Lee Rich, Co-Founder of Legendary Production Company Lorimar, Dies at 93

Lee Rich Portrait - P 2012

Lee Rich Portrait - P 2012

UPDATED: He was the man behind TV series including “The Waltons” and “Dallas” and such films as “Being There," “An Officer and a Gentleman” and "Rain Man."

Producer Lee Rich, the co-founder of the legendary Lorimar production company -- the home of classic TV dramas The Waltons and Dallas and films including An Officer and a Gentleman -- died Thursday at his home in Los Angeles after a battle with lung cancer. He was 93.

In a entertainment career that spanned more than 30 years, Rich worked as an advertising executive, TV programmer, motion picture and TV producer and, for a stint in the '80s, as chairman of the board at MGM/UA.

Partnered in Lorimar from 1969-86 with Merv Adelson, Rich served as executive producer of more than 1,600 episodes of 33 Lorimar TV series, including The Waltons, Dallas, Eight Is Enough, Falcon Crest, Knots Landing, King’s Crossing and Flamingo Road.

The Lorimar series on which Rich served as executive producer received 82 Emmy nominations and 29 wins, including a best drama series victory for The Waltons in 1973.

“He was one of the greatest producers to ever come out of advertising, and he knew talent better than anyone else,” said TV producer Norman Lear.

Rich also served as executive producer of 45 made-for-television movies and miniseries, including The Man with James Earl JonesThe Blue Knight, considered television's first miniseries, for which William Holden earned an Emmy in 1973; Sybil, for which Sally Field won an Emmy in 1977; and Helter Skelter in 1977.

In addition, he exec produced 1971’s The Homecoming, a two-hour Christmas special starring Patricia Neal that was the first of many projects on which Rich would team with Waltons creator Earl Hamner.

“Lee’s passion for television, his business acumen and his love of the creative process made him an extraordinary mentor for all of us who had the good fortune to work for him,” said Bruce Rosenblum, president of Warner Bros. Television Group and chairman and CEO of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. “Lee was a creative force who established the gold standard for independent production companies, and the Lorimar/Warner Bros. merger was transformational for Warner Bros. Television."

Said Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corp.: “Lee Rich was a giant in the television industry who produced some of the most iconic series in the history of the medium and influenced audiences worldwide. He also served as an early mentor to me while I was at Lorimar, providing valuable guidance for which I will forever be appreciative."

Lorimar also produced such films as Being There (1979), starring Peter Sellers; the 1981 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, with Jack Nicholson; and An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), starring Richard Gere. In 1985, Lorimar merged with Telepictures, forming Lorimar-Telepictures. That company later merged with Warner Bros.

From 1986-88, Rich was the chairman and CEO of MGM/UA; there, he supervised such films as Baby Boom, The Living DaylightsMoonstruckWillowA Fish Called Wanda and best picture Oscar winner Rain Man and TV series including In the Heat of the Night and thirtysomething

“Lee Rich was an indelible talent who helped to shape the television landscape,” Gary Barber and Roger Birnbaum, co-chairman and CEOs of MGM, said in a statement. “We are incredibly proud that MGM is a part of his legacy. Lee's role as chairman and CEO of MGM/UA and the prolific body of work he created throughout his career continue to inspire the work we do today.”

Rich abruptly resigned from MGM/UA in July 1988 during a corporate restructuring and formed his own production entity. At Lee Rich Productions -- which had a distribution agreement with Warner Bros. -- from 1988-95, he executive produced Hard to Kill (1990), starring Steven Seagal, and produced Passenger 57 (1992), starring Wesley Snipes, among other films.

His most recent movie credits include Barbet Schroeder’s Desperate Measures (1998); the remake of Gloria (1999), with Sharon StoneThe Score (2001), starring Robert De Niro and Edward Norton; and Replay, now in development at Warner Bros.

In an interview with the Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television, Rich spoke about the famous Dallas storyline “Who shot J.R.?” in which Larry Hagman’s character is fired upon in the 1979-80 season finale in March and the assailant is not revealed until the following November -- when the primetime soap attracted a then-record 53.3 rating and 76 share.

“We had set it up to a point where we knew that X number of people wanted to kill him,” Rich recalled. “We shot three different endings and never told anybody which ending we were going to use. We also hid the script. I and [writer-director Leonard Katzman] were the only ones who knew."

Rich was born Dec. 10, 1926, in Cleveland. After graduation from Ohio University, he joined the advertising firm of Lord and Thomas as an office boy. He served four years in the Navy, then spent a year with the American Association of Advertising Agencies before joining the Weinthraib Agency in New York.

Rich’s next stop was Benton and Bowles, where he spent 13 years, becoming senior vp and a member of the board of directors. During the 1960s, Benton & Bowles was a wellspring of network programming directors. As a representative of the advertisers, Rich would often be on the set and critiquing scripts before giving his clients’ approval.

Many future TV luminaries worked for Rich at B&B, including former NBC chairman and producer Grant Tinker, and he helped package The Danny Thomas Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Rich left Benton & Bowles in 1965 to partner with the Mirisch Co. and form Mirisch-Rich Productions, where he produced for TV The Rat Patrol, the Garry Marshall-Jerry Belson created Hey, Landlord and the Saturday cartoons Super Six and Super President. He returned to advertising at the Leo Burnett Agency but left to found Lorimar with Adelson.

In 1971, Rich produced his first feature, the comedy The Sporting Club, and his first film as executive producer was the dark comedy Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978), starring George Segal and Jacqueline Bisset. Among his other credits, he produced the thriller Just Cause (1995), starring Sean Connery, and the family film The Amazing Panda Adventure (1995), the first Western movie to be filmed in the Chinese Himalayas.

Other productions included the telefilms Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate (1971), starring Helen Hayes; Aesop’s Fables (1971), with Bill Cosby; Pursuit (1972), starring Ben Gazarra; and The Crooked Hearts (1972), with Rosalind Russell.

Survivors include his lifelong partner, actress Pippa Scott; daughters Jessica, Miranda, Blair; sons Michael and Anthony; and seven grandchildren. 

E-mail: Mike.Barnes@THR.com