William Orr, 85; Had Hit TV Shows in 1950s, ‘60s for Warner Bros.
William T. Orr, the Warner Bros. executive who launched the movie studio’s entry into television production in the mid-1950s and for nearly a decade presided over a string of hit shows that included “Cheyenne,” “Maverick” and “77 Sunset Strip,” has died. He was 85.
Orr, a former actor who became studio head Jack L. Warner’s executive assistant in the mid-1940s, died of natural causes Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles.
As the head of Warner Bros. Television from 1955 to 1963, Orr oversaw 24 shows, including “The Roaring Twenties,” “No Time for Sergeants,” “Colt 45,” “Lawman” and a spate of private-eye shows that followed in the wake of the popular “77 Sunset Strip” -- “Hawaiian Eye,” “Bourbon Street Beat” and “Surfside Six.”
The lineup of Warner Bros.-produced series contributed greatly to the emerging success of ABC-TV, then the lowest-ranked network.
The shows also turned the studio’s stable of young TV actors into household names: James Garner, Clint Walker, Ty Harden, Connie Stevens, Robert Conrad, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Edd “Kookie” Byrnes, Will Hutchins, Dorothy Provine and Roger Smith.
“He was the one who made it all happen,” said Smith, who had been signed to a studio contract by Orr to appear in the movie “Auntie Mame” and, at 22, found himself cast as detective Jeff Spencer in “77 Sunset Strip,” co-starring with Zimbalist.
“For that period, there was nobody better than Bill Orr,” Smith told The Times on Friday. “He was fair in his treatment with his stars.”
At the time, TV viewers were accustomed to seeing the credit “Wm. T. Orr, Executive in Charge of Production” at the end of each Warner Bros. show, but few were aware of his impact on the young medium.
“Bill Orr is like [NBC’s] Pat Weaver and [ABC’s] Roone Arledge who, if you asked the average person who these people were, most Americans couldn’t tell you, yet they so much impacted how television ultimately looked and how it looks to this day,” said Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.
For Orr and Warner Bros., it began in 1955 with “Warner Bros. Presents,” the umbrella title for three rotating series produced for ABC and based on old Warner movies: “Casablanca,” “Kings Row” and a little-known Western called “Cheyenne.”
“Casablanca” and “King’s Road” flopped, but “Cheyenne,” starring Clint Walker as a post-Civil War adventurer in the West, was a hit and spent eight years on ABC.
Ron Simon, curator of television at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City, credits Orr with implementing a production process for filming weekly television series.
“It took a year or so to get down the budget and organization to adapt Warner Bros. film techniques to television, and Orr was pivotal in doing that,” Simon said, adding that Orr also was “pivotal in finding new stars for television.”
“His career signaled how important television would become in the studio system,” said Simon. “Television began as a step-child, but because of Orr, it became equal with film in creating revenue and jobs for the studio.”
The son of a businessman, Orr was born in New York City and attended Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H. At 18, after his parents divorced, Orr moved to Los Angeles with his mother and younger sister.
Handsome and athletic, he did some modeling and began taking acting classes. He had his first big break with “Meet the People,” a long-running stage revue in Los Angeles hosted by Hollywood columnist Louella Parsons.
The show led to his being offered a $300-a-week acting contract at Warner Bros. Although he made a few shorts at Warner, he was more often lent out to other studios. He appeared in nearly 20 movies between 1938 and 1943.
During World War II, he served as an officer in the First Motion Picture Unit of the Army Air Forces at Hal Roach Studios in Culver City.
Joining other actors including Ronald Reagan, William Holden and Alan Ladd, Orr appeared in military training films.
In a statement Friday, former First Lady Nancy Reagan said, “Ronnie often spoke of the many projects they worked on together while in the Army and of their time at Fort Roach.”
Orr became famous -- or more accurately infamous -- for one training film he appeared in -- “Three Cadets” -- which warned GIs about the dangers of untreated venereal disease.
“He was the pilot who treated himself with his own remedy instead of going to the base doctor,” said his son Gregory Orr, a documentary filmmaker. “As a result, he crashed his plane.”
Near the end of the war in 1945, Orr married Jack Warner’s stepdaughter, Joy Page, an actress who played the young Bulgarian woman in “Casablanca.”
About a year later, Warner offered his son-in-law a job as his assistant, which had Hollywood wags joking that “the son-in-law also rises.”
Orr, who became heavily involved in casting at Warner before becoming head of television production, was put in charge of theatrical as well as television production at the studio in 1961.
He left Warner Bros. in 1965 to become an independent producer, and retired in the mid-1970s.
Although Orr and his wife divorced after 25 years of marriage, they remained close and they spent the last couple of years living together.
In addition to his son, Orr is survived by a daughter, Diane Orr, and a sister, Maury DeMots, both of Los Angeles.
A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. today at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Hollywood Hills.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Motion Picture & Television Hospital in Woodland Hills.