Producer Gerber has passion for worthy stories

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When award-winning producer David Gerber first shopped the script for "Flight 93" around Hollywood, the TV drama about the ill-fated airliner that went down in a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001 wasn't exactly greeted with open arms.

"Everybody turned it down at first, including A&E," he recalls. "People were assuming it was going to be a soap opera -- that we were going to exploit it."

But Gerber went ahead and did what he has been doing for nearly 40 years as one of television's most prolific and accomplished producers -- he didn't give up on a project that he wholeheartedly believed in, contending that behind the "no" lurked a potential "maybe."

Gerber's optimism and persistence paid off. A&E came around and decided that "Flight 93" was too important to ignore. When it premiered on Jan. 30, 2006, the telefilm was greeted with reverent reviews and attracted A&E's largest viewer audience in the network's history. A half-dozen Emmy nominations -- and one win -- followed.

The success of "Flight 93" is just the latest vindication received by Gerber, one of the industry's most fervent artistic crusaders, a man who has built a remarkable career on a foundation of passion and perseverance and who is being honored today with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

One of the very few people in the business to enjoy success as both a producer and a studio executive (at times simultaneously), Gerber's decades-long run has been underscored by groundbreaking, innovative, often socially conscious programming (including "Police Story," "Police Woman" and the eight-hour miniseries "George Washington") -- as well as a dogged attention to detail.

Along the way, as an executive vp in charge of TV production at Columbia Pictures Television in the 1970s, in various executive posts at MGM Television in the late 1980s and early '90s and as head of his own production company, David Gerber Prods., he has been a sagacious mentor to some of Hollywood's current movers and shakers.

"It was an incredible apprenticeship for me and really valuable," says News Corp. president and chief operating officer Peter Chernin, who was vp development for David Gerber Prods. in the early '80s. "I learned an enormous amount, both in terms of hands-on experience and how much you have to will your way to success in this business."

Says Christopher Chulack, a frequent director on NBC's "ER" and a former head of postproduction for David Gerber Prods. in the 1980s: "He taught me about the importance of being true to the story. If it wasn't good enough, and we were over budget, he'd defer his own salary, especially if he was functioning as an independent producer. I saw that all the time, and it taught me a lot about integrity -- businesswise, artistically and otherwise."

Gerber learned the importance of being true to the story when, as a teenager, he watched classic films in Brooklyn's Astor Theatre on Flatbush Avenue.

"They only showed foreign films and English films," he recalls. "I saw (1938's) 'The Grand Illusion' there. Some of them were avant-garde. These movies excited me."

That Jean Renoir wartime classic, about three World War I French pilots in a German prisoner-of-war camp, reverberated when, as a radio gunner tech sergeant in World War II, Gerber's B-17 airplane was shot down over Germany. For a period of time, Gerber was a POW in Stalag 17B.

Safely home after the war ended, Gerber graduated from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., and soon found himself at the corner of Hollywood and Vine working as a TV supervisor for the ad agency BBD&O. His success there eventually led to a vp position at 20th Century Fox Television, where he packaged such popular 1960s shows as "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" and "Room 222," the latter considered a breakthrough in ethnic comedy at the time.

After gaining experience on the marketing side of television, Gerber had an increasing desire to produce his own shows. Two early sitcom efforts were "Nanny and the Professor" and "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir." When the peacock network canceled the latter sitcom after only one season, Gerber turned around and sold it to ABC. Given a new life on a new network, "Mrs. Muir" was honored with its second Emmy win for series star Hope Lange.

In 1972, Gerber set up his own independent production company and began a highly successful association with CPT.

Of all his projects, he's perhaps best known for producing the ultrarealistic "Police Story," a one-hour anthology created by Los Angeles cop-turned-novelist Joseph Wambaugh in 1973. The NBC series, which focused on the private lives of officers in the Los Angeles Police Department, foreshadowed such later series as "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue." At the time, it was marked for failure by industry cognoscenti who told Gerber and Wambaugh that one-hour anthologies just didn't work.

There was even a bit of public backlash.

"That was a time when people were calling them fuzz and pigs," recalls Gerber of his "Police Story" years. "I was doing a seminar at UCLA, and a young co-ed came up to me and said, 'You ought to be ashamed of yourself. You're making them seem like they're human.' And I said, 'I think you gave me one of the great compliments of all time.'"

Ultimately, the series was praised by critics and law enforcement agencies alike. Early dire predictions about the show's fate proved false as the series garnered two Emmy awards, including outstanding drama series, during the course of its four-season run. (One of the writers on the series, a young Michael Mann, would later put that "Police Story" grit to good use on his series "Crime Story" and "Miami Vice" and in films like 1995's "Heat.")

