pre-trial settlement was reached. "It's shocking they haven't stopped this," says Royal Oakes, a legal commentator for NBC. "It's usually fairly easy to work out a settlement range, and you'd have thought both sides have an interest in not airing their dirty linen in public."

But perhaps this is that most damaging of court cases: one where both sides have nothing to lose. Desperate Housewives, once the most popular show on television, is now in its final season, after years of dwindling ratings. ms Sheridan, who is 48, has struggled to find work since leaving the show three years ago.

"If nothing else, Nicollette is now back into the headlines," says one former colleague. "Just watch her arriving at court, and tell me she isn't loving it."

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