Fred Silverman, Legendary Television Programmer, Dies at 82

Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Fred Silverman

Known as "The Man With the Golden Gut," he greenlit projects like 'All in the Family,' 'Roots' and 'Hill Street Blues' at CBS, ABC and NBC.

Fred Silverman, whose talent for picking shows like All in the Family, The Waltons, Charlie’s Angels, Roots and Hill Street Blues earned him the nickname "The Man With the Golden Gut" as the only executive to program for CBS, ABC and NBC, has died. He was 82.

One of the most influential executives in television history, Silverman died Thursday at his home in Pacific Palisades, a publicist announced.

Silverman gave David Letterman his first TV show; orchestrated such popular spinoffs as The Jeffersons, Rhoda, Laverne & Shirley, The Bionic Woman and The Facts of Life; brought "Jiggle TV" series like Charlie’s Angels and Three’s Company to the airwaves (and suggested Suzanne Somers play Chrissy on the latter); and presided over Real People, one of the first hit shows to bring a news mentality to entertainment.

A showman at heart, Silverman had a knack for counterprogramming. He honed his skills working on kids shows (he came up with the idea for Scooby-Doo), game shows (he resurrected The Price Is Right and launched Family Feud) and daytime TV (under his watch, All My Children and General Hospital aimed for younger viewers).

At CBS, Silverman jettisoned rural comedies like The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction in favor of smarter shows like All in the Family and M*A*S*H, then took the beleaguered ABC network to No. 1 in primetime. He shifted to NBC in 1978 with oversight of the entire company, reporting only to the chairman of RCA.

CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl paid tribute on Thursday with a statement, saying, "Fred Silverman was a titan of the media industry and an influence on so many. His impact on television was incalculable. All of us at CBS salute his tremendous talent and cultural influence at our network, and throughout broadcast television. We offer our deepest sympathies to his family."

While Silverman was engineering the turnaround at ABC, Time magazine put him on a cover in September 1977 with the line "TV's Master Showman." The accompanying article quoted an ABC exec who called him "The Man With the Golden Gut."

"To this day it still haunts me," he said in an expansive 2001 interview for the Archive of American Television. "It has nothing to do with the gut, it really has a lot to do with a very high learning curve. You learn from experience."

Not everything Silverman did turned to gold. He came up with the idea of marrying off Rhoda, Valerie Harper's character ("it was a great stunt, but the heart and soul of the show was out; her biggest problem was dates," he rued); launched the talk show Thicke of the Night to compete against Johnny Carson ("probably the nadir of my career"); passed on the pilot for The Hollywood Squares (in favor of another game show, The Face Is Familiar); and bet on Supertrain, a big-budget failure.

Soon after Silverman failed to turn around NBC and acrimoniously departed in 1981, he launched his own company, which produced Matlock and Diagnosis Murder.

Silverman was born on Sept. 13, 1937, in New York City and raised in Queens. An only child, his father was a TV and radio repairman for Sears and his mom a housewife. He made a hobby of collecting radio scripts, getting them from the porters who worked at the radio networks; he said that at one point that he had about 5,000 of them.

Silverman went to Forest Hills High School and Syracuse University, then earned his master's degree at Ohio State. He wanted to be a director, but an adviser suggested he consider another livelihood. "He said you really ought to consider programming," he recalled in the TV Archive interview. "It requires a real knowledge of the business, and it is kind of creative, because you're picking the shows."

Silverman wrote a 600-page master's thesis that was an analysis of ABC programming practices from 1953, when the network had few hits, until 1959, when programs like The Untouchables and 77 Sunset Strip made it popular. "I tried to figure out what were the factors of this meteoric rise," he said.

His first job was editing commercials at Tribune's WGN-TV in Chicago in 1961. Silverman oversaw Bozo's Circus, a live program that was a hit at noon, then found unlikely success with a repackaged, recut and heavily promoted block of Bomba, the Jungle Boy films.

"That was a case of packaging, and really good marketing, to take crap and make it look like gold," he said. "It's something that came in very handy later on when I went to work at the networks."

Similarly, he aired films for kids in the afternoon under the umbrella Family Classics

Silverman left in 1963 for a stint at Tribune station WPIX in New York to rework kids programming there. Six weeks later, then 25, he moved across town to CBS as director of daytime programs.

Silverman had an idea for a sure-fire Saturday morning hit: a cartoon about kids and a dog in a haunted house, one that referenced movies like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. He developed it with Hanna-Barbera and titled it Who's S-S-Scared??

CBS execs, however, thought the show would frighten youngsters. "It left a huge hole in the schedule," he recalled. "I said, 'I gotta find a way to fix this thing.'"

On a flight to California, Silverman had an idea. "As we're going in for the landing, Frank Sinatra comes on and I hear him sing, 'Doo-be-doo-be-doo' [from the song 'Strangers in the Night']," he recalled.

"At that point, I said, 'We'll take the dog, we'll call him Scooby-Doo, move him up front, and it'll be a dog show. Our Abbott and Costello will be Scooby-Doo and Shaggy. In a matter of two hours, we had revised the concept."

The show debuted in September 1969 and opened, Silverman said, to a 55 share.

"Saturday morning was like primetime," he said. "It was always changing, it was extremely competitive, everybody's basically going for the same audience, and you really had to be as sharp as can be in development. It was very good training."

In 1970, Silverman was put in charge of everything on the air at CBS. "We had an old schedule that was directed at old people in rural areas," he said. "Our company-owned stations in cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles were dying with this schedule. Something had to be done."

