Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Back when TV was fun

Now that networks own most studios you have more corporate types running things, everyone answering to someone else even more corporate. But just as there used to be larger-than-life movie moguls back in the day, TV studios were once piloted by more colorful personalities.

They were blustery, opinionated, candid, and very savvy. Decisions were made on instinct not research. And they made quick decisions. You may not have liked their rulings, but I’ve always believed that the next best thing to a “Yes” is a quick “No.”

David Isaacs and I got to work with a few of these cigar chomping Foghorn Leghorns during our career. Maybe tops among them was Lee Rich. Rich had come from the MAD MEN world of NY advertising in the '50s and early '60s (he had a big hand in saving THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW from cancellation) and along with Merv Adelson (another interesting personality) had formed Lorimar Productions. We had a development deal with them for a couple of years. At the time Lorimar was riding high. They were the studio behind DALLAS and FALCON CREST.

Another thing about these small screen czars, they were great salesmen. And Lee was the best of the best. Whenever we went into a network to pitch a pilot we knew we were golden if Lee was in the meeting.

One of those meetings in particular stands out. We went to CBS to pitch a family show. Lee tagged along. He began the meeting by saying to the head of CBS programming, “In all my years, this is the best goddamn idea for a series I have ever heard. Ever!  And if you don’t buy it – right now, in the room – you are fucking idiots. You hear me? Fucking moron idiots! And if you don’t buy it, I’m calling NBC and we’ll have a sale by the end of the fucking day.”

Wow, we thought. Lee has never been this effusive before. We might just have a home run. So with that he turned it over to us, we pitched it, and CBS bought it on the spot.

As we were walking to the elevator Lee said, “Hey, you know what guys? You do have a pretty good idea there.”

That, ladies and gentleman, is a SALESMAN.

Who’s to say whether television was better back then? But it was sure a lot more fun.

15 comments:

emily said...

Fortunately, I keep my feathers numbered for just such an emergency.

Peter said...

I looked up Lee Rich's credits and I see that as well as producing a lot of TV, he produced three of my favourite popcorn movies. The ridiculously silly but fun Hard to Kill, starring Steven Seagal back when he didn't look like the Stay Puft marshmallow man, the even more ridiculously silly but fun Passenger 57, and the terrific Desperate Measures starring Michael Keaton in his best psycho villain role. He also produced the extremely underrated John Landis horror flick Innocent Blood, which I love.

Pizzagod said...

OMG! Ken, this is the best story EVER!

You never disappoint. I can so relate too.

Dan Ball said...

That's a magical story. lol Ken, have you ever based any characters off Lee Rich?

Aaron Hazouri said...

This reminds me of cartoon producer Joe Barbera - I think it was that half of the Hanna-Barbera team - who would go into meetings to pitch shows and would often end up selling an entirely different show, changing the pitch on the fly as the executives mentioned things (like "gee, robots are hot right now" or maybe "could we work basketball into this thing?"). He'd have to go to his artists and figure out what the hell they'd sold so they could produce the show. That would NEVER happen nowadays. (Maybe in the case of TV cartoons, that's a good thing.... or we'd be watching "That 70s Show... In Space")

Tom Berg said...

Have you read Stan Freberg's book, "It Only Hurts When I Laugh"?

Among other things it has a hilarious story about how he tried to get HIS television show on the air at CBS.

I won't try to re tell it here. It's worth the effort to find.

thomas tucker said...

Ah yes, the days of the giants. We have the same thing in medicine- there used to be all kinds of out-sized and outlandish personalities that walked the hospital wards and operated in the surgical suites. Now, with political correctness, corporate behvavior policies and mission statements, no one is allowed to have a personality.

Corey said...

Ken....
Tragic news! Joe's in Venice is closing on the 14th. Ugh

Peter said...

By the way, I watched the SAG awards. Talk about if looks could kill when Claire Danes lost to Viola Davis. I'm a huge fan of Claire Danes but the look on her face as Davis went up to the stage was quite something to behold. Lethal doesn't begin to describe it.

MikeN said...

CBS bought Almost Perfect on the spot, and now you say you wish ABC had taken it. Wasn't this actually a bad sales job, or did CBS regularly buy all your pitches?

Anonymous said...

Peter, she had probably forgotten to take her meds.

Anonymous said...

So was the radio business.....

Charles Cavender said...

He also produced The Waltons. How about that?

Matthew said...

Speaking of comedy, you might like this:

http://www.vulture.com/2016/01/100-jokes-shaped-modern-comedy-c-v-r.html

John said...

Back when I was in the (Swedish) TV biz in the 90s, I was tasked with coming up with a show based on footage from the show You Asked For it. All because a purchaser had been cornered by Sandy Frank and talked into buying hours worth of essentially useless black and white clips (I did create a show around them, and despite a pretty stellar cast, it flopped about as hard as anything ever has).

During the process, my producer would tell me of the legendary Sandy Frank - how he had pitched You Asked For It to one network, who had turned it down, at which point he'd just started his spiel again. So they called security to throw him out, but before they could eject him from the building, he locked himself in the executive bathroom - which had a phone line - called another network from there, set up a meeting, exited the bathroom, went to the next network, sold the show and it turned out be a huge success.

Now, googling Sandy Frank and YAFI today, this story seems highly apocryphal - the show existed well before he got involved with it (and his involvement seems to have been only in distribution).

He was also claimed to have faked a heart attack in order to get a plane to land at a location where he wanted to go. I've been retelling these stories for years, so I am a bit sad to find out that they weren't true. Have you heard these tales about someone else, mayhap?