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Alan Landsburg dies at 81; Emmy-winning producer and leading horseman

ObituariesTelevision IndustryHorse RacingMoviesTelevisionRod SerlingNew York University
Alan Landsburg, producer of range and variety, dies at 81
Emmy-winning producer Alan Landsburg, 81, was also influential horseman

Emmy-winning producer Alan Landsburg thrived on variety during a five-decade career in Hollywood. Among his hundreds of credits were documentaries, the pioneering naturalist series "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau" and issue-driven TV-movies such as "The Ryan White Story," "The Triangle Factory Fire Scandal" and "Bill," which was based on the true story of a mentally challenged man trying to adjust to life outside an institution.

On the other hand, he produced pseudo-science tales that speculated "ancient astronauts" from other worlds visited Earth, the "That's Incredible!" TV series that paid people to do stunts, and movies such as "Porky's II" and "Jaws 3-D."

"He was the king of the one-line pitch," said his daughter, actress Valerie Landsburg. "If he kept doing the same thing, he would get bored."

Landsburg, 81, died Aug. 13 of natural causes at his home in Beverly Hills, said his personal assistant, Luanne Keifer.

He was prolific in the horse racing world too. Not only did he have an ownership stake in more than 400 horses, but he also served as chairman of the California Horse Racing Board and was founding director of Thoroughbred Owners of California.

Landsburg was born May 10, 1933, in White Plains, N.Y. He finished high school early at the age of 16 and graduated from New York University in 1953 with a bachelor's degree in communications. He served in the Army in Germany, where he produced and directed an information radio show for troops in Europe.

Back in New York after his discharge, he worked for an NBC-affiliated station, then made the leap to TV through his friendship with fledgling director Mel Stuart, who had gotten a job with documentary film producer David Wolper in Los Angeles.

Landsburg moved his family to Los Angeles in the early 1960s, first working as a producer on Wolper's popular "Biography" series that profiled world leaders, entertainers and other notables. He went on to produce, write and direct "A Thousand Days: A Tribute to John Fitzgerald Kennedy," which aired in 1964 on the first anniversary of the president's assassination.

Later came National Geographic specials, the underwater Cousteau series and numerous other documentary specials and shows. But Landsburg wanted to expand into fictional, dramatic films. The one Emmy win of his career came for producing the 1970 drama "A Storm in Summer," directed by Buzz Kulik, written by Rod Serling and starring Peter Ustinov as a crotchety delicatessen owner who ends up taking in an African American boy.

Many critics thought that one of Landsburg's biggest documentary-style hits, the "In Search of" shows about science mysteries, slipped wholly into fiction at times, as when it suggested that beings from other planets visited Earth thousands of years ago and boosted human progress.

Landsburg defended the show in a 1974 Los Angeles Times interview. "If we made all the progress that we know we have made in the recorded 35,000 years of our history," he said, "what did we do and what happened to us in the unrecorded 4 billion years before that?"

Another of his hit series, "That's Incredible!," launched in 1980, is considered by many to be a forerunner of so-called reality shows. "I looked at 'Survivor,' " Valerie Landsburg said, "and thought, 'this is my father's show.' "

His TV career wound down in the 1990s and he became more involved in horse racing. It was one area where he felt television and the growing online world could never replicate the real-life experience of going to the track.

"I have to see the whole panorama of the race," he told The Times in 2002. "I want to see the horses walk by on parade, warm up and get into the gate. I want to see if they are showing pride or fear, how their legs look, their ankles.

"You can't really see all that on a computer screen."

In addition to his daughter Valerie, who lives in Rocklin, Maine, he is survived by daughter Shana of Sherman Oaks; son Michael of North Hollywood; sister Barbara Barsky of Boulder, Colo.; and seven grandchildren.

david.colker@latimes.com
Twitter: @davidcolker

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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ObituariesTelevision IndustryHorse RacingMoviesTelevisionRod SerlingNew York University
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