Brandon Stoddard dies at 77; longtime television executive at ABC

Brandon Stoddard, a longtime ABC television executive who oversaw “Roots” and other miniseries, di

Television executive Brandon Stoddard, who played a key role in the 1970s classic "Roots" and other pioneering miniseries, died Monday at his home in Bel-Air. He was 77.

The cause was bladder cancer, said his wife, Mary Anne Dolan.

Other miniseries he oversaw as an ABC executive included the World War II-era saga "The Winds of War," the romantic Australian tale "The Thorn Birds" and the "Roots: The Next Generations" sequel.

But Stoddard's impact was felt far beyond miniseries. During a succession of ABC jobs, he helped steer to the small screen such 1980s series as "thirtysomething," "Roseanne," "The Wonder Years," "China Beach" and "Full House."

Broadcasters during that era dominated the TV landscape and threatened to become faceless corporate behemoths, yet Stoddard was known for working closely with writers and producers and trying hard not to impose on their creative vision.

"Networks and studios shouldn't be in a position of exercising power over creative people," Stoddard told the Los Angeles Times in 1982. "They don't respond to that."

He also ventured into theatrical movies as the head of ABC's motion picture division that turned out "Silkwood," starring Meryl Streep and directed by Mike Nichols.

But Stoddard is primarily known for his work in television.

The original "Roots" miniseries, which tells the sprawling story of an African American family across several generations, was one of the highest rated programs in TV history. Its finale, according to a Nielsen estimate, was seen by 100 million viewers.

But Stoddard, who put the show into development at ABC on a pitch from Alex Haley before the author had even started writing the book the series is based on, was far from sure of its success before it debuted on the network in 1977.

"I was absolutely terrified, because there wasn't a lot of support going on in the network," he said in a 2007 interview by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences for its Archive of American Television project. Major advertisers had turned down the show, saying it was too violent for them.

But the first installment grabbed a huge ratings share in the 60s, more than twice what even Stoddard had hoped for. He attributed the sky-high ratings not only to the material and production, but also the promotion of the show that called it "The Triumph of an American Family."

"When you're doing a miniseries, so much of it is about the promotion and the publicity and the advertising, because you have one night to get them in the house," he said. "If you don't get them in the tent on opening night, you're dead."

Stoddard was born March 31, 1937, in Bridgeport, Conn., and raised in nearby Southport. His parents refused to buy a television set when they became available, so he bought his own with earnings from odd jobs.

His parents "would make cynical remarks about 'the industry' and 'the business,'" he said, "which probably instantly attracted me to it."

He went to the private Deerfield Academy prep school and graduated from Yale in 1958.

After a stint in the Army, Stoddard took a job in advertising with a direct tie to television — he helped create campaigns aimed at getting major companies to sponsor TV shows — and that led to working in the field.

In 1985 his network career reached a peak when he was named president of ABC Entertainment. But after about three years, he suddenly resigned, to the surprise of many. "It's just no fun anymore," he said in a 1989 Times interview. Leaving the post, he said, felt "almost giddy now that the daily rating reporting card won't be following me every week."

He segued into overseeing a producing arm of the company that turned out "My So Called Life" and other series. But in 1995 he stepped down, saying it was his decision.

"I went to a 25th anniversary party and they gave me a watch, and this may have been one of the most difficult moments in my life," he told Newsday in 1995. "I never dreamed in my lifetime that I'd be at one job for 25 years."

In addition to his wife, the former editor of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Stoddard is survived by daughters Alexandra Brandon Stoddard of Washington, D.C., and Brooke Stoddard of New York; sisters Cecily Stranahan and Anne Patterson of Southport, Conn,; and four grandchildren.

david.colker@latimes.com

scott.collins@latimes.com

Twitter @davidcolker

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