News from the Archive

Understanding Ohlmeyer: Requiem for an Executive

November 16th, 2017
Don Ohlmeyer

I’d never been Don Ohlmeyer’s biggest fan. Even the most casual viewer couldn’t escape his name as having been involved with some of the biggest television stories of the ‘90s when he was president of NBC, West Coast. A verbose, larger-than-life figure, he reminded one more of an old-time Hollywood mogul than Grant Tinker or Brandon Tartikoff. 

In 2004 I was asked to do the research and write the questions for his interview. I considered it an excellent opportunity to ask him about a few things he’d been connected with that I’d found questionable. There was his role in the NBC late night wars of the early ‘90s. I was also curious about his role in the firing of Norm MacDonald as Weekend Update news anchor from Saturday Night Live. And finally, there was his well-documented friendship with O.J. Simpson. I was thrilled to be invited to watch the interview being taped.

The interview, conducted expertly by Dan Pasternack at Don Ohlmeyer’s home, turned out to be quite a journey. The saga of the creation and early years of Monday Night Football, and the stories about his mentor Roone Arledge, and about Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford were endlessly fascinating, even to a non-sports fan like me. Ohlmeyer related them in a way that was humble and even soft-spoken, which was not at all what I might have expected.

Things took an emotional turn when he discussed the 1972 Munich Olympics and spoke of the horrific terrorist attack on the Israeli athletes that year. He recalled the roles of Arledge and Jim McKay in reporting the news in a way that was straightforward, but was sensitive and showed restraint. As I watched, it dawned on me that Don Ohlmeyer was a man who’d witnessed his share of history, and seemed to have it all in perspective. When he asked for a moment after remembering those events, we obliged.

Eventually Dan Pasternack broached the topic of Jay Leno versus David Letterman. Ohlmeyer had been a staunch believer in Leno first getting The Tonight Show, and then keeping it when other NBC executives began to doubt the initial decision to hire him. He detailed the qualities he saw in Jay that he suspected would wear better over time, and attributes in Dave that might not. From a business standpoint, it turned out he’d been correct. In the long run, Leno won out in the ratings several years running, and eventually retired from late night on top.

As a huge fan of Norm MacDonald, I was most interested to hear Don’s reasoning for Norm’s dismissal. He explained it as having to do with ratings. He told us that for the first time in the history of Saturday Night Live, viewership was down for the Weekend Update segment. He suggested we go view the tapes of Weekend Update from 1997, saying that joke after joke laid flat. In 2004, seeking out those episodes was easier said than done, but a quick look in 2017 bears out his claim. 

When asked if Norm’s dismissal had to do with the O.J. Simpson jokes Norm had been telling each week, he dismissed the notion out of hand. Of his own friendship with Simpson, he stated, “I was brought up that you don’t desert a person who’s been one of your best friends for 27 years because they’re at the darkest moment of their life… guilty or innocent, you don’t desert a friend.”

Agree with Ohlmeyer or not, that day I came to admire his principles, his brilliance as a television executive, and even his humanity. This interview changed the way I thought about Don Ohlmeyer. I think it demonstrates why our interviews are so essential. It gave me a perspective on the man, and on television in the ‘90s, that I otherwise never would have had. It filled in a big piece of the puzzle of television history. And his first person account of Munich, 1972 is invaluable. 

Toward the end of the interview, Don Ohlmeyer spoke candidly about taking on his own substance abuse problems, and how that process changed his outlook on life. I highly recommended watching his entire interview to hear the story of his wild, tumultuous, and eventually triumphant life. One of our best interviews, it is a uniquely American story. Rest in Peace, Don Ohlmeyer.

- John Dalton

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Veterans Day: Reflection on Service

November 9th, 2017

In honor of Veterans Day, we have once again partnered with the Google Cultural Institute to create the exhibit Veterans Day: Reflections on Service. Check it out below!

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Yes, Yes, Nanette!

October 27th, 2017
Nanette Fabray

The great Nanette Fabray turns 97 today! Her show business roots go deep. She tap danced at age three as “Miss New Years Eve 1923” at the Million Dollar Theater in Downtown Los Angeles. In 1939, she made her feature film debut opposite Bette Davis in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” (she told us Davis tried to have her fired.) She won a Tony Award in 1949, and appeared in a string of MGM musicals, including the classic “The Band Wagon,” opposite Fred Astaire. 

Her long second act, this time in television, actually began in 1942. She was enlisted to perform in a series of live tests of RCA’s color television system - she was told she had the "perfect" skin tone for testing color. She told us she was basically on call to General David Sarnoff for those tests for ten years. For this, TV Guide dubbed her, “The Original Live-Test Pattern Girl.”

