Anne Roberts Nelson dies at 86; CBS television executive

Anne Roberts Nelson “was the image of professionalism and always someone who infused everything she did with humanity and her own personality," said Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment.
(Cliff Lipson / CBS)

Anne Roberts Nelson, a pioneering television executive with CBS who negotiated contracts for long-running hits such as “I Love Lucy” and “Gunsmoke,” has died. She was 86.

Nelson, who was hired in 1945 and was the longest-serving CBS employee, with 64 years at the network, died Saturday of natural causes at her home in Baldwin Hills, the network announced.

She was promoted to vice president of business affairs for CBS Entertainment in 1999 and remained on the job until January of this year, a month after she was laid off in a round of network cuts, her family said.

“For the entire time that I had the good fortune to work with her, she was a role model,” Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment, said Wednesday in an interview. “Every meeting we had together, every deal we negotiated together, she was the image of professionalism and always someone who infused everything she did with humanity and her own personality. She had grace and charm, but she was a tough negotiator.”

Fresh out of UC Berkeley, Nelson got a two-week temp job as an assistant to Ernest H. Martin, the future Broadway producer who was then general manager of CBS Radio in Los Angeles. Soon she was an assistant director in sales services and on her way to becoming one of the first female executives who wasn’t hired out of the secretarial pool.

Nelson made her way up the network ladder, getting promoted to director of business affairs for the radio division in 1955, then the TV division in 1959 and eventually to the vice president’s office 40 years later.

She had a variety of duties along the way, including booking talent for “The Ed Wynn Show” and “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show,” and then moving on to negotiating contracts for CBS mainstays “I Love Lucy,” “Gunsmoke,” “All in the Family,” “The Red Skelton Show,” “The Wild, Wild West,” “Perry Mason” and “The Young and the Restless,” among others.

“She really was alone on the field for a lot of years,” Mollie Gregory, who interviewed Nelson for her 2002 oral history “Women Who Run the Show,” told The Times on Wednesday. “She had a remarkable spirit. She never quit, and whatever happened to her or whatever situation she found herself in -- much of it by chance -- she made it work.”

Despite toiling in a male-dominated industry, Nelson told Gregory that she never felt downtrodden.

“I don’t like generalizations,” Nelson said in the book. “I don’t like to be categorized as a woman. I like to be categorized as a competent person.”

While building her career, she was also raising three children with her husband, Harmon Oscar Nelson Jr. They had married in 1946, eight years after he and actress Bette Davis divorced. He died in 1975.

Born Anne Roberts on July 6, 1922, in San Francisco, she grew up in South Pasadena. She graduated from UC Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1944.

As a tribute, the Anne Nelson Mezzanine at CBS Television City was dedicated to her in 2005.

Nelson is survived by her three children, Gaye Nelson Gallavan of Sherman Oaks and twins Amy Nelson Frelinger of Westchester and Harmon Oscar Nelson III of San Diego; four grandchildren; a step-grandson; and her sister, Jeanne Gilette.

A celebration of her life will be held at 5 p.m. July 14 at CBS Television City, Studio 36, 7800 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. Instead of flowers, her family suggests donations to the American Film Institute Associates, the Heart of the Healer Foundation or the American Retina Foundation.