Ed Friendly, 85; helped bring ‘Laugh-In’ and ‘Little House’ to TV

Times Staff Writer

Ed Friendly, a producer who brokered the deal that brought “Laugh-In” to television and who created the series “Little House on the Prairie” after noticing his daughter reading the books, has died. He was 85.

Friendly, who also forged a second career as a Thoroughbred racehorse owner, died of cancer Sunday at his home in Rancho Santa Fe, said Warren Cowan, his longtime publicist and friend.

In 1967, Friendly left his job as NBC’s vice president of special programs in New York and moved to Los Angeles to produce specials through an independent company he formed with George Schlatter.

Friendly once called the move the biggest gamble of his career, but one of the first shows his company produced was “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” The comedy variety show was an overnight sensation when it debuted in 1968.

“Ed could really make the deals,” Schlatter told The Times on Tuesday. “He sold the ‘Laugh-In’ pilot to Timex to sponsor and then to NBC. The cost of the special was about $200,000, which seems impossible now.”


Friendly often said his “biggest break” in television was marrying his first wife, Natalie, who nagged him to buy the television rights to the “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. But he didn’t act on her advice until he spotted his teenage daughter with the books and she admitted to rereading the stories about a pioneer family every year.

He hid the books inside a magazine so no one would see him reading them on a plane trip, and after landing in New York, “the first thing I did was get on a phone and call to find out who owned the rights to the books,” Friendly told the Columbus, Ohio, Dispatch in 2005.

The series, which starred Michael Landon as patriarch Charles Ingalls and Melissa Gilbert as his daughter Laura, ran on NBC from 1974 to 1983.

In 2005, Friendly returned to “Little House” by producing a miniseries for ABC. He wanted to present “a faithful adaptation” because he thought that the original had turned into a starring vehicle for Landon, Friendly told the Columbus Dispatch.

The miniseries was the last of nearly 20 shows he worked on.

Friendly had received Emmy nominations in the late 1970s for producing the NBC special “Peter Lundy and the Medicine Hat Stallion” and the NBC miniseries “Backstairs at the White House,” which was nominated for nine Emmy awards.

With his wife Natalie, Friendly was well known on the Southern California Thoroughbred racing circuit. Among his successful horses were Friendly Michelle, Gray Slewpy and Vivid Angel. He had purchased his first racehorse about 1970 in partnership with his close friend, actor Lorne Greene, and later often owned more than 60 horses at a time.

Known as a vocal advocate for the rights of horse owners, Friendly founded the Thoroughbred Owners of California in 1993 and led the group for several years.

Edwin S. Friendly Jr. was born April 8, 1922, in New York City, and spent summers in Idaho, where he participated in rodeos.

During World War II, he served in the Army for three years in the Pacific theater. Back home, his work for an advertising agency led him to direct radio productions.

In 1949, he started his television career as a sales executive at ABC before contracting with CBS as a producer and then joining NBC in 1959.

Natalie, his wife of 50 years, died of cancer in 2002.

His daughter Brooke is the director of the Ashland Center for Theatre Studies at Southern Oregon University. His son Edwin S. Friendly III, who is known as Trip, is a former Ticketmaster International executive who had been developing projects with his father.

In addition to his children, Friendly is survived by his second wife, Paula Reddish Zinnemann, and three grandchildren.

Services will be private.

Instead of flowers, the family requests donations to the Venice Family Clinic, Development Department, 604 Rose Ave., Venice, CA 90291 or the San Diego Hospice Foundation, 4311 3rd Ave., San Diego, CA 92103.