No, it's not a joke.
Though writer/director Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore) made the name up, the script clearance department at Buena Vista Pictures found a real Steve Zissou. This Zissou is a federal criminal trial lawyer based in Bayside, N.Y., not a burned-out underwater explorer.
"When I found out it was part of the title, I was a little annoyed. It's a unique name, and I really didn't want to share it," says Zissou, 49, but he observes he had few legal options because Anderson's film wasn't directly about him.
"They could have made a movie about a New York lawyer who was an anti-Semitic terrorist pedophile, and I still couldn't do anything about it," Zissou says. "If it's about the real Steve Zissou, then maybe you have a shot, but then you have to prove damages."
Perhaps to be on the safe side, the movie studio negotiated with Zissou over use of his distinctive name. He declines to answer questions about the agreement's confidential terms except to say he is acknowledged as a New York attorney in the film credits.
T. Ernest Freeman, a Houston-based entertainment attorney, says obtaining permissions "really gets down to due diligence. ... The question is, if it's a private citizen, would the person whose name is being used be readily identifiable? It's a subjective test applied to the movie."
Case in point: Eleven years after Richard Linklater's cult hit Dazed and Confused opened in theaters, a trio of Texans (Andy Slater, Bobby Wooderson, Richard "Pink" Floyd) is suing the filmmaker and Universal Studios for "defamation" and "negligent infliction of emotional distress." The suit claims that Linklater did not obtain permission to use the surnames of former high school acquaintances in his film.
Freeman, who is representing the plaintiffs in that litigation, says in the case of Steve Zissou, New York attorney, the studio's legal department was probably playing it safe, "simply crossing the i's and dotting the t's," he says. "Any diligent studio would make sure there wouldn't be a problem."
Zissou's stepmother, Mary Zissou of Lakeside, Calif., was married to Stavros "Steve" Zissou for nearly 35 years before his death in 2000. When she first saw the movie trailer and the title of the film, "I thought I was losing my mind completely," she says. "I thought it was the most not-possible thing that would ever happen."
She says she didn't know her stepson was listed in the film credits.
"Well, that little rascal, he never told me," she says.
Despite his original discomfort at the thought of his unique name being used in a movie, "it's been, to my surprise, a lot of fun," Zissou says. "And I think Bill Murray is America's greatest living actor."
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.