Merv Adelson, an industry titan who shepherded some of the most well-known TV properties to the screen, has died, The Hollywood Reporter has learned. He was 85.
The entertainment executive founded Lorimar in 1969 with developer Irwin Molasky and producer Lee Rich. The company’s first major hit was The Waltons, which premiered in 1972.
Lorimar produced several other successful TV shows in the 1970s and 1980s, including Dallas, Knots Landing and Love Connection, but had accumulated significant losses from its lack of success with movies.
Hollywood’s top executives mourned Adelson on Wednesday in statements to THR.
CBS CEO Leslie Moonves remembers the mogul as “a wonderful boss and mentor. He also was a very classy guy who I looked up to.”
Lorimar alum Bruce Rosenblum recounts: “Merv was a visionary. Together with Lee Rich, he nurtured one of the great independent television studios of all time.”
DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg tells THR: “Merv was one of the true greats!!! He did it all and he did it his way. He was a wonderful mentor to so many and will be missed.”
Bob Daly, former chairman and co-chief executive at Warner Bros., recalls: “Merv Adelson was someone who I spent many years doing business with and he was terrific at what he did. He also was a friend of mine and I will miss him.”
Born Oct. 23, 1929, in Los Angeles, Adelson grew up in California but made his first fortune in his 20s when he opened a 24-hour grocery store in Las Vegas in the early 1950s. The grocery store led to more real estate projects, including the building of the famed La Costa resort in the early 1960s.
Throughout this period, Adelson and partner Molasky were dogged with rumors of mob ties, and Adelson later admitted in a 2013 Vanity Fair profile to being friends with the “Godfather of Las Vegas,” Moe Dalitz. “I never asked him about [anything illegal]. I didn’t want to know the answer,” he told the magazine.
In 1969, Adelson formed Lorimar with Rich and Molasky. They saved The Waltons from cancelation with an ad buy that persuaded CBS boss William Paley to hang on to the show. A string of other hits followed The Waltons — Dallas, Knots Landing, Falcon Crest, Eight Is Enough — so many in fact that Lorimar was nicknamed the fifth network.
The company merged with syndicator Telepictures in 1985, and the whole company was sold to Warner Bros. in 1989 for $1.2 billion. Following the acquisition, Adelson became the vice chairman at Warners until 1991.
Adelson’s personal fortune was about $300 million, and he owned homes in Aspen, Malibu, New York and Los Angeles.
During the height of his career, Adelson married famous journalist Barbara Walters in 1986. At the wedding ceremony, which was held at producer Leonard Goldberg‘s home, Walters said, “This is the way it will always be: Merv will always say the perfect thing, and I’ll always get the last word.” They divorced in 1992.
Between 2000 and 2003 he lost most of his fortune in the dot-com crash, losing more than $141 million alone, when Time Warner stock cratered from $57 a share to $7 a share, according to the 2013 Vanity Fair profile. In his later years, he famously could only afford a 500-square-foot Santa Monica apartment.
In a 2014 THR feature about Lorimar, Adelson remembered, “It was fun to watch 19 shows you have on the air. That was great. I wouldn’t give that up for anything.”
Kim Masters and Andy Lewis contributed to this report.