How Lorimar, the Company Behind 'Dallas' and 'Falcon Crest,' Bred Hollywood's Ruling Executive Class
This story first appeared in the Jan. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Lorimar Productions occupies a singular place in Hollywood history. The company, co-founded by Lee Rich and Merv Adelson in 1969, quickly emerged as the crown jewel of the television business.
In an era when independent producers proliferated, it could lay claim to four of TV's biggest hits -- The Waltons, Dallas, Knots Landing and Falcon Crest -- to say nothing of a new format (the modern primetime soap) and a strong reputation for its creative-friendly culture. Lorimar's hot streak continued through the 1980s with the addition of rising-star executive Leslie Moonves and a collection of family half-hours, including Full House, ALF and The Hogan Family.
By 1986, Lorimar had merged with top syndicator Telepictures (The People's Court, Love Connection) to become the leading supplier of both network series and first-run syndication. It remained so until it was acquired by Warner Communications in 1989 for $1.2 billion and its TV unit absorbed by Warner Bros. TV four years later.
The only thing more impressive than Lorimar's success onscreen was the exec team that Rich, Adelson and, later, CBS Corp.'s current CEO, Moonves, assembled to work behind it. The roster reads like a who's who of entertainment industry leaders, with NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt, CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler, Legendary Television president Bruce Rosenblum, CBS TV Studios chief David Stapf, Fox 21 president Bert Salke and ex-News Corp. COO Peter Chernin among the bold-faced names who spent formative years at Lorimar.
THR connected with more than a dozen Lorimar alumni (the voice of Rich, who died in 2012, is drawn from an Archive of American Television interviews) to go behind the scenes of a TV production company so prolific that, for years, it was nicknamed the "fifth network."
Part 1: What's a "Lorimar" Anyway?
LEE RICH, co-founder: [My business manager, Bill Hayes] wanted me to stay at [advertising agency] Leo Burnett because they were paying me so much money. I said, "Bill, I can't do this anymore. I want to work for myself. I need money to finance it." And he said to me, "Well, I met a guy who wants to be in the entertainment business."
MERV ADELSON, co-founder: I had been in Vegas for a long time, and I came back to Los Angeles and noticed that most of my friends were writers, and they were a very unhappy group because everybody wanted to stick their nose in what they were doing. So I said, "Let's have a business where we let people go. These are talented people; let them use their talent."
IRWIN MOLASKY, financier/board member: We met Lee Rich, who had produced Rat Patrol [before joining Burnett]. Merv and I were builders, and Lee was trying to sell us on production work. It was like a tax shelter.
RICH: If I had known [Adelson would later acknowledge his real estate investors had mob ties], I wouldn't have partnered with him. Anyway, he put up $185,000 [Adelson recalls $400,000], which I repaid him within a period of six months. We became partners of a thing called Lorimar Productions on Feb. 1, 1969.
ADELSON: The lawyers asked me what I wanted to name it. I didn't know what the hell to tell them. I used to fly airplanes and hung out a lot around the Del Mar race track in the old days, and I looked up and I saw "Palomar" [airport] and my wife at that time was named Lori, so I said, "Let's try Lorimar."
ARNOLD SHAPIRO, script reader: Lee hired me [in 1970]. I'm sure Merv had an office, but I think I saw him once in five months. It was Lee, his secretary and me. Lee said, "You're making $150 a week." I knew this person who had done freelance reading was making $150 a week, so I said I was expecting a little more, $175 or maybe $200. He said, "$155, that's it."
MOLASKY: We started pouring more and more into it until we met a guy named Earl Hamner, who wrote a script for The Homecoming [in 1971]. That CBS movie was the birth of The Waltons.
RICH: I knew that The Waltons would sell because the scripts were good. That started Lorimar.
The Waltons ran for nine seasons and garnered 13 Emmy Awards. Despite a reputation for being gruff, Rich proved to be a deft and generous creative executive, and the writer-friendly culture proved conducive to luring top talent.
RICH: I truly worshiped creative people. I was deeply involved in getting the series off the ground. People would come to me and say, "Well, what do you think?" and we would go and sell it if we thought it was good.
MICHAEL FILERMAN, vp series development: David Jacobs' agent asked me to see him because he had a project [which became Knots Landing]. I felt that it was a little too artsy, but it did bring to mind a movie called No Down Payment about four couples living in a cul-de-sac. So we created something like that and brought it to CBS. They had just signed a deal with Linda Evans, and they wanted to develop a contemporary Western about a girl from the other side of the tracks who marries into a wealthy Texas oil and cattle family. David went home and he created the Ewing family, and we said, "Let's call it Dallas."
DAVID JACOBS, creator of Dallas and Knots Landing: I didn't realize that the city I was writing about was really more like Houston, the oil town. Dallas is the banking town.
FILERMAN: Merv had read the script and didn't think it was in the Lorimar image [built on the family-friendly Waltons]. Lee said, "CBS just picked up five episodes, so we're going to do it."
JACOBS: By the time we got back to the offices at Burbank, Lee was already staffing.
FILERMAN: Dallas was picked up [for a full season] after those first five episodes [aired in April 1978].
JACOBS: I went in to pitch another show to Fred Silverman at CBS that October, but he pulled out that old Knots Landing proposal and said, "Any way to make this a Dallas spinoff?"
FILERMAN: You could walk into Lee Rich's office any time you wanted.
JACOBS: Especially after 4 p.m. You'd go over there if you wanted and have a martini or a vodka, and we'd just chat.
