‘We said no to Elvis Presley sweat and James Dean condoms’: the agent making a killing from dead celebrities | Celebrity

The celebrity agent Mark Roesler is telling me about a new client he’s just taken on – a big name with global reach. Roesler has already managed – in the four months they’ve been working together – to secure him a top advertising gig that went out during this year’s Super Bowl to an estimated 120 million viewers. “I’ve really learned just how big he is, that’s for sure,” enthuses Roesler. He’s talking about Albert Einstein.

Roesler, you see, is a celebrity agent with a difference – the 68-year-old works predominantly with famous people who are no longer alive. Also on his books are Neil Armstrong, Aaliyah, Rosa Parks, Burt Reynolds, Bette Davis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Ingrid Bergman, Alan Turing and hundreds more dead celebrities – or “delebrities” as they’re sometimes called. It’s a roster that has made him one of the world’s most successful agents to the afterlife, and an expert in a field that is growing all the time. Because according to Forbes, being dead doesn’t necessarily mean being unprofitable. Their stats show Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley both raking in more than $100m each year, with other big hitters including Dr Seuss ($40m), Prince ($30m), Arnold Palmer and Marilyn Monroe (both $10m).

In the four decades since he started as a delebrity agent, Roesler says his company, CMG Worldwide, has represented 3,000 deceased entertainment, sports, music and historical personalities. And the opportunities to earn a crust from beyond the grave have never been better, with holographic and AI technology resurrecting dead stars’ voices and likenesses so that they can get back on the live circuit (most recently George Michael was reported to be returning to the stage as a hologram). Roesler takes out his phone and shows me a project that he recently put together with the Calm meditation app – it’s a bedtime story, narrated by the US actor James Stewart, who died in 1997: “Well, hello,” it begins. “I’m James Stewart, but, well, you can call me Jimmy. Tonight, I’m going to tell you a story, a story all about a fellow called Montgomery. OK?” Smart business? Or a bit creepy?

Being dead wasn’t always so good for the bank account. When Roesler started the company in 1981, the delebrity landscape was very different: “There were no rights for deceased personalities in their name and a lot of products – posters, greetings cards, calendars – were being made with James Dean or Marilyn Monroe on them,” he says. “Levi’s was doing a campaign using James Dean’s image – that was the lay of the land back then.”

Roesler hadn’t planned on getting into this line of business. He had actually started his own roofing company in order to fund his journey through law school and was enjoying it so much that he viewed it as a potential career. But when the roofing work slowed down, he “stumbled” into working for a company that was licensing copyrights for the artist Norman Rockwell’s images. From there an opportunity to work with Elvis Presley’s Graceland came up – they were about to open the Memphis tourist attraction but were in dispute with the King’s former manager Colonel Tom Parker and needed some advice. Roesler ended up representing the Elvis Presley estate – not a bad first client to have. He began thinking about other dead celebrities. Down the road from where he grew up, there was a constant pilgrimage of people visiting James Dean’s grave in Fairmount, Indiana. He went to meet Dean’s family and the late actor became his second client.

“People thought they could do whatever they wanted to with these celebrities’ images,” he says. “Many of them were taken by a host of different photographers, so there wasn’t really copyright protection we could rely on.” Roesler set out to register various trademarks for his client’s names and some of their famous images, but it soon became very expensive. So they decided to work with different state legislatures, resulting in laws in certain states – California, Texas, Nevada – that recognised that famous deceased people could protect their name and likeness. Every territory has a different law, Roesler explains. For instance, in California, protection covers 70 years; in Indiana it’s 100 years. The statute in Tennessee guarantees 10 years, but continues until there have been two consecutive years of non-use. “So theoretically, somebody like Elvis could last for a lot longer than 100 years,” says Roesler.

Roesler can’t protect everyone. He recalls someone asking if CMG could represent one of their family members: it turned out he was the great, great-grandson of Abraham Lincoln. “I said, ‘Wow, with all those pennies and $5 bills out there, if we could protect the intellectual property, we’d both be very rich!’”

A laid-back figure who likes to recline in his seat and demonstrate complex image rights issues using his phone case and a water bottle, today Roesler is speaking to me from the company’s Nashville office which is where they handle their music business – he’s just flown in from the company’s HQ in Beverly Hills. He tells me how CMG recently acquired a controlling interest in Worldwide XR, a tech company that specialises in everything from holograms to augmented reality. “So suddenly, people like James Dean can star in movies again and appear in ads,” he says. One recent project involved a Neil Armstrong range of augmented reality NFTs.

