Al Burton, Prolific Television Producer and Executive, Dies at 91

Al Burton - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Burton Family

He worked for Norman Lear and guided such shows as 'The Jeffersons,' 'Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,' 'Charles in Charge' and 'Win Ben Stein's Money.'

Al Burton, who developed and or produced such comedies as One Day at a TimeThe Jeffersons and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman for Norman Lear and created other shows including Charles in Charge and Win Ben Stein's Money, has died. He was 91.

Burton died Tuesday at his home in San Mateo, California, according to family friend Damon M. Schwartz.

Burton was also a force in baby boomer entertainment and marketing who forged a career that spanned the first six decades of television and included concerts, beauty pageants and other live events.

Lured by Lear to Tandem Productions/T.A.T. Communications (later Embassy Television) in 1972 to serve as its director of development, Burton worked on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (and its spinoffs Fernwood 2Night and America 2Night), One Day at a TimeThe JeffersonsDiff'rent StrokesThe Facts of LifeSilver Spoons and Square Pegs.

After leaving Lear in 1983, he continued to develop and produce shows independently and for Universal Television, most notably Charles in Charge. And with a longtime friend, he produced Win Ben Stein's Money — winning a Daytime Emmy in the process — and Turn Ben Stein On for Comedy Central.

Burton's gift for spotting talent helped ignite the careers of Stein, Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael J. Fox, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jimmy Kimmel, Ricky Schroder, Pamela Anderson, George Clooney, Valerie Bertinelli, Nicole Eggert, MacKenzie Phillips and others.

"His 5-foot-5 stature, whimsical smile and unflappable demeanor helped manage eccentric talent of any age," his family noted in a statement. "When Mary Hartman's turbulent Louise Lasser refused to emerge from her dressing room, or when a teenage sitcom star was acting out, freaking out or walking out, Burton's amiable engagement addressed and calmed the crisis-du-jour, reassured the asset, got him or her back on the set, and, importantly, kept cameras and dollars rolling."

Burton also was the composer and publisher of theme music for several of the shows he produced, observing that "a composer gets a check every time they play your tune!"

He was born Alan Burton Goldstone on April 9, 1928, in Columbus, Ohio. A 1948 scholarship award and employment offer from ventriloquist Edgar Bergen led him to board a train for Hollywood instead of attending his graduation at Northwestern.

He sold his first show idea to Los Angeles TV station KLAC and in 1949 became writer, producer and host of Tele-Teen Reporter, a weekly half-hour showcase featuring Southern California youngsters.

Burton followed with a second show, Spotlight on Youth, and by 1956, his teen-focused programs were running on four of the seven L.A. TV stations. He produced an astonishing 500 segments in a four-year period, earning the nickname the "Teen Dean of Television."

He also created the Miss Teen-Age America Pageant (later Miss Teen USA) and opened the Al Burton Teen-Model Program to discover new talent for his shows. 

A veteran TV director by 1957, Burton was tapped to work with the young host Johnny Carson for the game show Do You Trust Your Wife? (retitled Who Do You Trust?). The next year, he helped define the celebrity talk show format, producing and directing The Oscar Levant Show.

That weekly program featured the composer-author in conversation with famous guests and a piano performance by Levant. Burton "agreeably accommodated the famously neurotic star by signing Levant in and out of a Los Angeles psychiatric hospital each week before and after taping," his family said. 

In the '60s, Burton began live, outdoor, summer pop music broadcasts from Pacific Ocean Park in 1960, including the first live TV performance of The Beach Boys. He launched his first Teen-Age Fair in 1962, and it drew attendance of 256,000. He also booked The Rolling Stones for their first U.S. appearance as well as other acts like The Doors, Ricky Nelson, Lesley Gore and The Four Seasons.

The Fair moved to the Hollywood Palladium and then expanded to a dozen U.S. cities, Toronto and Tokyo before Martin Ransohoff's Filmways Corp. purchased the franchise in 1969.

Burton retired to the Bay Area in 2006. Survivors include his wife, Sally, and their daughter, Jennifer.