Jamie Tarses, who broke the glass ceiling for female TV executives as the first woman to run a network entertainment division, passed away this morning from complications stemming from a cardiac event she suffered in early fall. She was 56.
A superstar TV executive, Tarses was instrumental in developing such iconic shows as NBC’s Friends and Frasier and reached the pinnacle of the network programming executive ladder by age 32, becoming president of ABC Entertainment. Young and phenomenally successful, Tarses transcended the media business to become a bona fide celebrity who was both admired and scrutinized. The enormous pressure of the job and relentless media attention took a toll on her ABC tenure, which Tarses followed with a successful second career as a TV producer of such popular shows as ABC’s Happy Endings, TBS’ My Boys, TNT’s Franklin & Bash and Amazon Prime Video’s The Wilds.
Tarses never regained consciousness following her event and could not witness the breakout December debut and Season 2 renewal of The Wilds or the great pre-launch buzz for The Mysterious Benedict Society, solidified with the recent decision by Disney to move the series from Hulu to Disney+.
Born Sara James Tarses in Pittsburgh in 1964, Tarses and grew up in Los Angeles. Both Jamie and her brother, TV writer Matt Tarses, followed in the footsteps of their father, television writer Jay Tarses, by pursuing a career in television.
After graduating from Williams College in 1985 with a degree in theater, Tarses got a job as an assistant on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. She went on to work as a casting director for Lorimar Productions.
In September 1987, Tarses was hired by NBC President of Entertainment Brandon Tartikoff as manager, creative affairs for NBC Prods., setting off a meteoric rise. Just three months later, in December 1987, she moved to the network as manager of current comedy programming, overseeing such series as Cheers and A Different World. By July 1988, Tarses had switched to development as manager of comedy development and was upped to director of comedy development within seven months. She was involved in the development of such hit series as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Wings and Blossom.
In 1994, Tarses was promoted to SVP Primetime Series and No. 2 to NBC’s entertainment president — and Tarses’ mentor — Warren Littlefield. She played a major role in the development of such signature NBC comedies as Friends, for which she gets a lot of credit; Frasier; NewsRadio; and Mad About You.
The rising-star network executive got the attention of then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner, who approached Tarses in February 1996 about becoming president of ABC Entertainment while she was still under contract at NBC.
The move triggered corporate intrigue and a media storm. After months of speculation, Tarses was named president of ABC Entertainment in June 1996. At 32, she was one of the youngest executives and the first woman to be named entertainment president at a major network.
The high-profile position cemented Tarses’ celebrity status. It also brought even more media attention, with her every move scrutinized in the mainstream press and her personal relationships chronicled in the tabloids.
In that pressure-cooker environment, Tarses developed and launched hit comedy series with Chuck Lorre’s Dharma & Greg and the Ryan Reynolds-starring Two Guys and a Girl, a hit drama with David E. Kelley’s The Practice, and a critical darling with Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night. (She also oversaw the launch and growth of Spin City.)
“I was lucky to know Jamie. I was lucky to laugh with her,” said Reynolds, for whom Two Guys and a Girl marked the first leading role. “She put me on a path I’m still on today. What an incredible life she lived.”
But, as ABC’s ratings slid during the first year of Tarses’ tenure with a slate she had inherited, and with Tarses had a hard time navigating the corporate politics required for the top job but kept at it as the network’s fortunes started to improve. She resigned in 1999 after a Disney corporate restructuring.
The turbulent end to Tarses’ impressive executive career launched her second act as a successful TV producer. Over the past two decades, she developed a slew of projects that went to pilot and more than a dozen series on her own, through her production banner FanFare, or in tandem with high-profile producing partners.
After leaving ABC, she served as president of James Burrows’ Three Sisters Productions. She then partnered with now-20th TV president Karey Burke; with Gavin Polone; and, more recently, with now-Netflix Films head Scott Stuber. She had overall deals at Universal Television, Sony Pictures Television and ABC Signature.
“Jamie was a trailblazer in the truest sense of the word,” said Burke, now President of 20th Television. “She shattered stereotypes and ideas about what a female executive could achieve, and paved the way for others, at a cost to herself. She was a mentor and friend, and many of us owe so much to her. As an executive and producer, she was a champion for storytellers, having been raised by one of the all-time greats. Her talent and contribution to our community will be solely missed.”
The series Tarses executive produced include comedies Happy Endings, The Mayor and Mr. Sunshine for ABC; Mad Love, created by her brother Matt, and Made in Jersey for CBS; Marry Me for NBC; My Boys and Men at Work for TBS, as well as Hawthorne and Franklin & Bash at TNT.
Tarses and Stuber were only partnered professionally for a brief period of time before he took the Netflix job, producing together ABC’s The Mayor, but their personal friendships goes back decades.
“Jamie had a great sense of humor and the most infectious laugh that always brightened the room,” Stuber said. “Her passion and determination to strive for greatness was something I always admired, and I learned so much from knowing and working with her for over 20 years. She will be greatly missed.”
