2ND UPDATE: Lee Rich, the powerful TV mogul responsible for some of the medium’s most popular programming like The Waltons, Dallas, and Eight Is Enough, died on Thursday. He was 93, according to Warner Bros. (Even though the birthdate on his official biography would make him only 85). Recognized inside and outside the television industry for his extrardinarily successful career spanning six decades, he helped found and became chairman of Lorimar in its heyday (where he was nominated for 5 Emmys and won Best Drama Series for The Waltons) and later took over MGM-UA. His death comes just as Warner Bros Television next month unveils its next generation Dallasdrama series on TNT.
“Lee’s passion for television, his business acumen, and his love of the creative process made him an extraordinary mentor for all of us who had the good fortune to work for him,” said Bruce Rosenblum, President Warner Bros. Television Group and Chairman & CEO, Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. “Lee was a creative force who established the gold standard for independent production companies, and the Lorimar/Warner Bros merger was transformational for Warner Bros. Television.” Said CBS Corp chief Les Moonves: “Lee Rich was a giant in the television industry who produced some of the most iconic series in the history of the medium and influenced audiences worldwide. He also served as an early mentor to me while I was at Lorimar, providing valuable guidance for which I will forever be appreciative.” TV icon Norman Lear called Rich “one of the greatest producers to ever come out of advertising and he knew talent better than anyone else.”
“Lee Rich was an indelible talent who helped to shape the television landscape,” said Gary Barber and Roger Birnbaum, Co-Chairmen and CEOs of MGM. “We are incredibly proud that MGM is a part of his legacy. Lee’s role as Chairman and CEO of MGM/UA and the prolific body of work he created throughout his career continue to inspire the work we do today.”
Rich started his media career at Benton & Bowles advertising agency where he packaged and sold such seminal sitcoms as The Dick Van Dyke Show for Procter & Gamble and The Danny Thomas Show and The Andy Griffith Show, both for General Foods. In those early days of television, admen like Rich enjoyed almost total control over programming, and Rich ultimately headed the television programming and media departments. He left the agency as SVP in 1965 to form his own production company, Mirisch-Rich Productions which produced Rat Patrol and one of the first Garry Marshall/Jerry Belson shows, Hey, Landlord. Rich returned to advertising to run the Leo Burnett Agency. But then he left again to form the indie Lorimar Productions (later known as Lorimar Television and Lorimar Distribution) with Irwin Molasky and Merv Adelson. Here is a wonderful 1999 interview done with Rich by the Academy Of Television Arts & Sciences (obit continues below):
Lorimar initially started producing made-for-TV movies for the ABC Movie of the Week. Then Rich bought the script to an adaptation of Earl Hamner Jr’s novel The Homecoming and subsequently sold the rights to CBS. The Homecoming: A Christmas Story was a ratings success and served as the pilot for Lorimar’s first major hit production, The Waltons, which premiered in 1972. Rich served as executive producer on the company’s successful series like The Waltons (CBS), Eight Is Enough (ABC), Dallas (CBS), and its spinoff Knots Landing (CBS). Lorimar is widely credited with introducing television’s first miniseries, The Blue Knight. Rich also exec-produced numerous TV movies like Sybil and Helter Skelter. In 1980, Lorimar purchased the bankrupt Allied Artists Pictures Corporation. During the next decade, Lorimar’s output swung toward family-friendly sitcoms like Perfect Strangers and Full House from Miller-Boyett Productions.
The same year, 1986, when Lorimar merged with television syndication firm Telepictures becoming Lorimar-Telepictures, Rich left to join MGM/UA Communications as chairman/CEO. During his tenure there, he greenlit A Fish Called Wanda, Moonstruck, and the Academy Award-winning Rain Man. MGM’s TV series thirtysomething also was created under his leadership. After two years at the helm of MGM/UA, Rich left to return to independent production, founding Lee Rich Productions for television and film productions at Warner Bros which now owned Lorimar. He made film fare like Passenger 57, Just Cause, Gloria, and Replay.