How Lorimar, the Company Behind 'Dallas' and 'Falcon Crest,' Bred Hollywood's Ruling Executive Class
The industry's major players -- Leslie Moonves, Bruce Rosenblum and Nina Tassler -- along with co-founder Merv Adelson look back (and tell all) about the hit factory that spawned iconic series like "The Waltons" and "Full House," plus a few box-office misfires, on its 45th anniversary.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Lorimar Productions occupies a singular place in Hollywood history. The company, co-founded by Lee Rich and Merv Adelson in 1969, quickly emerged as the crown jewel of the television business.
In an era when independent producers proliferated, it could lay claim to four of TV's biggest hits -- The Waltons, Dallas, Knots Landing and Falcon Crest -- to say nothing of a new format (the modern primetime soap) and a strong reputation for its creative-friendly culture. Lorimar's hot streak continued through the 1980s with the addition of rising-star executive Leslie Moonves and a collection of family half-hours, including Full House, ALF and The Hogan Family.
By 1986, Lorimar had merged with top syndicator Telepictures (The People's Court, Love Connection) to become the leading supplier of both network series and first-run syndication. It remained so until it was acquired by Warner Communications in 1989 for $1.2 billion and its TV unit absorbed by Warner Bros. TV four years later.
The only thing more impressive than Lorimar's success onscreen was the exec team that Rich, Adelson and, later, CBS Corp.'s current CEO, Moonves, assembled to work behind it. The roster reads like a who's who of entertainment industry leaders, with NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt, CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler, Legendary Television president Bruce Rosenblum, CBS TV Studios chief David Stapf, Fox 21 president Bert Salke and ex-News Corp. COO Peter Chernin among the bold-faced names who spent formative years at Lorimar.
THR connected with more than a dozen Lorimar alumni (the voice of Rich, who died in 2012, is drawn from an Archive of American Television interviews) to go behind the scenes of a TV production company so prolific that, for years, it was nicknamed the "fifth network."
Part 1: What's a "Lorimar" Anyway?
LEE RICH, co-founder: [My business manager, Bill Hayes] wanted me to stay at [advertising agency] Leo Burnett because they were paying me so much money. I said, "Bill, I can't do this anymore. I want to work for myself. I need money to finance it." And he said to me, "Well, I met a guy who wants to be in the entertainment business."
MERV ADELSON, co-founder: I had been in Vegas for a long time, and I came back to Los Angeles and noticed that most of my friends were writers, and they were a very unhappy group because everybody wanted to stick their nose in what they were doing. So I said, "Let's have a business where we let people go. These are talented people; let them use their talent."
IRWIN MOLASKY, financier/board member: We met Lee Rich, who had produced Rat Patrol [before joining Burnett]. Merv and I were builders, and Lee was trying to sell us on production work. It was like a tax shelter.
RICH: If I had known [Adelson would later acknowledge his real estate investors had mob ties], I wouldn't have partnered with him. Anyway, he put up $185,000 [Adelson recalls $400,000], which I repaid him within a period of six months. We became partners of a thing called Lorimar Productions on Feb. 1, 1969.
ADELSON: The lawyers asked me what I wanted to name it. I didn't know what the hell to tell them. I used to fly airplanes and hung out a lot around the Del Mar race track in the old days, and I looked up and I saw "Palomar" [airport] and my wife at that time was named Lori, so I said, "Let's try Lorimar."
ARNOLD SHAPIRO, script reader: Lee hired me [in 1970]. I'm sure Merv had an office, but I think I saw him once in five months. It was Lee, his secretary and me. Lee said, "You're making $150 a week." I knew this person who had done freelance reading was making $150 a week, so I said I was expecting a little more, $175 or maybe $200. He said, "$155, that's it."
MOLASKY: We started pouring more and more into it until we met a guy named Earl Hamner, who wrote a script for The Homecoming [in 1971]. That CBS movie was the birth of The Waltons.
RICH: I knew that The Waltons would sell because the scripts were good. That started Lorimar.
