Jerry Perenchio, Consummate Hollywood Dealmaker and Former Univision Head, Dies at 86

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Jerry Perenchio

Once a talent agent and promoter, the reclusive executive was a partner in business with Norman Lear and an owner of a valuable art collection.

Jerry Perenchio, the preeminent Hollywood dealmaker who bought and sold Univision, partnered with Norman Lear and promoted game-changing sporting events featuring Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King, has died. He was 86.

Perenchio, who got his start in show business as a talent agent working for the legendary mogul Lew Wasserman, died Tuesday of lung cancer at his Bel Air home, a family spokesperson told the Los Angeles Times.

In 1992, Perenchio and his partners acquired the then-flagging Spanish-language TV network Univision from greeting-card company Hallmark for $550 million, then took it public four years later.

After adding 13 TV stations in a $1.1 billion deal with Barry Diller to their portfolio, they sold Univision to an investment group led by Haim Saban for $12.3 billion in 2007. (Perenchio collected some $1.3 billion for his stake off his initial investment that was said to be about $33 million.)

Perenchio "played a significant role in shaping the media and entertainment industry as we know it today, bringing incredible foresight, compassion and respect for a community — Hispanic America — that sought to be represented and that had never before been served in such a meaningful way," Univision president and CEO Randy Falco said in a statement.

In 1973, longtime showbiz partners Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin enlisted Perenchio to work with them at Tandem Productions, their burgeoning company behind such TV hits as All in the Family, Maude and Sanford & Son (and later One Day at a Time, Good Times and The Jeffersons).

Lear and Yorkin had met Perenchio, then an agent, when they were working on a TV special starring crooner Andy Williams and were looking to book a comedy act called The Stewed Prunes (Richard Libertini and MacIntyre Dixon), who were represented by Perenchio.

"I knew from that experience on, if I ever got to a place where it was time to have a business head, I would want Jerry," Lear said in a 1998 interview with the Archive of American Television.

Perenchio helped grow the business, and in 1981, he and Lear acquired the film and TV studio Avco-Embassy for $25 million and added that to the Tandem assets. Four years late, they sold their company to Coca-Cola — which a couple years earlier had bought Columbia Pictures — for $485 million.

"The word creative is so often misused in our business. There's the creative side and then the 'other,'" Lear said. "There is more creativity in Jerry Perenchio than there is in three-fifths of the 'creative community.'"

Said Lear on Wednesday in a statement: "The world has lost a glorious, most generous man and an absolute original. There will never ever be another him."

Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn said he got his start in the entertainment industry when Perenchio hired him at Tandem. "He was a mentor, a dear friend and a singular, brilliant talent," Horn said. "More important, he was a man of total integrity, whose humility belied his extraordinary success. I loved him."

Perenchio also was an original investor in Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas; a pioneer in pay-per-view television; and instrumental in bringing then-unknown British singer Elton John to the U.S. And he was a money man behind such films as Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) and Driving Miss Daisy, the 1990 Oscar winner for best picture.

The reclusive executive rarely spoke to the media and reportedly fired those under him who did. He followed Wasserman's "Rules of the Road," one of which was: "Stay clear of the press. No interviews. No panels. No speeches. No comments. Stay out of the spotlight. It fades your suit."

The grandson of Italian immigrants, Andrew Jerrold Perenchio was born in Fresno, Calif., on Dec. 30, 1930. He was an only child, and his father owned a winery. He spent time at a military school in Los Angeles, then graduated from UCLA in 1954 and served in the U.S. Air Force as a fighter pilot.

In 1958, Perenchio landed a job in the mailroom at MCA and then became a talent agent, eventually representing the likes of Marlon Brando and Ronald Reagan.

When the Justice Department forced MCA, also the owner of the Universal movie studio, to divest itself of its talent operation, Perenchio lost his job. But in 1963, he launched his own agency, Chartwell Artists — named after Winston Churchill's country estate — where the clients would include Elizabeth Taylor as well as music acts Williams, Donovan, Henry Mancini, Glen Campbell and Johnny Mathis.

While on a visit to London, Perenchio heard John's first album and instructed an agent at Chartwell to get the musician to the U.S. as soon as possible. Soon, the singer/piano player was making his American debut at the Troubadour in L.A. on Aug. 25, 1970.

Perenchio and co-promoter Jack Kent Cooke (then the owner of the Los Angeles Lakers and Kings) bankrolled the first of Ali's three legendary boxing matches against his bitter rival Joe Frazier, guaranteeing a $5 million purse for the March 1971 bout at New York's Madison Square Garden.

At the time, both fighters were undefeated, and Ali was trying to regain the heavyweight crown that had been stripped from him for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War.

Frazier won a brutal 15-round unanimous decision, and Perenchio was a big winner, too: An estimated 300 viewers around the world paid $25 apiece to get into a theater to watch the bout on closed-circuit television.

In 2001, Perenchio was back in the fight game as the promoter for the popular, East L.A.-bred Oscar de la Hoya.

Perenchio also was architect of the September 1973 "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match between King and Bobby Riggs held at the Houston Astrodome. A crowd of nearly 30,000 (and another 50 million watching live on ABC) saw King win, striking a blow for feminists everywhere.

Perenchio helped launch National Subscription Television (ONTV), one of the first over-the-air television subscription services, in 1977, and he later owned and sold Loews Theaters, making millions on that deal.

In 1986, Perenchio bought for $13.5 million the Bel Air mansion on 10 acres that TV viewers know as the Clampetts' house on The Beverly Hillbillies. Ronald and Nancy Reagan were his neighbors, and in July he purchased their home for $15 million. He also owned several sprawling properties in Malibu.

Forbes last year estimated Perenchio's net worth at $2.6 billion.

In November 2014, Perenchio announced that his $500 million art collection, which included paintings by Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso and Edouard Manet, would go to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art upon his death.

His appreciation for art began when, as a junior agent at MCA, he was assigned to accompany British actor Charles Laughton to museums all over the U.S.

Survivors include his wife, Margaret.

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