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Douglas S. Cramer, the onetime head of Paramount Television and producing partner of Aaron Spelling who helped launch such series as Peyton Place, The Brady Bunch, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Love Boat and Dynasty, has died. He was 89.
Cramer died Monday in Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts of heart and kidney failure, his close friend and former The Hollywood Reporter columnist Sue Cameron announced.
“When I was a THR columnist, nobody knew it, but he was my secret ‘legman.’ He was a genius producer with style and taste. We had so much fun together. We were friends for over 45 years,” Cameron said.
A two-time Emmy nominee who was once married to powerful Hollywood columnist Joyce Haber, Cramer also worked for Procter & Gamble, ABC, 20th Century Fox and Screen Gems, where he executive produced Leon Uris’ QB VII, a six-hour-plus “novel for television” that amassed huge ratings for ABC in 1974.
Later, he forged a relationship with prolific author Danielle Steel, and he made more than 20 telefilms and/or miniseries out of her wildly popular novels before he quit show business to concentrate on his enviable art collection and real estate properties around the world.
In 1977, after Spelling and Leonard Goldberg went their separate ways after their producing partnership had fathered such hits as Charlie’s Angels, Fantasy Island, Hart to Hart and T.J. Hooker, each exec took Cramer out to dinner and offered him a job.
Spelling had a contract with ABC that guaranteed a certain number of his pilots had to be picked up, so Cramer went with him. He did so even though Goldberg had been his assistant at ABC and then his boss at Screen Gems.
Cramer would spend 14 years as executive vp of Aaron Spelling Productions, but as part of his deal, he “was not to give any interviews or do any press; that it was all Aaron, his company,” he said in a 2009 conversation for the Television Academy Foundation website The Interviews. “He’d seen other people get the press and the credit.”
Cramer entered the relationship with Spelling with the rights to The Love Boat after reading a newspaper review of a “tacky three-dollar paperback” written by Jeraldine Saunders about “how easy it was to get laid aboard a cruise ship,” he said.
Following two failed Love Boat pilots that were burned off as telefilms, Spelling wooed Gavin MacLeod to play Captain Merrill Stubing for a third pilot, and ABC ordered the series. It ran for nine seasons, from 1977-87.
While working as an ABC exec in 1964, Cramer had helped get the primetime soap opera Peyton Place off the ground. So when “Aaron kept saying to me, ‘What have you done in the past that worked? Let’s do it again,’ I said, ‘Let’s find the grounds to do a serial,'” he recalled.
Dallas was huge for CBS at the time, and Spelling and Cramer hit on the idea of another show about a rich oil family, this one living in Denver. That would be Dynasty, which bowed on ABC in 1981 and also lasted nine seasons.
At Spelling Productions, Cramer executive produced other series, some more successful than others. They included Vega$, starring Robert Urich; Matt Houston, starring Lee Horsley; Hotel — a landlocked version of The Love Boat — starring James Brolin; Life With Lucy, Lucille Ball’s final show; Glitter, starring David Birney; Aloha Paradise, starring Debbie Reynolds; and B.A.D. Cats, starring Michelle Pfeiffer.
In a 1993 interview with The New York Times, Spelling praised Cramer for his creativity and “immaculate taste in art direction and wardrobe.”
“I was very hands-on, there was nothing I wasn’t involved with. I worried about every performer, every extra, every piece of clothing that appeared on the set,” Cramer said in his TV Academy chat. “I [also] was crazed about music. There was always more music on in my shows than anybody else’s. Dynasty in its key days had 42 or 44 minutes of music in each 49 minutes. Dallas, I’ll bet, didn’t have 20.”
Born in 1931 in Louisville, Kentucky, and raised in Cincinnati, Douglas Schoolfield Cramer Jr. was the son of a businessman who claimed to have invented the folding bridge table. His mother, Polly, was an interior designer who wrote a syndicated newspaper column, “Polly’s Pointers,” that dispensed helpful tips to housewives.
Cramer had a Variety subscription by age 6 and a half-sister whose stepfather, David E. Rose, was an executive at Paramount, and both of those things nurtured his showbiz dreams throughout childhood. He graduated from Walnut Hills High School and, after a few months as a production assistant at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, the University of Cincinnati.
He earned his master’s degree at Columbia and then, with the help of an agent, Phyllis Anderson, the wife of Tea and Sympathy playwright Robert Anderson, had a couple of plays produced in stock and off-Broadway. Cramer soon realized, however, that he was “too young to have anything to write about.”
Returning to Ohio, he ran the Cincinnati Summer Playhouse for several years, booking touring companies of Broadway shows that starred the likes of Lois Smith, Maureen Stapleton and Ava Gabor, and taught drama and theater at Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh.