The Waltons ran for nine seasons and garnered 13 Emmy Awards. Despite a reputation for being gruff, Rich proved to be a deft and generous creative executive, and the writer-friendly culture proved conducive to luring top talent.
RICH: I truly worshiped creative people. I was deeply involved in getting the series off the ground. People would come to me and say, "Well, what do you think?" and we would go and sell it if we thought it was good.
MICHAEL FILERMAN, vp series development: David Jacobs' agent asked me to see him because he had a project [which became Knots Landing]. I felt that it was a little too artsy, but it did bring to mind a movie called No Down Payment about four couples living in a cul-de-sac. So we created something like that and brought it to CBS. They had just signed a deal with Linda Evans, and they wanted to develop a contemporary Western about a girl from the other side of the tracks who marries into a wealthy Texas oil and cattle family. David went home and he created the Ewing family, and we said, "Let's call it Dallas."
DAVID JACOBS, creator of Dallas and Knots Landing: I didn't realize that the city I was writing about was really more like Houston, the oil town. Dallas is the banking town.
FILERMAN: Merv had read the script and didn't think it was in the Lorimar image [built on the family-friendly Waltons]. Lee said, "CBS just picked up five episodes, so we're going to do it."
JACOBS: By the time we got back to the offices at Burbank, Lee was already staffing.
FILERMAN: Dallas was picked up [for a full season] after those first five episodes [aired in April 1978].
JACOBS: I went in to pitch another show to Fred Silverman at CBS that October, but he pulled out that old Knots Landing proposal and said, "Any way to make this a Dallas spinoff?"
FILERMAN: You could walk into Lee Rich's office any time you wanted.
JACOBS: Especially after 4 p.m. You'd go over there if you wanted and have a martini or a vodka, and we'd just chat.
FILERMAN: I'm not saying you walked out of there getting the answer you wanted, but at least you were heard. He was very tough but knew how to sell.
JACOBS: I liked Lee personally. Though he was full of bluster, he always showed you his vulnerabilities.
Over time, Adelson, who proved to be a savvy businessman, became more involved in the day-to-day management of the powerful company. By 1980, 15 of Lorimar's 19 pilots had been picked up to series (including Falcon Crest and Knots Landing), and the "Who Shot J.R.?" episode of Dallas drew more than 90 million viewers. But Adelson was eager for more and kept pushing into feature film. The company released more than a dozen movies between 1979 and 1982, including The Postman Always Rings Twice, Victory and Being There, with established stars such as Jack Nicholson, Sylvester Stallone and Peter Sellers. But with bombs such as Cruising, S.O.B. and The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, losses at the movie division would top $21 million and a decision was made to retrench. Meanwhile, Adelson's relationship with his co-founder became strained.
ADELSON: The strategy for a long period of time was to become a full-blown studio and compete with the rest of the well-known studios.
DAVID V. PICKER, president of feature films: They shouldn't have gone into the movie business. If you don't do it professionally, you're going to get killed -- and most of the time if you are a professional, you're going to get killed, too.
RICH: [Merv] didn't realize how much that would cost.
FILERMAN: There was always a sense of tension in the room when Lee and Merv were together.
PICKER: When I went to Merv [about Lorimar producing An Officer and a Gentleman], he said, "Are you going to get government cooperation in the making of it?" I said, "No, but we don't need it." He said no, he wouldn't do it. I thought it was probably because of his connections with Las Vegas; he didn't want any problems with the government. Jerry [Weintraub, who had the rights] told me Paramount was interested, so I called my friend there and said, "Go to Michael Eisner and tell him Picker's going to pick it up." [Paramount fell for the bluff.] I wound up getting 5 percent of the gross for a movie Lorimar wouldn't make.
Part 2: "There's This Young Guy You Should Meet. His Name Is Les Moonves."
