Fred Silverman, the legendary television producer and executive behind such groundbreaking shows as All in the Family, Soap and Hill Street Blues, and the only executive to creatively run CBS, ABC and NBC, died Thursday at his home in Pacific Palisades. He was 82.
Silverman’s knack for identifying hit shows in the making and programming them into memorable primetime nights led Time magazine to crown him “The Man with the Golden Gut” in 1977.
“There are a lot of things that I can point to that I think are proud achievements,” Silverman said in a 2001 interview with the TV Academy Foundation. “Most importantly, I had the opportunity to kind of stretch the medium a little bit, to do some things that had never been done before.”
Watch a clip from his sit-down with Dan Pasternak for the foundation’s “The Interviews” series below.
Born on September 13, 1937, in New York City, Silverman’s master’s thesis at Ohio State University examined ABC’s television programming. He started his career at WGN-TV in Chicago — where he created such programs as Zim-Bomba, Bozo’s Circus and Family Classics — and WPIX in New York City. The young Silverman so impressed the top executives at CBS that he was named head of CBS daytime programming at 25.
He rose to VP Programming at CBS and was responsible for a new wave of hit comedy, drama and variety series. Amid the famous “rural purge” of the early 1970s, the likes of Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, Mayberry R.F.D. and Petticoat Junction were replaced by socially conscious fare including All in the Family, spinoff Maude, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and M*A*S*H.
Other CBS series launched during Silverman’s tenure included The Waltons, The Jeffersons, Good Times, The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, Kojak, Cannon and the animated — and later iconic — Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!
“I had always thought that kids in a haunted house would be a big hit, played for laughs, in animation,” he told Pasternak in the 2001 interview. “[I] developed a show with Hanna-Barbera, and there was a dog in there, but the dog was in the background; it was much more serious. … [CBS President] Frank Stanton says, ‘We can’t put that on the air, that’s just too frightening.’ I booked a red-eye and I couldn’t sleep. I’m listening to music and as we’re landing, Frank Sinatra comes on, and I hear him say ‘Scooby-do-be-do.’ It’s at that point I said, ‘That’s it, we’ll take the dog — we’ll call it Scooby-Doo.”
If it weren’t for you meddling kids…
After a successful run at CBS, Silverman was named President of ABC Entertainment. He greenlighted hit primetime series including Happy Days spinoff Laverne & Shirley — which was the No. 1 show in all of primetime for the 1977-78 and 1978-79 seasons — Charlie’s Angels, The Love Boat, Family, Donny & Marie, Three’s Company, Eight Is Enough, The Bionic Woman and Good Morning America.
Another popular Happy Days spinoff of the late 1970s was Mork & Mindy, which dropped Robin Williams’ oddball alien into his own series and launched the future Oscar winner’s career. Williams called out the executive in a Roots-themed bit on his manic 1979 comedy album Reality … What a Concept, shouting, “I found you, Fred Silverman! I found youuuuuu!”
Silverman reinvented the television miniseries with the Peabody- and Emmy-award winning Roots, which drew massive ratings over multiple nights in January 1977 and fueled a golden era of the format. He also reintroduced game shows to the network’s daytime slate, including The Price Is Right and Family Feud, which still are on the air today.
Under Silverman’s watch, ABC quickly moved from third to first place in the network ratings wars.
In 1978, joined NBC as President. There he greenlighted the influential cop drama Hill Street Blues, supervised the launch of the miniseries Shōgun and gave David Letterman his first series as a host. He scheduled series including The Facts of Life, Diff’rent Strokes, Gimme a Break! and reality forebear Real People and also was credited with revitalizing NBC’s news division.
Silverman memorably was spoofed by John Belushi in a 1978 Saturday Night Live sketch about TV programming. It wasn’t the only time SNL would poke fun at the veteran exec..
After decades as a television executive, Silverman turned his attention to production. He moved to Los Angeles to begin his own production company, quickly churning multiple hits including two series aimed at older audiences that brought back stars from 1960s CBS hits: Andy Griffith in Matlock and Dick Van Dyke in Diagnosis Murder.
He also produced two other dramas that starred former Eye Network series frontmen: the Carroll O’Connor-led In the Heat of the Night and Cannon star William Conrad’s Jake and the Fatman, from which Diagnosis Murder was spun off. Silverman also revived CBS’ Perry Mason as a TV movie series that again starred Raymond Burr. Paul Sorvino and later Hal Holbrook stepped into the lead of those telepics after Burr’s 1993 death.
He went on to produce a number of TV movies into the new century, his last being Drive Time Murders in 2006.
Silverman never was even nominated for an Emmy or Golden Globe as a producer, but in 1995, he received the Women in Film Lucy Award, which recognizes excellence and innovation in creative works that have enhanced the perception of women through the medium of television. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences inducted him into its Hall of Fame in 1999, and he received the Publicists Guild’s Showman of the Year Award in 1991.
Silverman loved television — as a medium and as a profession. At age 21, he applied for his first job in TV, saying later: “An employee in the industry should treat his job not just as a means of earning a living but as a challenge, always looking to better that which has been done in the past. Most important of all, such an individual must have a sincere interest and love for the profession.”
Silverman is survived by his wife, Cathy; their children Melissa and Billy; and his daughter-in-law, Anna. A private service will be held for immediate family and a celebration of his life will follow at a later date. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions be made in his name to the Motion Picture & Television Fund for emergency medical assistance.