After a decade and a half producing for traditional networks, Tarses did Champaign, ILL at YouTube, her third collaboration with creator David Caspe after Happy Endings and Marry Me. Happy Endings, Caspe’s first series as a creator, starred Casey Wilson who became his wife and also headlined Marry Me.
“Jamie Tarses is a legend,” Caspe said. “To say she changed my life is a ridiculous understatement. She sold my first show which introduced me to my wife. And then sold a show about me proposing to her. Which we shot while my wife was pregnant with my first child. But my life was only one of literal thousands that she changed and touched forever. She is a trailblazer, an icon, a champion of writers, new voices, stylish, generous and kind. So, so kind. But as good as she was at anything, she was an even better friend, mother and person. I am heartbroken for her family and her enormous family of friends. I love you forever, Boss. Here’s to you.”
Tarses recently reinvented herself as a producer of YA streaming series with Amazon Prime Video’s The Wilds and Disney+’s upcoming The Mysterious Benedict Society. She was a hands-on executive producer on The Wilds and spent time of the set in New Zealand. The Wilds was one of the first projects greenlighted by Jennifer Salke when she became head of Amazon Studios as part of a push in the YA space.
“Jamie was a titan in the media industry, pioneering female leadership for so many of us,” said Salke. “I knew we were in for a treat if Jamie wanted to share a creative passion. She was never the producer to sit by the side but, rather, felt completely connected to the writer and the creative in every way. It was an honor for us at Amazon Studios to partner with her on The Wilds and her passion and brilliance were felt throughout the series. We will all miss her dearly and our hearts go out to her friends and family.”
Tarses blasted the door open for women to get to the traditionally male-dominated top TV executive ranks. She was followed by others, including current leading TV executives Burke, Salke and Dana Walden who each spent time as Head of Programming at a Big 4 broadcast network, the position Tarses once held at ABC.
“Jamie’s creative genius sparked culture-defining shows that have spanned decades. She gave an early voice to some of the industry’s most prolific storytellers, and boldly led ABC at a time when the industry saw very few women in leadership roles,” said Walden who now oversees ABC as Chairman of Entertainment, Walt Disney Television, as well Disney TV Studios, which is behind Tarses’ last series, The Wilds and The Mysterious Benedict Society. “She will be remembered as a mentor and role model for many, myself included, and an inspiration to the entire creative community for generations to come.”
Tarses recently re-teamed with My Boys creator and close friend Betsy Thomas for Beth & Sam, a half-hour single-camera comedy executive produced by Jim Parsons, which is in the works at HBO Max.
“Jamie had such a true love for movies, television, theater, books and ideas that both transcended her work and absolutely inspired it,” said Thomas. “She was the ultimate fan.”
At the time of her death, Tarses was under an overall deal at her longtime studio home Sony Pictures TV, which was behind most of her broadcast and cable series, including Happy Endings, My Boys and Franklin & Bash, and had multiple projects in development, including Why You Will Marry The Wrong Person, a dramedy at ABC written by Matt Tarses and executive produced by Freddie Highmore.
“We were always excited when Jamie called to talk about a project because we knew coming from her it was going to be special – and it was always a long call because we would spend at least half of it talking about life, family and the state of the business,” the studio said in a statement. “Her unparalleled taste led to the hundreds of episodes of television we made together and we couldn’t be more proud of our joint history, both personally and professionally.”
Years after developing and greenlighting Sorkin’s first TV series, Sports Night, Tarses served as a consultant on his NBC drama series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. It featured the character Jordan McDeere, the head of fictional network NBS and played by Amanda Peet, which was loosely based on Tarses.
In a rare interview with the Los Angeles Times 14 years ago, Tarses acknowledged that the drama accurately depicted the world of network TV executive ranks during her 11-year executive tenure where, in “certain areas,” there were “mainly men and only one woman.”
Whether she was breaking ground as the only female executive in the room or producing shows, Tarses remained a “genuine fan of the medium,” in her own words.
“I love television, I really do,” she said.
Tarses is survived by her partner, Paddy Aubrey; their children, Wyatt and Sloane; her parents, Jay Tarses and Rachel Tarses; and her siblings Matt Tarses and Mallory Tarses, her sister-in-law Katie Tarses, three nieces and a nephew.
“For all her talent and success in entertainment, the thing Jamie was proudest of and most consumed by were her two kids,” said Matt Tarses, with whom Jamie frequently collaborated. “She was never happier than when she was with Wyatt and Sloane.”
In addition to her career and home life, Tarses also was actively involved in many charitable organizations including Step Up, Young Storytellers and Save the Children. She also spent many years volunteering at Cedars Sinai Medical Center.
At the family’s request donations can be made to Young Storytellers at http://www.youngstorytellers.com.
We are saddened by the passing of Jamie Tarses, an architect of NBC’s Must See TV era. She was a trailblazer for women in entertainment with an unmatched vision for the potential of TV. Her legacy will endure as generations discover those legendary shows.
— NBC Entertainment (@nbc) February 1, 2021