Nanette replaced Imogene Coca as Sid Caesar’s female sidekick for Caesar’s Hour in 1954. But to me her most interesting work came later. She’d overcome a significant hearing impairment problem in her youth, and later became a life-long advocate for the deaf, hard of hearing, and physically challenged. Maybe her finest performance came in 1977 when she portrayed a stroke victim on Maude.

What I really love about our interview with Nanette is that she really tells it like it is. She was quite honest with us about her two most famous roles from the ‘70s. She played the mother of both Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Ann Romano (Bonnie Franklin) on One Day at a Time. True to form, she let us know what worked, and what didn’t quite work as well as she’d hoped.

Nanette’s interview is one you can watch from start to finish and be completely entertained. Her story is like a history of entertainment in America from the ‘20s to the ‘90s. Join us in wishing her a very Happy Birthday.

- John Dalton

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Remembering Robert Guillaume

October 24th, 2017
blog post image

We’re sad to learn that actor Robert Guillaume has passed away at the age of 89. Guillaume grew up in St. Louis, MO and joined the Army in 1945. He began his acting career in the theater before he began appearing regularly on television in sitcoms including Julia, All in the Family, and The Jeffersons. His character on Soap, “Benson DuBois” was spun-off into his own series, Benson. He won Emmys for his appearances as “Benson” in both shows. In later years, Guillaume co-starred on the Aaron Sorkin series, Sports Night

Below are some selections from his 1999 interview:

On playing “Benson DuBois” on Soap:

On spinning off Benson from Soap:

On Sports Night:

Watch Robert Guillaume's full interview and read his obituary in Variety.

 

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55 Years ago, on October 22, 1962, President Kennedy addressed the nation about the Cuban Missile Crisis

October 22nd, 2017
John F. Kennedy

Fifty-five years ago, the U.S. and the Soviet Union nearly went to war over the placement of missiles in nearby Cuba.

On October 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation, telling the American people in a televised address that he would, "...regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union." The crisis was abated when an unconditional Soviet withdrawal was negotiated.

Our interviewees share their experiences of those tense days:

Max Schindler (News Director)

“We all knew that something was happening because people were being called away from parties here in town. Very high placed government officials were being called away. We knew it was serious when they started showing pictures of missile silos opening, we thought Washington would be, probably a prime target because it was very serious. Here was this young President Kennedy facing off with Nikita Khrushchev. And I guess he wanted to push to see how hard he could get this young president to back off. Kennedy said the missiles had to be taken out of Cuba, Khrushchev said nyet, no way. And there were Russian ships steaming toward Cuba, or as Kennedy used to say ‘Cuber.’ It was kind of a scary time, and I don’t know how it was around the rest of the country, but in Washington it was very scary. My daughter had just been born a couple of months earlier, and because of a death in the family, she hadn’t been baptized and I came home one night and my wife said to me I baptized Maggie in her crib, she was that scared that we were going to have a nuclear war at that time. So it was a very scary time here in Washington… The coverage was all kind of secretive. We followed a lot of government officials around and tried to get information from them, but it was very hard. It was a very trying time, but they didn’t want to give any information out so, even though we had camera crews at the White House, and State Department, and the Pentagon and all over, we didn’t really get much out of them. They played it pretty close to the vest during that time and I can’t say as I blame them.”

Bill Monroe (Moderator/Producer)

“We didn’t quite know what was going on… Gradually it came into view. We took what we could find out from the White House and Kennedy used the media to get across the points he needed to make as the thing developed.”

“One time I was at the White House as a producer of a speech that Kennedy gave that was on all three networks. And he told us to give him at the end of the speech a one-minute cue… He was going to improvise the last minute. He felt that reading something, although he was good at it, is not as effective as if he talk[ed] to [the viewer] directly. And he wanted to finish one minute improvised. Most presidents don’t have the nerve to do that… He was supremely confident about his articulateness and his ability to handle television.”

Robert MacNeil (Journalist)

“I really began to feel it was serious when I was sitting with Herb Kaplow, who was the NBC correspondent covering the Pentagon with Peter Hackes. We were in  the Pentagon pressroom, just waiting for briefings and handouts. And we were shooting the breeze and Kaplow said, ‘Excuse me. I just got back from agonizing about this. I’ve just gotta make this call.’ And he turned to one of the press phones and he called his wife. And he said, ‘Honey, I want you to get the station wagon and put some blankets and a mattress in the back.  And fill up a lot of bottles with fresh water and put the kids in and just drive west and call me every evening until I tell you to stop.’ Herb Kaplow - very funny guy, sane, level-headed guy. I thought if this guy is as scared as that and he’s in as good a position as any American citizen except the inner circle of Kennedy to know what’s going on, this is serious.”

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