Lorimar went public in 1981. Doing so allowed Adelson to continue to aggressively expand into other businesses, including advertising, video and distribution. In 1985, the company merged with 8-year-old syndicator Telepictures to become Lorimar-Telepictures. The move, which made Lorimar the biggest supplier of both network shows and first-run syndication, led to a reshuffling in the executive ranks. Adelson became chairman and Rich agreed to share power with four Telepictures execs (Michael Jay Solomon, David Salzman, Michael Garin and Richard "Dick" Robertson).
ADELSON: We knew that in order to keep up, we were going to need additional finances, and the public market was the best way to do it.
BARBARA BROGLIATTI, senior vp corporate communications: We bought Karl Home Video [in 1984]. Its only claim to fame was Jane Fonda exercise videos. I remember shlepping Jane to home-video conventions. Everybody else had gold chains and was in porn. We were the kings of home video. Then Stuart Karl got into trouble. [He resigned in 1987 amid allegations that he had inflated sales.]
JEFFREY SCHLESINGER, senior vp international television distribution: I was in Cannes at MIPCOM when I got the call that Telepictures and Lorimar were going to merge. We had great shows like The People's Court and Love Connection and some TV movies, but no primetime series. I thought, "We're now going to have the ability to sell Dallas and Knots Landing to all these networks around the world. This is my dream!" Then we merged, and I found out that we'd made a long-term rights deal with a company called Worldvision and we got to watch them make millions of dollars off of the shows we were producing.
LISA GREGORIAN, assistant to Schlesinger: We had great product, and we were fun to buy from.
SCHLESINGER: And we threw the best parties!
FILERMAN: I had left in 1983 to [produce a show at] Fox. Lee called me: "We're looking for a movie of the week executive. Do you know anybody?" I said, "Well, there's this young guy working here. He's really bright and very nice. You should meet him. His name is Les Moonves."
LESLIE MOONVES, vp Lorimar Productions: After much persistence, Barry [Diller] finally let me out of my deal at Fox and I went over to work for Lee and Merv in 1985. Lorimar had phenomenal creative energy.
In 1986, Rich left the company he had co-founded nearly two decades earlier to become the chairman of MGM/UA. Salzman became Moonves' boss, though it was clear that Moonves was emerging as the real power.
RICH: Just like a marriage, [Merv and I] were pretty much over.
JACOBS: None of us was too happy with David Salzman, the Telepictures guy.
MOONVES: David is a very nice man, but he wasn't exactly an expert in network television, per se. The good news for me? I had total autonomy.
JACOBS Leslie became the face of Lorimar as definitively as Lee was.
DAVID STAPF, publicist: I started in 1986, when Dallas, Knots Landing and Falcon Crest were all on the air and smack in the middle of their heyday. I was put on Dallas immediately, and the season before was so bad that they had declared it all a dream and they were starting fresh. There was this renewed energy. I also got assigned to these two producers, Tom Miller and Bob Boyett, who had Full House, Perfect Strangers and Valerie. I hadn't been there long and already they were firing Valerie [Harper].
BRUCE ROSENBLUM, director of business affairs: Nancy [Tellem] and I both came in 1986. She had been at Merv Griffin, and I had been working as an entertainment lawyer. It was a moment in time when independent production companies were thriving, and Lorimar became the crown jewel. Leslie's passion to succeed just rubbed off on the entire team.
NANCY TELLEM, director of business affairs: Everybody was allowed to grow and identify talent and really cultivate it. Leslie was always somebody who challenged us and let us sort of stretch ourselves, and we were unbelievably driven.
Still, Adelson had held on to that dream of making Lorimar a successful movie studio. In 1987, he tapped manager Bernie Brillstein as chairman of the film division after acquiring his company the previous year. Brillstein hired a promising executive from Showtime by the name of Peter Chernin as his president of production. The pair were soon joined by a team of creative executives, which included Robert Greenblatt and Bert Salke.
ROBERT GREENBLATT, story editor: Bernie stepped away from this lucrative management company for the opportunity to become a studio head. Unfortunately, he began his tenure at Lorimar while in a famous feud with Michael Ovitz, then head of CAA, which made packaging films with A-list talent very difficult.
