Al Simon; Producer Who Paved Way for TV Reruns


Al Simon, a producer whose pioneering work led to a method for preserving the live quality of early television shows on film, paving the way for summer reruns and the syndication industry, has died.

Simon, who had Alzheimer's disease, died Thursday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said his sister-in-law, Ann Rutherford Dozier of Beverly Hills. He was 88.

A self-effacing man who rarely spoke of his contributions to the TV industry in its early days, Simon later became president of Filmways Productions, where he was responsible for several of the 1960s' most popular sitcoms, including "Mr. Ed" and "The Beverly Hillbillies."

He entered TV during its infancy, creating in 1946 one of the first live shows shot in Hollywood. By 1950 he was a writer for Ralph Edwards' game show "Truth or Consequences."

Pressured by his sponsors, Edwards was taking the show, which had originated on radio, to television. But he had two problems: how to deliver the program, which was one of the few being produced in Los Angeles, to East Coast viewers, and how to improve the visual quality of the picture they would receive.

Before 1950, most television was live, and coast-to-coast transmission was not yet possible. The only means of rebroadcasting shows was by using kinescopes, which involved pointing a film camera at a TV camera's viewfinder. But the resulting images were very scratchy.

Simon, adapting a method first used by NBC film department head Jerry Fairbanks in the late 1940s, suggested that Edwards use three movie cameras loaded with 35-millimeter film to record the action before a live audience. The 35-millimeter film produced much clearer pictures than the kinescopic method. Simon added a two-track audio system that enabled the director in the booth to talk to stagehands during filming. Filming also made it possible to edit out mistakes.

Another important contribution was made later by legendary German cinematographer Karl Freund, who worked with Simon to devise better lighting than had been available.

Although some accounts say the late Desi Arnaz created this so-called three-camera system for "I Love Lucy," the credit belongs mainly to Simon, who helped Edwards make "Truth or Consequences" the first show recorded on 35-millimeter film before a live audience on a regular basis.

"Al Simon talked to me about filming the show with motion picture cameras," Edwards said in an interview several years ago. "We were the only show to use three movie cameras all hooked up to the director in the booth and done before a live audience. Thus was born the three-camera technique for television that . . . became the standard for sitcoms."

Simon was later hired by Arnaz to adapt the system for "I Love Lucy."

Veteran actor Alan Young recalled that when he was shooting his own "The Alan Young Show" using the kinescope method in 1950, Arnaz and Lucille Ball came by to watch. "It was very rough. . . . Our show was quite popular in New York and Philadelphia, but I don't know how [viewers] enjoyed it. It looked like a snowstorm. Desi and Lucy were smart. They could see no residual in this kind of film. They wanted to go on real film. That's when Al came in."

Simon not only refined the three-camera system for them but recommended against their plan to shoot the show in an old movie theater. He suggested that they bring an audience to a film sound stage--a radical concept at the time. The approach blended the best of Hollywood's strengths in film and New York's strengths in live theater, said Ron Simon (no relation to Al), curator of television for the Museum of Television and Radio in New York.

Working with the "I Love Lucy" staff, Al Simon found "a way to do situation comedy on film that had a live quality to it," the curator said. "The thing Al Simon allowed was . . . this unique combination [that] preserved the immediacy of television but also allowed for syndication possibilities by having it on film."

"I Love Lucy" became television's first smash hit sitcom and the first sitcom filmed before a live studio audience. Because each show was filmed, high-quality prints of each episode were available for rebroadcasts, which made millions for Ball and Arnaz after they sold the reruns to independent stations. It set the blueprint for all of television to come.

The show's success "eventually brought the industry to Los Angeles because it legitimized programs on film," the curator, said. "[It showed that] TV did not have to be a live event."

A New York native, Al Simon earned a degree in English literature at Columbia University in 1932. He later received a law degree from New York University. But he preferred writing to the practice of law, becoming a contributor to such magazines as Colliers and Cosmopolitan.

In the years leading up to World War II, he taught a radio course and was publicity director for WHN in New York. After serving in the Army during the war, he moved to Hollywood and began writing for radio, including NBC's "Truth or Consequences." While working on the TV version of that show, Simon came up with the idea of persuading an American city to change its name to Truth or Consequences if Edwards took the Hollywood program to the town. That is how Hot Springs, N.M., became Truth or Consequences.

In 1960 Simon became president of Filmways, where he oversaw development of such top-rated programs as "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Petticoat Junction," "Green Acres" and "Mr. Ed."

He also produced the "George Burns and Gracie Allen Show" in the 1950s.

He is survived by his second wife, Caro Jones Simon; son David of Los Angeles; granddaughter Lisa Simon, also of Los Angeles; and niece Terry Landau of New York. His first wife, the former Judith Rutherford, died in 1968.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World