"Police Story" also proved to be a launching pad for several spinoff series, including the Lloyd Bridges vehicle "Joe Forrester," "David Cassidy -- Man Undercover" and, most notably, "Police Woman," starring Angie Dickinson as the inimitable Sgt. Pepper Anderson.

First introduced as a "Police Story" episode called "The Gamble," in which Dickinson's character was known as Lisa Beaumont, the series established the film actress as the first successful female lead in a TV drama, not to mention a bona fide sex symbol.

Initially, Dickinson, the mother of a 7-year-old at the time, was reluctant about committing to the rigors of a full-fledged series, but Gerber convinced her otherwise.

"David said, 'Hey, don't you want to be a household name?'" Dickinson recalls. "Well, of course he got me with that. I hadn't realized yet that I wanted to be a bigger star. I was just a known actress, and my time was running out for that sort of thing. But the offer whetted my appetite."

Other notable Gerber productions during that period were the "The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case," which provided the Emmy-winning role of Bruno Hauptmann for a young Anthony Hopkins in 1976, and "Gibbsville," a one-hour series set during the 1940s, inspired by the writings of John O'Hara.

It was growing up Jewish in a predominantly Irish and Italian neighborhood ("The church had a baseball team, and when one of the guys didn't show up, they put me in second base and called me Brother Murphy," he recalls) where Gerber developed an affinity for and a sensitivity to other ethnicities. This later translated into a careerlong fondness for stories about other cultures. As a result, Gerber was a major proponent of diversity long before it became an industry buzzword. His 1974 pilot for "To Sir With Love" was one of the first dramas to star a black leading man. "That's My Mama" in 1974 was among the first comedies featuring an all-black cast, and the 1976 summer sitcom "Viva Valdez" was one of the early series that followed the exploits of a Hispanic family living in East Los Angeles. To this day, Gerber is just as proud of the NAACP Image and Nosotros Golden Eagle Awards he's received over the years as he is of all his Emmys, his Peabody Award (which he received in 1984 for "George Washington") and the David L. Wolper Producer of the Year Award in LongForm Television nomination he received from the Producers Guild of America this year for "Flight 93."

During the course of his affiliation with CPT, Gerber helped to realign the company's programming thrust from comedy to drama, boosting its primetime presence from one hour to five hours.

He performed an even more impressive feat over at the newly merged MGM/UA Television. Appointed president of the reorganized TV division in 1986, he boosted the company's presence on the small screen from a single hour with hits such as "thirtysomething," "In the Heat of the Night" and "The Long Riders," making it the second-leading supplier in the TV industry.

"I don't think anybody had ever been the head of a studio the same time he was the studio's most prolific producer," comments Jeff Sagansky, who, along with Chernin, also was vp development for the Gerber's company back in the early '80s. "When he was there, the studio flourished. His enthusiasm was just infectious, and his energy was, and is, incredible."

Of course, not every Gerber production garnered Nielsen gold, but like a parent who refuses to play favorites, he still takes a great deal of pride in the underachievers.

"The whole thing in my career was, we always want to be successful, but I always thought you could combine commercial with creative," Gerber reflects. "Some of them were what I'd call magnificent failures, but I'd rather fail doing some of that than being successful in some other show."

Those who have worked with him throughout the decades were given an education in tenacity and a tireless dedication to the pursuit of excellence.

"I was 34 years old and probably, as David would say, young, aggressive and a complete whipper-snapper who worked in a candy store and had to learn how to work in a giant supermarket," says president of Touchstone Television and executive vp ABC Entertainment Television Group Mark Pedowitz, who was running business affairs and administration over at MGM/UA at the time. "The four years working with David were the most rewarding, educational years. They made me into a much better executive with a better understanding of the business and gave me a lifelong friend."

Says Sagansky: "The one thing that he never gets credit for is that he's been a mentor to so many in the business over all those years, and everybody who's worked for him has such incredible affection for him. That really says a lot about what kind of boss he is."

Gerber, at age 83, has no plans to close shop anytime soon.

Among the projects he's currently taking around town is a feature film based on his own World War II experiences at Stalag 17B.

"It's the odyssey of a young man and the willingness to survive," he says.

But while the vehicle would mark Gerber's first foray into the world of motion pictures, television remains his first love, and he feels the medium has been shortchanged when it comes to respect.

"By and large, television doesn't get the kind of respect or appreciation from the entertainment media that it deserves," Gerber maintains. "While we were dealing with social issues, the movies were busy blowing up the world. Television has done an awful lot more in terms of addressing the issues in this country."

Gerber feels less comfortable when it comes to assessing his own personal legacy.

"You know, it's tough for a guy like me to sit down and look back," he admits. "I prefer to just keep going."

Gerber takes another glance at the handwritten list of career talking points in front of him and shrugs, "I guess I didn't do too bad."
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