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Ethel Winant, 81; First Woman to Become Network Executive

Times Staff Writer

Ethel Winant, an Emmy and Peabody award-winning television producer who made history as the first woman to hold an executive position at a network, has died. She was 81.

Winant died Saturday at the West Hills Hospital and Medical Center of complications from a heart attack and stroke she had suffered nearly a month earlier.

Winant managed to break into the male-dominated world of television in the 1960s when she was made senior vice president of talent, casting and special projects at CBS.

At the time most women were relegated to working as assistants and secretaries to male executives.

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“She had the sharpest mind in the business,” said writer, producer and director Allan Burns, who is probably best known for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

“Jim Brooks and I thought we owed her an enormous debt. When we were starting ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ and we were writing scripts -- this is before the show was ever shot and everyone at CBS to a man disliked what we were doing -- Ethel became our staunchest defender, almost to her own peril. She stuck up for us in meetings. People at CBS didn’t get our scripts. They thought we were going to tank. She fought for our scripts.”

Burns said that because she loved the show so much, Winant personally cast the series, putting together an ensemble that included Ed Asner, Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman.

“She found us almost every person in our cast,” Burns said. “It was all due to Ethel and her patience and willingness to go the extra mile.”

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When Winant made it to the executive suite at CBS, it was not without some odd moments.

She recalled that she had to put her shoes outside the bathroom at the network’s executive dining room to let everyone know she was inside.

“They had a bathroom there which didn’t have lock,” Winant said in a 1999 interview with The Times. “Every time I had to go to the bathroom, I would go outside, take the elevator and go downstairs to the women’s bathroom. One day I thought, ‘This is so silly. I am spending my life in the elevator, so I’ll just take off my shoes and that ought to give them a clue I am inside.’ ”

Born in the farming community of Marysville in Northern California, Winant began her professional career backstage on Broadway in the late 1940s, when she worked as a production assistant to producer Irene Selznick on “A Streetcar Named Desire,” director Elia Kazan on “Death of a Salesman” and writer Tennessee Williams on “Summer and Smoke.”

As much as she enjoyed her work in theater, Winant knew she had found her true calling when she walked into a television studio one day in the early 1950s to watch a rehearsal.

“I walked into a rehearsal of ‘Studio One’ and it was just breathtaking,” Winant told The Times.

“I was heartsick when the rehearsal was over. They said, ‘You can come back tomorrow.’ So I went the next day and thought, ‘I just want to stay here forever.’ I sort of did. I just hung around. I knew eventually someone would want a cup of coffee and I would get it for them.”

She started by running errands but eventually moved up to directing productions for “Armstrong Circle Theatre,” “Philco-Goodyear Playhouse,” “General Electric Theater” and “Playhouse 90"; she was also associate producer for the latter two.

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During her years on the dramatic anthologies, she worked with such directors as George Roy Hill, Arthur Penn, Franklin Schaffner, John Houseman, Robert Mulligan and John Frankenheimer. She later collaborated with Frankenheimer on the 1997 miniseries “George Wallace” and the 1998 feature “Ronin.”

Winant subsequently worked with the Children’s Television Workshop as vice president for program development, where she produced the miniseries “The Best of Families.”

At NBC, she was senior vice president of miniseries and novels for television. Under her guidance, NBC scored with critics and audiences with such miniseries as “Shogun” and “Murder in Texas.”

“Ethel was always passionate about material,” said writer-producer David W. Rintels, who first worked with Winant in 1981, when he was executive producer of “NBC Live Theatre.”

“She didn’t care so much about whether she got credit for it. She just wanted to make everything as good as it could be. Ethel got involved with you; she would bring out your best. It was never a job for her. It was a chance to make a difference.”

Over the years, Winant won numerous accolades, including a special Emmy for “Playhouse 90,” two Peabodys, the Humanitas Prize, the Christopher Award, the Alice Award and the Crystal Award from Women in Film.

In 1999, Winant was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Winant was beset with various medical problems during her life, including macular degeneration in both eyes and lung cancer.

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For the past few years she was living at and fund-raising for the Motion Picture & Television Fund Country Home in Woodland Hills.

She is survived by her sons, Scott, an Emmy-winning producer and director; William, a musician; and Bruce, an actor; and four grandchildren.

She requested that her family not have a funeral or memorial service. The family requests that memorial donations be made to the Motion Picture & Television Fund at (818) 876-1900 or through the fund’s Web site at mptvfund.org.


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