He got a job at Procter & Gamble as a supervisor in its daytime TV department, where he worked on the Irna Phillips CBS soap operas As the World Turns and The Guiding Light, before moving on to the ad agency Ogilvy & Mather.
In 1962, Cramer shifted to the network side of the business. At ABC in New York, he spearheaded the development of Peyton Place as a primetime soap that starred Mia Farrow, Ryan O’Neal and Dorothy Malone. (Based on Grace Metalious’ novel, it also had been the basis of a hit Lana Turner movie in 1957.)
He hired Phillips as the series’ “secret, uncredited adviser,” and the success of drama — which bowed in September 1964 and ran three times a week at the height of its popularity — helped ABC land a show that would air twice a week, Batman, beginning in 1966.
Cramer headed to Los Angeles to become vp television development for Batman producer 20th Century Fox, and his tenure there included work on Irwin Allen’s The Time Tunnel and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea at ABC and NBC’s ground-breaking Julia, starring Diahann Carroll.
Following three years at Fox, Cramer decided “the time had come to do it on my own. I wanted to do more,” he said. With an assist from Robert Evans, who was a neighbor and good friend, and Barry Diller, whom he had worked with at Fox, Cramer was hired by Paramount Television.
Joining a studio whose output at the time included Mission: Impossible, Star Trek — both of which were money losers, he said — and little else, Cramer cut costs (dumping Barbara Bain and replacing Martin Landau with Leonard Nimoy on the former, for example) and developed Love, American Style, The Brady Bunch and The Odd Couple, among other shows. (Each episode of the anthology series Love, American Style had the three-story format that he would reuse for The Love Boat.)
Cramer relished the control he earned at Paramount. “We had autonomy and authority, which is what always impressed me about television. I wanted to be like a director with final cut,” he said. “Ultimately, I wanted my word on shows that had my name on them to be reflected in what was onscreen.”
Cramer fought for that named credit and got it: At the end of his series, he was listed as “executive vice president in charge of production.”
In three years as an independent producer based at Screen Gems, he got Bridget Loves Bernie, starring Birney and real-life wife Meredith Baxter, on CBS and produced what he called “the thing I was proudest of,” the ABC Holocaust miniseries QB VII, starring Anthony Hopkins, Ben Gazzara and Leslie Caron.
Drawing on his Batman days, Cramer executive produced another series based on a comic book character, Wonder Woman, starring Lynda Carter.
“Doug Cramer was a gentleman and a friend,” Carter said in a statement. “He gave me the part of Wonder Woman, which changed my entire life. His legendary contributions to television will never be forgotten. I am so grateful to him, and I’ll miss him.”
Dynasty‘s first season, Cramer recalled, was “deeply boring” and on the verge of being canceled, but Spelling convinced ABC to renew the show by promising to deliver “either Elizabeth Taylor or Sophia Loren” to the cast.
Taylor said no, and talks with Loren broke down weeks before taping started. With time running out, Joan Collins — who had recently guest-starred on Fantasy Island — agreed to come aboard as Alexis, and Dynasty would top the Nielsen charts in 1984-85.
While at Spelling Productions, Cramer had first worked with Steel on a 1986 miniseries adaptation of her cruise ship-set novel Crossings, starring Cheryl Ladd. After he left, he pitched the idea of a series of Steel telefilms to NBC’s Brandon Tartikoff, who quickly signed on (his mom, it turns out, was a big Steel fan).
Cramer also produced three Family of Cops telefilms starring Charles Bronson before he exited TV in the late ’90s. “I had my flops and I had my hits,” he said. When he decided to retire, “I just stopped. I closed my office, I gave away the deals I had. … It was wonderful to say no.”
After he and Haber completed a bitter divorce in the ’70s, Spelling acquired the rights to her best-selling novel, the Hollywood-set The Users, and asked Cramer to exec produce a 1978 telefilm version adapted by Dominick Dunne. He said a character played by George Hamilton is based on him.
Actress Lucie Arnaz, who said Cramer hired her for her first real dramatic role (in the 1975 telefilm Who Is the Black Dahlia?) called him a “conscientious and classy producer [who] gave some of most warm and elegant parties in Hollywood. He was the consummate host.”
Survivors include his husband, artist Hugh Bush. His two children from his marriage to Haber, Courtney and Douglas III, preceded him in death.
Cramer, whose collection of Roy Lichtenstein paintings inspired the pop-art graphics used on Batman, co-founded the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and was a longtime board member of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Andy Warhol painted a portrait of him as part of the deal that led to the artist guest-starring on The Love Boat in 1985.
Scott Feinberg contributed to this report.
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