BERT SALKE, director of production: [CAA's] dominance was such, at the time, that it almost shut down the studio. It was over a Brillstein-Ovitz issue regarding mutual client Jim Henson. It's something that could never happen in the Hollywood we live in today.
STAPF: I remember we had a town hall meeting, probably 500 people gathered on this giant soundstage. They were going on and on about the film division and how they were going to revolutionize the business. They said the big tentpole they were going out with was Action Jackson [starring Carl Weathers]. I remember the entire room going, "Huh?"
SALKE: It was the beginning of the spec script auction insanity. They allowed me, a 25-year-old kid, to buy one of the first specs that sold for a million dollars [Next of Kin]. The movie went almost immediately into production, something that would take two years now.
GREENBLATT: We made one exceptional film, Dangerous Liaisons ; one great but little-seen one called The Witches , starring Anjelica Huston; and about a dozen more spotty ones like Action Jackson , Dead Bang , starring Don Johnson and Next of Kin , starring Patrick Swayze and Liam Neeson. But we were out of business after only two years.
ADELSON: We didn't get over the hump with movies and we had to decide whether we wanted to plow more money into movies or take a lot of money from somebody else.
Part 3: The Billion-Dollar Takeover
Though Lorimar was the leading primetime producer in 1989, with nine network shows, the company was in trouble. It had taken a $52 million write-down on the scandal-plagued Karl Home Video, the 1987 recession had eroded its first-run syndication business and losses at the film division continued to escalate. That year, Adelson engineered a deal for Warner Communications to acquire Lorimar-Telepictures in a stock transaction valued at $1.2 billion. Adelson became vice chairman of the Warner board. (Years later, a series of bad investments forced the man once worth $300 million into bankruptcy.) By 1990, Moonves had stepped into the role of Lorimar Television president and the lucrative unit, along with the team he had assembled, continued to operate independently from Warner Bros. TV until the two competing divisions were consolidated in 1993.
BARRY MEYER, executive vp Warner Bros.: When we first began looking at [Lorimar-Telepictures], they were a company at the top of their game in traditional primetime TV production, at the cutting edge of new forms of first-run production and distribution, with a young, deep and aggressive management team that we felt would fit perfectly into Warner Bros. It also was a company that had overextended itself and was desperately in need of a bear hug.
SCHLESINGER: I remember being at the Cannes Film Festival with our theatrical group. We were making all the money in TV and they were losing all the money in theatrical. They were camped out at the Majestic Hotel in this enormous suite -- very luxurious with champagne and great food and they were entertaining their buyers. I came in and said, "OK, I'm here to sell some TV and home video. Where can I work?" They looked around and went, "I think we can fit you in at a little desk in that room over there where all our videocassettes are stored and where the two assistants type the contracts." Halfway through the market, we got a call that Warner Bros. had bought Lorimar and that Lorimar Television was taking over the combined entity and Lorimar Pictures was going away. So I picked up my material, walked into the living room, sat down on the couch and said, "I think I'll have all the rest of my meetings right here."
MOONVES: At that point, Disney recruited me to come run television. I had a meeting with Jeffrey Katzenberg at 7 a.m. at a Jack in the Box in Burbank. The only other people in the place where two homeless guys in the corner. I was leaving that day to go on vacation to the South of France, and I said, "We'll talk when I get back." Then, in typical Disney style, I'm off in France and my lawyer, Ernie Del, calls me to say, "Michael Eisner wants to meet with you and he's in Paris building Euro Disney." So, sure enough, I stop in Paris. Michael has a phenomenal apartment, and we met there for an hour and a half. We had a terrific meeting, and then I get on a plane to London. By the time I land, my lawyer calls: "They've made an offer." We approached Bob Daly and Barry Meyer and said, "Hey guys, Warner Bros. already has a TV division, so I'm going to save you guys a lot of money and go to Disney." And Bob said, "I'm sorry, you have a contract for another year and a half and I'm not letting you out of it. But don't worry, it's all going to work out."