All this is a far cry from what Roesler thought he was getting into in 1981. Does it ever seem strange on some ethical level to be working with people from beyond the grave? After all, we can never know if they would have approved of what’s being done in their name.

“That’s an interesting question,” he says. “But you know, James Dean had a famous quote: ‘If a man can bridge the gap between life and death, if he can live on after he’s dead, then maybe he was a great man.’ So I think he would be happy that future generations continue to be inspired by his work. Obviously, these celebrities have gone to great lengths during their lifetime to protect their legacy, so wouldn’t want to see it abused. That’s why it’s important to have somebody continue to handle it. And that’s what we try to do.” It’s not just about making money, he insists, but also keeping someone’s memory alive.

Protecting a legacy means turning down a lot of ridiculous requests. “We’ve had people who wanted to market Elvis Presley sweat and James Dean condoms,” he says. “Someone wanted to do a James Dean theme park in Japan, but we didn’t think it would be successful and you don’t want to be married to a failure.” He says what he does is no different from being a living celebrity’s agent: “You have to analyse all the opportunities and see if it’s going to come back to make you look bad, either because it’s been poorly executed, under-financed or is just not appropriate. You could guide a living celebrity down the wrong path in the same way – make a couple of flops and tank their reputation.”

Roesler’s clients have included (clockwise from top left): Malcolm X; Ingrid Bergman; Einstein; Bette Davis; Elvis; Diana, Princess of Wales; James Stewart; Burt Reynolds; Marilyn Monroe; James Dean. Photograph: Alamy; Allstar, Getty; Reuters; Shutterstock/Rex

There are some personalities represented by CMG Worldwide who have especially important reputations to preserve: civil rights icons such as Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou and Malcolm X (when Spike Lee started selling merchandise around his 1992 biographical film, Roesler entered a legal battle with him, successfully establishing that it was X’s widow, Betty Shabazz, and not Lee, who controlled the rights). When dealing with such sensitive figures, Roesler says his company will always advise what they think is the best path to take to avoid reputational damage.

Roesler was not involved in the cautionary tale of Ram Trucks’s 2018 Super Bowl advert, which used a segment from one of Martin Luther King’s speeches (the idea being that Ram trucks are “built to serve”, just like King). It backfired – not just because the idea of Martin Luther King as a car salesman is a murky fit, but because MLK denounced car adverts themselves in the very same speech. “We are so often taken by advertisers,” the key passage goes. “You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. And they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbours envious, you must drive this type of car.” MLK’s estate is run by Intellectual Properties Management, an Atlanta-based firm controlled by King family members.

It’s far from the only delebrity disaster out there. When Dr Martens ran an ad featuring Sid Vicious and Kurt Cobain wearing its boots in heaven, Cobain’s widow Courtney Love described it as a “despicable use” of her husband’s picture. The agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, ended up getting fired and the company apologised.

Pleasing the family is only half the battle. Bruce Lee’s daughter approved when Johnnie Walker Blue Label used CGI technology to resurrect him for a Chinese campaign – but plenty of fans were left nonplussed at the idea the teetotal martial arts expert would sign up to sell whisky.

Roesler says that commercials are typically high stakes. Their own Super Bowl advert with Einstein (in which the scientist joins a host of other historical figures singing along to Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now) was a tie-in with Pfizer and, despite the clear scientific connections, he says the company and the ad agency were both anxious about what reaction it might get. “There was a lot of pressure to make sure it sent a positive message. And for the most part, the reaction was positive. But you can’t please everybody, and people are going to be critical of this or that whatever you do.”

It’s often said, half-jokingly these days, that the best thing a celebrity can do to boost their image is die, but Roesler insists that’s not the case. He tells me that we all have two sets of rights: our personal services – for example, our ability to write songs or perform in concert – and our intellectual property. “Someone like Taylor Swift can generate unbelievable amounts of money from live tours and writing,” he says. “Whereas on death, you’re left with just intellectual property. And there’s a lot of data that shows that this will decrease in value every year after someone has passed away. Of course, there are things that we’re doing to change those averages – especially with digital humans.”

