TV producer, exec David Gerber dies

Earned Emmy, Globe and Peabody awards

David Gerber, a seminal figure in American and international television for a half-century as a producer, studio executive, industry statesman and philanthropist, died Saturday at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. He was 86.

Gerber earned an Emmy (and six other Emmy noms), a Golden Globe, a Peabody award and a Christopher award -- not to mention honors from the American Film Institute, the Caucus for Producers, Writers & Directors and others -- by taking on serious, often controversial subjects.

He was a pioneer of multiracial programming and an industry innovator with such series as "Police Woman," "Batman," "Room 222," "thirtysomething," "In the Heat of the Night," "Medical Story" and dozens of TV movies, including his last longform effort, the critically acclaimed "Flight 93" in 2006.

His miniseries included "George Washington," winner of a Peabody award; "The Lindberg Kidnapping Case"; "Nothing Lasts Forever"; and "Beulah Land."

In 1974, Gerber produced "Police Woman," the first successful genre series with a female lead (Angie Dickinson), and "That's My Mama," one of the first sitcoms with a primarily black cast.

His list of movies of the week included "Police Story: The Freeway Killings"; "Finding the Way Home," starring George C. Scott; "Inherit the Wind," starring Jason Robards; and two "Dirty Dozen" movies.

As an executive, Gerber was credited with revitalizing two studios: Columbia Pictures Television in the late 1970s and MGM Television during his 1986-92 stint there. While chairman and CEO of MGM Worldwide Television Group, the studio in 1991 created "thirtysomething," "The Young Riders" and "In the Heat of the Night," the spinoff that starred Carroll O'Connor.

At Columbia, Gerber oversaw the series "Viva Valdez," one of the first all-Latino comedies, and the garment district-set "Needles and Pins," one of the first ethnic comedies.

He also served as president of All American Television Prods. in the mid-1990s. After it was sold, Gerber was based at Fox Television Studios, where he produced "The Lost Battalion" and "Flight 93," which earned six Emmy noms.

His honors included a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; the Caucus of Producers, Writers & Directors Lifetime Achievement Award; NAACP and Nosotros awards for his depiction of ethnic cultures on television; and lifetime achievement recognition from the Casting Society of America and the Publicists Guild.

"More than anyone I know, Gerber personified the golden age of the television business," said Peter Chernin, who credited Gerber with giving him his first job in Hollywood.

"He was a larger than life character. He was unbelievably passionate about what he did. He had a phenomenal commitment to quality. He looked at this as God's work in some ways, an opportunity to entertain and inform tens of millions of people. The thing Gerber taught me was more than anything else was a relentless commitment to try and make things better."

Gerber was born July 25, 1923, in Brooklyn, N.Y. He served in World War II as a radio tech gunner in the U.S. Air Corps and was shot down over Germany and held as a prisoner of war for 13 months. He walked through war-torn Germany at liberation, which became the subject of "The Long Walk Home," a project he was working on at the time of his death.

After his World War II service, Gerber attended the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif. Years later, he served on the school's Board of Regents and established the David and Laraine Gerber Endowment Fund in International Studies. Last year, Gerber and his wife endowed the Gerber Lecture Series.

Gerber began his professional career at the BBD&O Ad Agency in New York as a TV supervisor, then worked as a TV packaging agent for Famous Artists and General Artists Corp. before moving to the executive ranks at 20th Century Fox.

He was active for many years in TV industry affairs. He served three terms on the executive board of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, was on the Producers Guild board of directors and on the Caucus for Producers, Writers & Directors' steering committee.

"David was a guiding light," said Chuck Fries, executive secretary of the caucus. "He was a well-known figure in the industry and had a strong commitment to our aims, objectives and purposes. David was someone who was outspoken and prepared to state his position on many issues, and we respected him highly for that."

In Los Angeles, Gerber served for many years on the board of the House Ear Institute, which honored him as Humanitarian of the Year. He and his wife, actress Laraine Stephens, received a Chair in Ophthalmology from the Jules Stein Eye Institute and were honored with the dedication of the Laraine and David Gerber Research Center within the House Ear Institute.

As a hobby, Gerber also purchased a historic estate in the Stockton area that became the 100-acre Gerber Vineyards and later the Laraine Winery. It continues as an international business selling the Laraine brand of wine.

Gerber is survived by Stephens, his wife of 39 years, who was at his side when he died.

The family suggests donations be made to the David and Laraine Gerber Endowment Fund at University of the Pacific, 3601 Pacific Ave., Stockton, CA 95211; the USC Cardiac Electrophysiology Service, c/o Leslie A. Saxon, MD, 1510 San Pablo St., Suite 22, Los Angeles, CA 90033; House Ear Clinic, 2100 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles, CA, 90057; or any animal-rescue charity.

Funeral services will be private, and an industry memorial is in the works.