NINA TASSLER, director of TV movies and miniseries: I started at Lorimar in movies of the week [in 1990]. Leslie's background, like mine, was in theater, so he had a lot of playwrights under contract. He was about bringing in the best writers, directors and actors and then nurturing them. I mean, he kept George Clooney under contract for I don't know how many years until he finally did ER.
DAVID JANOLLARI, vp comedy development: I was working at Fox as director of comedy development when Les said, "Come on over to Lorimar and help amp up our comedy division." At the time, they had all the Miller-Boyett TGIF shows [Full House, Family Matters], which were huge hits, but comedy was burgeoning. I'd never run a department and was thrown into it -- probably a little in over my head, to be honest. One of the longest relationships I had had was with Marta Kauffman and David Crane back from their playwright days in New York. They were one of the first calls I made, and we made a big deal with them. Three years into the deal, Friends emerged.
In 1993, Lorimar TV was absorbed into Warner Bros. Television. But just as Daly had intimated to Moonves years earlier, he had nothing to worry about. Moonves became the president of Warner Bros. TV, and his team, led by Tassler in drama and Janollari in comedy, remained intact.
JANOLLARI: I don't remember one piece of fallout. We had the same offices. A couple of people from the Warner Bros. side ended up joining us, but essentially we just kept doing what we were doing.
TASSLER: I remember when we were over at NBC casting the Dr. Peter Benton role on ER, which ultimately went to Eriq La Salle. The network had signed off on another actor; I think it was Isaiah Washington. Leslie said, "No, that's not going to work for me." Eriq was doing a show for us called Under Suspicion at CBS at the time, and Leslie said, "We're going to push production on ER, so Eriq can wrap Under Suspicion." It was unheard of for a studio to say that to a network.
SCHLESINGER: In 1994, I was working out a deal with Channel 4 in the U.K., who desperately wanted to buy ER, and I said, "There's another show you're going to have to take with that. It's called Friends." They didn't want it, but I said, "No, no. You're going to have to take it." Finally they agreed. I was asking them to pay $25,000 a half-hour, and I said, "Not only do you have to take it but you have to buy the life of the series at 10 percent increase per year." So, 10 years later, I might have been making about $62,000 from it. They said absolutely not and ended up buying two years at $25,000 with a 10 percent increase in the second year. You can only imagine how many million of dollars we made at Warner Bros. because Channel 4 refused to buy the life of this series. It was the best negotiation I ever lost.
MOONVES: I'm sure that when Warner Bros. came to take us over, they were really nervous. Warner Bros. had Murphy Brown and one other show and we had, like, 14. It was funny because the Warner Bros. guys said, "Oh, we're taking you over," but within a couple of years we know what really happened: The Lorimar guys took over Warner Bros. Television.
Part 4: The End of the Line
The Lorimar ethos and executive corps drove Warner Bros. TV to great heights -- yielding juggernauts like Friends, ER and The Drew Carey Show -- but the fragile chemistry fell apart once Moonves departed for CBS in 1995 and began drafting his former colleagues. The Lorimar name was long gone, but now the soul was as well.
MOONVES: It was that Lorimar team that had that phenomenal run. Then I came over to CBS. By the way, Bob Daly wouldn't let me take anybody for 18 months. There was a no-raid contract, which we honored -- but then I brought Nancy over and Nina over. The whole gang came over. We've all been together basically since then.
ROSENBLUM: Lee and Merv had created a culture that was extremely entrepreneurial, and then Leslie came along. Leslie and the guys hired very well. Leslie had an eye for not only creative talent but also for executive talent.
MOONVES: We had a great team. We liked working together. We liked winning. We liked being the best. We liked being considered the best. And I think it's fair to say Lorimar was the last great independent television production company. This is the last group of people that did this. They don't make them like this anymore.
Additional reporting by Kim Masters and Bryn Elise Sandberg