TV Exec Dick Ebersol Remembers Lifelong Friend and "Fearless Boss" Don Ohlmeyer
Ebersol, who worked with Ohlmeyer at ABC and NBC, recalls covering the terrorist attacks at the 1972 Munich Olympics with the former NBC West Coast president, an event he calls a "turning point in Don's life."
Don Ohlmeyer, who died Sept. 10 of cancer at 72, produced games for ABC's Monday Night Football, ran NBC Sports and then guided NBC West Coast during a 1993-99 golden age, championing must-see TV like Friends, Frasier and ER, all while feuding with entertainment president Warren Littlefield and SNL star Norm Macdonald (whom he fired for making off-color jokes about his friend O.J. Simpson). Dick Ebersol, who worked with Ohlmeyer at ABC and NBC, recalls covering the 1972 Munich Olympics, during which 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by Palestinian terrorists, with his lifelong friend, "an original thinker and a fearless boss, somebody who just loved to work."
When we started together in the summer of 1967, ABC Sports had a total of 28 employees. Munich was a big turning point in Don's life. He and [ABC Sports president] Roone Arledge were a team. And here they were confronted with one of the biggest stories of the 20th century. The two of them — plus Jim McKay, who was the announcer — guided America though it. I remember sitting behind them and just being absolutely blown away by the care and the patience they took. At one point, the [terrorists] put the hostages in large helicopters. Don told his crew to take two cameras that were in the studio out onto the tarmac so that when those helicopters took off, you'd be able to have a shot of them leaving. Looking at the monitor in the control room and listening to the sound of those big blades chopping the air overhead — you didn't need a television set to hear that part of it — it was one of the most horrifying moments to unfold live on American television. Of course, the terrorists blew up the helicopters and everybody died. But until then, you kept thinking, "Well maybe, maybe, maybe something good can come out of all of this. And then of course, the terrorists blew up those helicopters at the airport and everybody died.
The very next season that he took over Monday Night Football, which was a huge deal at that time. I think he was 28, but he had a really great way with the talent, in particular Howard [Cosell], who was off-the-charts smart but could be a tad difficult to deal with. And Don was great at popping Howard’s balloon.
In January of 1993, Jack Welch [then CEO of GE, which owned NBC] and [NBC president] Bob Wright brought Don out to the West Coast. They had a really smart developer in Warren Littlefield [then head of NBC Entertainment], but Jack didn’t feel that Warren was up to being the boss so he hired Don to come in as head of the West Coast. And in a little bit more than two years he had taken NBC, which had fallen out of first place, right back into first place. It was really a wonderful run. In the years after [he left NBC in 1999] he was very much engaged; he was dedicated to being a professor at Pepperdine. And he took up painting and was very successful at it, had gallery showings and sold his paintings for quite a deal of money out in Santa Monica. He was always someone who was pushing boundaries, trying different things. In my mind, Don always was an artist.
The life we had, all of us, the business was so small that you got opportunities, and if you were able to grab them by the horns and build them into success, your career was a rocket ship. No one took advantage of that the way Don did. He was an original thinker and a fearless boss and somebody who just loved to work.
When we went through our tragedy in late 2004, when the doctors finally said I could get out of bed after a couple of months, I went to La Quinta, Calif., with my wife. [Ebersol and wife Susan Saint James' son Teddy Ebersol, 14, was killed in a plane crash involving a chartered jet. Dick, his elder son Charlie and a crewmember were seriously injured.] And he would come every morning to the hotel and get me up from baby steps to walking all around those grounds. He really helped me through one of the toughest times of my life. Susan would always say, "You know, he’s an incredible friend, but I just wish at the end of your long walks he wouldn’t smoke all those cigarettes." Don was a big smoker.
In a business where all sorts of things get thrown around about people’s greatness, people’s talent, this is a person who for 50 years kept creating. It didn’t matter where he was, at a network, in independent production, as a painter. He just had the most active of minds and at the same time he was such a larger-than-life character who lit up any room he went into. But his talent was always the first thing you saw.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.