By Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times
March 23, 2012
Bob Henry, an Emmy Award-winning television variety-show producer and director who produced Nat King Cole's groundbreaking musical variety program in the 1950s and helped make Flip Wilson a household name as the producer of his hit comedy-variety show in the 1970s, has died. He was 92.
Henry died of age-related causes Sunday at his home in Laguna Beach, said his wife, Annette.
A TV career that spanned more than 50 years began when Henry became an associate producer on NBC's "The Colgate Comedy Hour" in New York in the early '50s.
He went on to produce and/or direct more than 25 variety series and specials, including "The Andy Williams Show," "The Perry Como Show," "The Carpenters at Christmas," "The Gladys Knight & the Pips Show," "The Captain & Tennille Special," "Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters" and Emmy and Grammy telecasts.
"In a business like television, you'd expect everybody to love it, but everybody working in it didn't love it like Bob Henry did," said producer Norman Lear, who was a writer on "The Colgate Comedy Hour" when he first met Henry.
"He adored the medium, the performers, the cameras," Lear said. "He just lived it and loved it totally."
Early in his career, Henry produced a show that helped pave the way for future black performers on prime time television.
With the launch of "The Nat King Cole Show" on NBC in 1956, the popular singer became the first major black performer to star in a network variety series. Henry was the producer and a director on the show, which was expanded from 15 minutes to half an hour in the summer of 1957 and ended that December, having failed to find a regular national sponsor.
"It wasn't the network's decision" to end the show, Henry said in a 2006 National Public Radio interview. "It was Nat Cole's decision. He said, 'I can't find a sponsor; that's it; I quit.'"
Ron Simon, the TV and radio curator for the Paley Center for Media in New York and Los Angeles, said "many potential sponsors were afraid of losing the Southern consumer and so they backed entirely away from the show. NBC kept it going. It had increased the budget for it and gave it financial support."
Thirteen years after producing "The Nat 'King' Cole Show," Henry was producing a show starring a black performer who became one of the hottest stars on TV.
"The Flip Wilson Show," a comedy-variety hour for which Henry shared an Emmy and a Peabody Award, ran on NBC from 1970 to '74 and ranked as the No. 2 show on TV for two seasons.
The Cole and Wilson variety programs "show Bob Henry's commitment to bringing African American talent to American network television," said Simon. "He struggled in the '50s, not because of the show itself, but because of outside forces. But then he was able to bring his vision of a show hosted by an African American to a national audience in 1970.
"His vision didn't change, but American society did."
"The Flip Wilson Show" provided an ideal showcase for Wilson's brand of comedy and his memorable array of characters such as the Rev. Leroy of the Church of What's Happening Now and the brash Geraldine Jones whose unseen boyfriend was named "Killer."
It was Henry's idea to have Wilson perform in the round, he said in a 2007 National Public Radio interview.
"Flip was short of stature and he had a kind of a gentility, whereas somebody like Bob Hope, who was tall and was sort of rugged in his humor … could work in a set that looked like an office with real desks, real windows. But Flip would have been overwhelmed if you put walls behind him.
"My theory then and since…[was] to let his talent flow."
Jonathan Winters, who worked with Henry on the 1976 special "Jonathan Winters Presents 200 Years of American Humor" and other shows, said Henry was good with comedy "because he would pretty much let you gamble with your material. He would let you do your thing."
Born in Boston on July 27, 1919, Henry received a bachelor's degree from Tufts University in 1940. Exempt from military service during World War II because of his poor eyesight, he worked as a stand-up comic and as an on-air radio personality in Boston and New York before going into TV.
A longtime resident of Laguna Beach, he was a member of the Festival of Arts board of directors from 2001 to 2007 and served a stint as president.
Henry's first wife, Shirley, died in 1972.
Besides Annette, his wife of 30 years, Henry is survived by his daughter, Ruth Massaro; his son, Keith; two grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
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