Deanne Barkley, who broke through the glass ceiling in network television to become an influential executive in the early 1970s, when few women had the power to develop prime-time programs, died April 2 in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. She was 82.
The cause was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said her son, Wilson Shirley.
Described by The Times in 1974 as having “more economic clout than probably any other woman in television,” Barkley became vice president in charge of movies for ABC in 1972, responsible for lining up the concepts and talent to fill hundreds of prime-time hours with made-for-TV films.
Later in the decade she oversaw movie development at NBC, helping to turn novels such as James Clavell’s “Shogun” and James Michener’s “Centennial” into miniseries watched by millions of viewers.
Along the way she nurtured the careers of unproven writers and directors who became some of Hollywood’s most prominent players, including producer Howard Rosenman and directors Ron Howard, Joel Schumacher and John Badham.
“She was beyond influential in starting careers,” said Rosenman, whose projects include 2012’s “Sparkle,” Whitney Houston’s last film. “She put so many young directors on movies who had never worked on them before.”
At NBC she helped Howard, who had become a star playing Opie in “The Andy Griffith Show,” go behind the camera with some of his earliest directing assignments.
“She believed in the idea of actors directing … and allowed me to direct without having to appear in the films,” Howard said in an interview for the 2002 book “The Directors: Take One.”
Barkley also introduced him to Brian Grazer, the producer with whom he later founded the Oscar-winning production company Imagine Entertainment.
“She was just terribly significant,” said Mollie Gregory, a writer and producer whose 2002 book “Women Who Run the Show” chronicled the rise of women in Hollywood in the 1970s. “If you were struggling to sell material, everyone you met with then was a man.… She was very influential for anyone who was striving to work” in the television industry.
Born in New Orleans on March 28, 1931, she was the older of two children of Elodie and Newton Barkley. She studied journalism at Northwestern University and worked briefly at the New Orleans Times-Picayune as a reporter.
Married and a mother before she was 20, Barkley moved to New York in the 1950s after her first marriage broke up. She found work interviewing potential contestants for televised beauty pageants as well as for game shows produced by the legendary Goodson-Todman company. She wrote for some of the shows and appeared on one of them, “I’ve Got a Secret.”
“Her secret was she had triplets,” said Shirley, one of six children from two of her marriages.
Barkley, who liked to joke that she was married “more than twice but less than Elizabeth Taylor,” was married and divorced five times. She is survived by a brother, five children, 10 grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
After the game shows, Barkley worked as a writer and producer on talk shows for Helen Gurley Brown, Virginia Graham, Les Crane and Dick Cavett.
At ABC, where Barkley worked under Barry Diller, she quickly established a reputation for movies that grappled with substantial social issues, such as divorce.
“If a project was going to Deanne … it was like the holy grail. The word ‘Deanne’ just embodied the best of the industry,” said producer Marcy Carsey, who as a story editor at an independent production company in the early 1970s was inspired by Barkley’s success and later formed the company behind smash hits such as “The Cosby Show,” “Roseanne” and “3rd Rock From the Sun.”
“She was like the coolest chick in town,” said Schumacher, who sold his first TV screenplay to Barkley at ABC and later directed movies such as “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “Batman Forever.” “She was not the stereotypical driven career woman who sacrificed her life for that.… She had a very full life. In the 1930s or ‘40s people would have said she was a great dame.”
Quipping that she didn’t want to spend her life “in the basically unskilled job of a network executive,” Barkley worked as an independent producer for the Robert Stigwood Organization in 1974. Before leaving Los Angeles for retirement in Hawaii in 1988, she also developed movie projects for a company run by the Osmond family.
While working full time at NBC and with four children still at home, she wrote a novel, “Freeway,” about a sniper terrorizing drivers on Los Angeles freeways. Published by MacMillan in 1978, the book earned a favorable review in the New York Times, which called the author “Mr. Barkley.”
“It was so hardboiled no one could believe it was written by a woman,” said longtime friend and author Jim Rogers.
She was famous for her humor.
When Cavett launched his first talk show in 1968, he recalled Thursday, “I would get confused.… I was getting signals from three different directions and I would then look at my guest and realize the guest’s lips had stopped moving and I hadn’t heard anything that had just been said. So Deanne said, ‘Have something ready that applies to everybody,’” and suggested a stock question that he later used on a show.
It was: Do you pee in the shower?
“She was,” Cavett said, “a very witty, funny woman.”