ABC twice passed on pilots for All in the Family, but when Silverman saw it, "I couldn't believe what I was seeing," he recalled. "Compared to the crap that we were cancelling, this was setting new boundaries. To [CBS president] Bob Wood's credit, he said, 'We've got to put this on the air.'"

For All in the Family's second season, CBS chairman William S. Paley wanted the comedy buried on Mondays at 10:30 p.m. Silverman, for his first fall schedule, also was looking at the aging My Three Sons and Funny Face, a new show starring Sandy Duncan, anchoring Saturdays and The Mary Tyler Moore Show airing Tuesdays between The Beverly Hillbillies and Hee Haw.

"This is going to be my first and last season, I can see it now," Silverman remembered fretting.

But he convinced Wood to shift All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show to Saturdays, then had M*A*S*H moved from Saturdays to Tuesdays as the centerpiece of another strong night.

Soon, CBS was thriving, helped by Maude, The Jeffersons, Good Times and One Day at a Time — all from Norman Lear, the producer of All in the Family; The Bob Newhart Show and Rhoda, both from MTM, the company behind The Mary Tyler Moore Show; and new shows like Kojak and The Waltons, which was spawned from a 1971 telefilm called The Homecoming: A Christmas Story.

"My wife said, 'That was really a good film. Why don't you order some episode scripts?" Silverman said.

By 1975, CBS was riding high. "All the work had pretty much been done … at that point, to stick around, there wasn't really an upside," he said. So he left to become president of ABC Entertainment.

Helped by Michael Eisner, whom Silverman called the "best executive I ever worked with," Silverman resurrected a project that had been in development, Harry's Angels, and made a pilot for the show, now called Charlie's Angels, starring Farrah Fawcett, Jaclyn Smith and Kate Jackson.

Critics lambasted the show as "Jiggle TV," but Silverman said Charlie's Angels was "a positive statement for the women's movement. This was the first show where there were three women who were running things and doing things on their own. They didn't have time to check with Charlie or Bosley."

He also greenlit such shows as The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Donny & Marie and the bawdy Soap, and gave the OK for 12 hours of the miniseries Roots.

"We were appealing to an urban, lower-middle-class audience, it was a working-class audience," he said. "We were doing it with comedies that you wouldn't call sophisticated: Happy Days; Laverne & Shirley; Three's Company; Welcome Back, Kotter; What's Happening!!Barney Miller was probably the most sophisticated thing we had."

ABC also sported what he called "young, swinging dramas": in addition to Charlie's Angels, there was Baretta, Starsky & Hutch and The Six Million Dollar Man.

Silverman said he brought a "sense of showmanship and some pizzazz" to ABC. "The network schedule was very bright and kind of sparkled. … We had the best of the new stars in their late 20s and early 30s."

He had the entertainment division take over Good Morning America and hired David Hartman as host. "If you think of the Today show at that point as The New York Times, think of Good Morning America as the Daily News," he said, and the show focused on pop culture.

Under his watch, the ABC daytime schedule was branded as "Love in the Afternoon," and the show's storylines got hipper — in contrast to the "stodgy" soaps at market leader CBS.

In 1978, Silverman jumped to NBC as president and CEO, reporting to RCA chairman Ed Griffiths and no one else. Any project that cost less than $100 million he could greenlight himself. "This was an enormous opportunity," he said. "There were great risks, because they were in terrible shape, and there was a real shot at failure there. But there also was an upside with huge success."

Silverman promoted comedy head Brandon Tartikoff to head of programming. One of the first shows he put on the schedule was Diff'rent Strokes, then launched the spinoff The Facts of Life. He gave a blind commitment to Cheers and commissioned George Schlatter to produce Real People, which became a No. 1 show.

Silverman said he had the idea for Hill Street Blues, which he envisioned as "Barney Miller as a drama. I had just seen the movie Fort Apache, and I said if we can do a show like that, it will be a big hit."

Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll agreed that they would produce Hill Street Blues only if there was zero network interference, and Silverman agreed to that. After a slow start in the ratings, the drama lasted seven seasons and earned 98 Emmy nominations.

The executive said he met Letterman when the comic was emceeing an event in which Silverman received an award and, after a chat outside the men's room, he decided Letterman should be on the air.

The innovative David Letterman Show debuted in the mornings on NBC, but the ratings were poor and Silverman canceled it. "I decided, 'This is my error, not David Letterman's,' and I signed him to a major deal; I think it was a million-dollar guarantee a year," he said. Letterman, of course, went on to host Late Night, which aired after The Tonight Show.

After NBC finished with the worst season in its history, Silverman exited in spring 1981 (to be replaced by Grant Tinker) and made a producer's deal with MGM/UA Television. They bankrolled Thicke of the Night, a late-night talk show hosted by Canadian Alan Thicke, but it lasted only a season.

However, the Fred Silverman Co. rebounded by selling the first of many Perry Mason movies to NBC in 1986, then went on to produce other crime-solving shows like Matlock, Jake and the Fat Man, Father Dowling Mysteries, Heat of the Night and Diagnosis Murder.

Silverman was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame in 1999.

He married his secretary at CBS, Catherine Ann Kihn, in 1971, and they had two children, Melissa and Billy. They survive him, as does his daughter-in-law, Anna.

A private service will be held for immediate family and a celebration of his life will follow. In lieu of flowers, his family requests that contributions be made in his name to the Motion Picture & Television Fund for emergency medical assistance.