Television executive Dean Valentine always looked forward to evenings with writer-producer Danny Arnold. "I loved going out with Danny," says UPN President Valentine, "and hearing all these amazing stories about his time with Martin and Lewis, or how they fixed 'Bewitched,' or the early days of 'Barney Miller.' "
Encouraged by Arnold, Valentine started thinking about ways to document television's past. A serendipitous visit to Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which has been recording the testimonies of Holocaust survivors, provided him a model for gathering, organizing and disseminating information.
When Arnold died in August 1995 at age 70, "that spurred me to get it done," says Valentine, 43, who took his idea to the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
"We take the early history of TV for granted, and nobody realizes that when the people who created it are gone, their great stories will disappear with them," he said.
By the end of this month, the academy's newly launched Archive of American Television expected to have interviewed 50 key television figures. Backed by the academy's foundation, the archive plans one day to house hundreds of videotapes stored in computerized databases. There are plans to establish a center to provide sophisticated on-site computer access and make videos available to the public through the Internet and CD-ROMs, as well as in museums, universities and other tie-ins.
"I think this is one of the most important projects the Academy Foundation has ever undertaken," says foundation President Thomas Sarnoff. "We're capturing for posterity the history of television as seen and spoken by the people who developed it."
Industry support has been extensive. Former TV academy President Richard Frank championed the project early on, Disney executives John Litvak and Janet Blake helped develop it and new academy President Meryl Marshall expresses enthusiasm about its prospects. Producers Grant Tinker and David Wolper immediately agreed to serve as honorary co-chairs and help raise money.
Initial funding came from the Academy Foundation, which also financed an eight-minute fund-raising video narrated by actors James Garner and Noah Wyle. The archive already has raised $1.5 million toward its long-term $20-million goal, Sarnoff says.
Already filmed are interviews with such prominent television figures as newsman Howard K. Smith, animator Joseph Barbera and performers Sid Caesar, Art Linkletter, E.G. Marshall, Imogene Coca and Mary Tyler Moore.
A widely based selection committee assembled a preliminary list of about 350 people, concentrating initially on the first 25 years of television and particularly on the TV academy's Hall of Fame inductees. They also wanted their choices to reflect all aspects of the industry, not just high-profile actors and directors.
The six individuals chosen for last year's pilot program indicate the range: entertainer Milton Berle, actor-director-producer Sheldon Leonard, ABC pioneer Leonard Goldenson, makeup artist Dick Smith, casting executive Ethel Winant and Elma Farnsworth, widow of Philo Farnsworth, generally credited as the inventor of television.
Michael Rosen, the archive's 33-year-old executive producer, says the goal is to chronicle 150 people a year. Camera crews have already traveled to New York, Florida, Utah, Washington and elsewhere.
Archival in nature, the videos use only one camera--aimed strictly on the interview subject--and no zoom shots. They are also essentially unedited, Rosen says, because "we want it in their own words."
Tapes highlight such things as the imaginative problem-solving required by live television. Director-producer Norman Felton, for example, tells of using twins to execute a complicated mid-story costume change.
Makeup artist Smith recalls how, for a show demanding that a boxer be beaten up mid-scene, he wound up playing the boxer's handler and stepping in the ring in order to discreetly apply black, blue and blood-red makeup.
Everyone involved says they wish the project had begun 15 or 20 years ago. Producer-director Leonard died exactly six months after his archive interview, but the project started too late for both Red Skelton and George Burns. Existing interviews and speeches will help fill gaps for prominent people like Skelton, Burns and Sarnoff's father, former RCA Chairman David Sarnoff, but there is little such footage on behind-the-scenes and other lesser-known industry figures.
"People are doing this out of love for the medium and its past and belief in its future," Valentine says. "It's great to put on a hit show, but it's really rewarding to know you're involved in something that generations to come will find useful. And I always think of it as a tribute to my friend Danny."