Lee Rich dies at 93; advertising executive became a top TV producer


He was a former advertising executive who became one of television’s top producers, bringing powerhouse shows such as “Dallas,” “Knots Landing” and “The Waltons” into American homes in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Lee Rich, co-founder and former president of Lorimar Productions, died Thursday of lung cancer at his home in Los Angeles, a Warner Bros. spokesman confirmed. He was 93.

“Lee Rich was a giant in the television industry who produced some of the most iconic series in the history of the medium and influenced audiences worldwide,” CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves said in a statement.

Fred Silverman, a former network executive and an independent producer, called Rich a broadcasting icon.

“In my career, which spans 50 years, he singularly is one of the most unforgettable people I’ve ever met,” Silverman told The Times on Friday.

As an executive for the Benton & Bowles ad agency, he served as the sponsors’ representative on TV shows and ran the agency’s program department. But in 1965, Rich became a producer when he became a partner in the Mirisch-Rich Co.

After producing the World War II series “The Rat Patrol” and the short-lived sitcom “Hey, Landlord,” Rich returned briefly to advertising at the Leo Burnett Agency. Then, in 1969, he and Merv Adelson formed Lorimar Productions.

Lorimar had its first big hit with “The Waltons,” the family drama that won multiple Emmys and aired on CBS from 1972 to 1981.

“He had the vision to take a chance on a show that was about poor people living in the Depression, a huge family in the backwoods of Virginia,” Earl Hamner Jr., the show’s creator, told The Times on Friday.

“That is not ordinarily the thing that a television producer would go for, but he took a chance that it would be successful,” said Hamner. “Critics at the beginning predicted it would not last a season.”

Added Hamner, whose 1981-90 CBS series “Falcon Crest” also was produced by Lorimar: “He was a very innovative programmer, very savvy, always jolly. He could be abrasive, but that’s not bad in the television industry.”

Lorimar also turned out series including the family comedy-drama “Eight Is Enough” and “Flamingo Road,” the 1973 miniseries “The Blue Knight,” and TV movies including the Emmy-winning “Sybil” (1976) and “Helter Skelter” (1976).

Rich was equally proud of “The Waltons” and “Dallas,” the top-rated prime-time soap opera that spurred more than 40 million Americans in 1980 to tune in to find out “Who Shot J.R.?”

“The Waltons were right for the time,” Rich told the Associated Press in 1982. “People were saying, ‘That’s my family, or I wished that was my family.’

“‘Dallas’ was a respite for the American public, a fantasyland. We fulfilled the dreams of many people.”

After leaving Lorimar in 1986, Rich joined MGM/UA Communications. During his two years as chairman and chief executive, he greenlighted films including “A Fish Called Wanda,” “Moonstruck” and “Rain Man.”

He then founded Lee Rich Productions, a television and film production company based at Warner Bros., where his most recent project, the feature film “Replay,” is in development.

The son of a banker, Rich was born in Cleveland on Dec. 19, 1918. He earned a marketing degree from Ohio University in Athens and launched his career in advertising as an office boy at the Lord & Thomas ad agency in New York.

After serving in the Navy as a lieutenant in World War II, he eventually went to work for Benton & Bowles in New York, where he rose to senior vice president and a member of the board.

As the agency liaison between sponsors and producers, he was involved with “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Make Room for Daddy,” “The Edge of Night,” “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and others.

“Advertising is the best background I could have ever had for this business,” Rich told Advertising Age in 1987. “I learned the business, and that’s a major problem with people out here — they don’t know the business.”

Rich never held a job at a television network, noted Silverman. But as head of television and media at Benton & Bowles and later as a producer, “he probably had more influence on what the networks programmed than maybe 99% of the program executives that were at the networks during the period that he was actively employed.”

As an advertising executive and a producer, Silverman said, Rich was responsible for at least half a dozen blockbuster network series.

“It’s difficult to go from a buying position to a seller, and he made that transition very well,” said Silverman. “He was able to do a lot of different things and all of them quite well. He was that very unusual executive that has great business sense but also great creative instincts.”

Rich is survived by his longtime partner, actress Pippa Scott; five children, Michael Henes, Jessica Rich, Miranda Rich Tollman, Blair Rich and Anthony Rich; and seven grandchildren.