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Mark Roesler: ‘You can’t please everybody, and people are going to be critical of this or that whatever you do.’ Photograph: Robert Gallagher/The Guardian

Hologram technology isn’t easy to pull off, of course. When Whitney Houston (not one of CMG’s clients) returned from the grave for a tour, this newspaper called it a “ghoulish cash-in”, writing that “Whitney” had “unusually floppy arms, occasionally jerky movements and barely moves a foot each way from centre stage. The mouth doesn’t always seem quite in sync with the vocals. Holo-Whitney certainly doesn’t appear to open its mouth wide enough to emit the gigantic whoa-oh-ohs that are supposedly coming out of it.”

Roesler says CMG takes a proactive approach with clients, putting together potential projects and marketing plans it thinks will work. Every client is different: “Some will want us to generate a lot of money, and others prefer us to be very selective in what we do. So we take orders from the client.”

There can be issues. CMG looks after Jim Thorpe, a renowned athlete who died in 1953, who has 64 different beneficiaries – a lot of people to keep happy. Some families disagree on what they want from their association, while others are adamant that their relative is a lot more famous than he or she actually is. “You can get a lot of mixed messages,” Roesler says. “Some family members need the money and others don’t. But at the end of the day it’s in your vested interest not to do anything that makes their name look silly.”

Roesler admits to being gobsmacked when his son once told him that some of his friends had never heard of Diana, Princess of Wales, one of his current clients. It made him realise that you need to put the work in to keep even very famous people’s memory alive. Social media is one tool he uses, from Instagram to TikTok. James Dean has a particularly active social media presence – a recent post of his wishing everyone a happy Valentine’s Day prompted fellow delebrity (and CMG client) Natalie Wood to send a heart in response, to which Dean replied with a red rose emoji. Both have blue tick verification, as if they’d never died.

“You don’t want to be tacky,” insists Roesler. “You don’t want to take James Dean, who only starred in three movies, and have him star in 10 more movies, and then future generations think, ‘Oh, James Dean was in this movie and that movie and this other movie was a total flop.’”

It’s hard to know where to draw the line, especially when it comes to politics. Can we say for sure that Marilyn Monroe would have posted a black square to her Instagram page as part of #BlackoutTuesday – a 2020 protest against racism and police brutality? Not definitively, yet her ghostly social media presence did it regardless. Stranger still, so did Elvis Presley’s, despite the fact that the singer had an undeniable conservative streak and approval of authority.

When you’ve worked with dead celebrities for as long as Roesler has, you become an expert in certain areas. One of these is being able to evaluate a person’s intangible assets – ie not the bank accounts, cars or houses that someone leaves behind but the patents, trademarks and film ideas that are typically harder to put a price on. When Michael Jackson died, Roesler’s company spent eight years working on a case regarding the discrepancy between his estate’s valuation of the star’s image and likeness (around $3m) and that of the IRS ($161m). “It was called the tax trial of the century,” he notes. CMG’s evaluation that it was actually worth around $4m was eventually agreed on by the judge, “almost to the dollar,” he says proudly. Roesler was also called as an expert witness during the OJ Simpson civil trial, after being asked by the families of the murder victims to put a value on Simpson’s future worth. “The stakes were high, because it was such a high-profile case,” he says. “I was reluctant to get involved because I thought, gosh, if I come up with a value and they didn’t accept that, it could really damage my reputation.” Fortunately for Roesler, the judgment of $33.5m was the exact amount that he had testified to.

Roesler is keen to point out that CMG has represented a fair few living personalities – including Pamela Anderson, Ivana Trump and Charles Oppenheimer (grandson of Robert). Some come to discuss estate planning for after they’ve gone – as well as the thorny tax considerations that will ensue if everything hasn’t been expertly managed in advance. But there are advantages, he says, to focusing on those no longer with us: “There’s unlikely to be a scandal,” he says, “unlike with some celebrities we could mention.” Although as we know with names such as Michael Jackson, this isn’t a watertight guarantee.

Roesler’s line of work has, inevitably, put him much closer to death. He met with the friends and family of Diana, Princess of Wales shortly after she died. “I’m never happy to be there because of someone’s misfortune,” Roesler says. “Even though there’s a financial opportunity with what we do, you have to tread a thin line. It can be daunting.”

It has also made him think about his own life – and what might be left after he’s gone. “Working in this industry has made me think about reputation, just how important it is,” he says. “It’s also made me realise how quickly time goes by – and how fast things can change.” Roesler is currently listed as one of the many speakers CMG represents – but whether or not he carries that on as a hologram after he’s gone remains to be seen.

This article was amended on 24 March 2024.An earlier version referred to Courtney Love as Kurt Cobain’s “ex-wife”. This has been changed to “widow”.