FILERMAN: I'm not saying you walked out of there getting the answer you wanted, but at least you were heard. He was very tough but knew how to sell.
JACOBS: I liked Lee personally. Though he was full of bluster, he always showed you his vulnerabilities.
Over time, Adelson, who proved to be a savvy businessman, became more involved in the day-to-day management of the powerful company. By 1980, 15 of Lorimar's 19 pilots had been picked up to series (including Falcon Crest and Knots Landing), and the "Who Shot J.R.?" episode of Dallas drew more than 90 million viewers. But Adelson was eager for more and kept pushing into feature film. The company released more than a dozen movies between 1979 and 1982, including The Postman Always Rings Twice, Victory and Being There, with established stars such as Jack Nicholson, Sylvester Stallone and Peter Sellers. But with bombs such as Cruising, S.O.B. and The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, losses at the movie division would top $21 million and a decision was made to retrench. Meanwhile, Adelson's relationship with his co-founder became strained.
ADELSON: The strategy for a long period of time was to become a full-blown studio and compete with the rest of the well-known studios.
DAVID V. PICKER, president of feature films: They shouldn't have gone into the movie business. If you don't do it professionally, you're going to get killed -- and most of the time if you are a professional, you're going to get killed, too.
RICH: [Merv] didn't realize how much that would cost.
FILERMAN: There was always a sense of tension in the room when Lee and Merv were together.
PICKER: When I went to Merv [about Lorimar producing An Officer and a Gentleman], he said, "Are you going to get government cooperation in the making of it?" I said, "No, but we don't need it." He said no, he wouldn't do it. I thought it was probably because of his connections with Las Vegas; he didn't want any problems with the government. Jerry [Weintraub, who had the rights] told me Paramount was interested, so I called my friend there and said, "Go to Michael Eisner and tell him Picker's going to pick it up." [Paramount fell for the bluff.] I wound up getting 5 percent of the gross for a movie Lorimar wouldn't make.
Part 2: "There's This Young Guy You Should Meet. His Name Is Les Moonves."
Lorimar went public in 1981. Doing so allowed Adelson to continue to aggressively expand into other businesses, including advertising, video and distribution. In 1985, the company merged with 8-year-old syndicator Telepictures to become Lorimar-Telepictures. The move, which made Lorimar the biggest supplier of both network shows and first-run syndication, led to a reshuffling in the executive ranks. Adelson became chairman and Rich agreed to share power with four Telepictures execs (Michael Jay Solomon, David Salzman, Michael Garin and Richard "Dick" Robertson).
ADELSON: We knew that in order to keep up, we were going to need additional finances, and the public market was the best way to do it.
BARBARA BROGLIATTI, senior vp corporate communications: We bought Karl Home Video [in 1984]. Its only claim to fame was Jane Fonda exercise videos. I remember shlepping Jane to home-video conventions. Everybody else had gold chains and was in porn. We were the kings of home video. Then Stuart Karl got into trouble. [He resigned in 1987 amid allegations that he had inflated sales.]
JEFFREY SCHLESINGER, senior vp international television distribution: I was in Cannes at MIPCOM when I got the call that Telepictures and Lorimar were going to merge. We had great shows like The People's Court and Love Connection and some TV movies, but no primetime series. I thought, "We're now going to have the ability to sell Dallas and Knots Landing to all these networks around the world. This is my dream!" Then we merged, and I found out that we'd made a long-term rights deal with a company called Worldvision and we got to watch them make millions of dollars off of the shows we were producing.
LISA GREGORIAN, assistant to Schlesinger: We had great product, and we were fun to buy from.
SCHLESINGER: And we threw the best parties!
FILERMAN: I had left in 1983 to [produce a show at] Fox. Lee called me: "We're looking for a movie of the week executive. Do you know anybody?" I said, "Well, there's this young guy working here. He's really bright and very nice. You should meet him. His name is Les Moonves."
LESLIE MOONVES, vp Lorimar Productions: After much persistence, Barry [Diller] finally let me out of my deal at Fox and I went over to work for Lee and Merv in 1985. Lorimar had phenomenal creative energy.
In 1986, Rich left the company he had co-founded nearly two decades earlier to become the chairman of MGM/UA. Salzman became Moonves' boss, though it was clear that Moonves was emerging as the real power.
RICH: Just like a marriage, [Merv and I] were pretty much over.
JACOBS: None of us was too happy with David Salzman, the Telepictures guy.
MOONVES: David is a very nice man, but he wasn't exactly an expert in network television, per se. The good news for me? I had total autonomy.
JACOBS Leslie became the face of Lorimar as definitively as Lee was.
DAVID STAPF, publicist: I started in 1986, when Dallas, Knots Landing and Falcon Crest were all on the air and smack in the middle of their heyday. I was put on Dallas immediately, and the season before was so bad that they had declared it all a dream and they were starting fresh. There was this renewed energy. I also got assigned to these two producers, Tom Miller and Bob Boyett, who had Full House, Perfect Strangers and Valerie. I hadn't been there long and already they were firing Valerie [Harper].
BRUCE ROSENBLUM, director of business affairs: Nancy [Tellem] and I both came in 1986. She had been at Merv Griffin, and I had been working as an entertainment lawyer. It was a moment in time when independent production companies were thriving, and Lorimar became the crown jewel. Leslie's passion to succeed just rubbed off on the entire team.
NANCY TELLEM, director of business affairs: Everybody was allowed to grow and identify talent and really cultivate it. Leslie was always somebody who challenged us and let us sort of stretch ourselves, and we were unbelievably driven.