Born in Los Angeles in 1929, Adelson moved to Las Vegas as a young man. There he became a millionaire while still in his 20s, after opening a then-novel 24-hour grocery store. From there he got into real estate development, making him even richer. Citing later in life a desire to get away from the more unsavory elements of Vegas life, Adelson returned to Los Angeles in the 1960s and directed his wealth into the entertainment industry, joining together with developer Irwin Molasky and producer Lee Rich (who died in 2012), to found Lorimar in 1969.
At first focusing on made-for-television movies, the company soon branched out into original
series, having a huge early hit with The Waltons. It would go on to create numerous hits including Eight Is Enough and the massive cultural smash Dallas, TV’s top-rated drama from 1979-84. By the 1984-85 TV season, three of the top 10 hit series were Lorimar productions: Dallas, Knots Landing, and Falcon Crest. The company also would bring popular sitcoms Perfect Strangers and Full House into homes later in the decade, merging with TV syndicator Telepictures in 1986. In 1989 the new company was sold to Warner Bros for $1.2 billion, and Adelson became Vice Chairman at Warner, though he left the company in 1991.
Tributes to Adelson poured in as news of his death spread. “Merv was one of the true greats!!! He did it all and he did it his way,” DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg said in a statement. “He was a wonderful mentor to so many and will be missed.”
Always colorful, Adelson’s life never was without drama. Rumors of mob ties during his Vegas days followed him throughout his career. Although he was never implicated in any criminal activity, he did admit in a 2013 Vanity Fair interview an association with mob figures, including Las Vegas mafia institution Moe Dalitz. “I know you’re thinking, ‘How do you account, Merv, for the fact that Moe Dalitz was a mob boss?,” Adelson told the magazine. “All I can say is, in all the years I knew Moe, we never discussed anything criminal.”
Adelson famously married Barbara Walters twice, first from 1981-84 and again from 1986-92. He also amassed, and later lost, an enormous fortune. By the time he left Warner, he was worth an estimated $300 million but was nearly destitute after the dot-com crash of 2000-01 brought down several of his investments.