Fred Silverman, a towering force in television who was the only industry executive to handle the creative end of the business at ABC, CBS and NBC and advocated for shows such as “All in the Family” and “MASH,” has died at his home in Pacific Palisades.
Silverman died early Thursday at the age of 82, said his spokeswoman Julia Rosen.
The former TV executive, who said his TV acumen was sometimes guided by his gut instincts, once recalled how the premise for one of his better-known shows came to him.
He was on a red-eye flight home and couldn’t sleep.
“I’m listening to music, and as we’re landing,” Silverman said in a 2001 interview with the Television Academy Foundation, “Frank Sinatra comes on, and I hear him say ‘scooby-dooby-doo.’” At that point, he decided that his idea for a show featuring kids in a haunted house would star their dog: “That’s it, we’ll take the dog — we’ll call it Scooby-Doo.”
The resulting show — “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!” — debuted in 1969 and immediately became a hit among children and adults, as well as one of the longest-running TV animated series for CBS, where Silverman worked as head of programming.
“Scooby-Doo” was one of many hit shows that Silverman shepherded during his extensive, half-century-long career in the TV business. At CBS, where he became head of programming in 1963 at the age of 25, he championed a string of hit programs including “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “All in the Family,” “The Waltons,” “MASH,” “The Jeffersons,” “Kojak” and “The Sonny and Cher Show.”
Fred Jones, the clean-cut male character in “Scooby-Doo,” was named for Silverman.
Silverman left CBS in 1975 to return to ABC, where he had started as a mail room clerk in the late 1950s. There, he programmed “Laverne & Shirley,” “The Love Boat,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Happy Days” and a 12-hour epic saga called “Roots,” among others. Three years later, in 1978, the network ranked No. 1 in both daytime and nighttime ratings.
Time magazine, in a 1977 cover story, called Silverman “the man with the golden gut” for his spot-on instincts in selecting shows that would bring home the ratings. Asked by the Television Academy Foundation how he felt about the label, Silverman said, “I hate it.” He said success wasn’t about gut instinct but rather mastering a steep learning curve so you could understand what worked.
“The gut can enter it to a point,” he said. “But there’s a lot more.”
Silverman left ABC in 1978 to become president and chief executive of NBC. Though NBC experienced some success during Silverman’s tenure with “Diff’rent Strokes,” “Hill Street Blues,” and “The Smurfs,” his three-year reign was marred by strife and turmoil. Under Silverman, ratings continued to founder, and a number of respected executives left NBC, including newsman David Brinkley.
“It was not a particularly good period in my life,” Silverman admitted in a 1996 interview with the Los Angeles Times.
In a seemingly prescient move while at NBC, however, Silverman came up with “Real People,” which is regarded as having sown the seeds for modern-day reality TV shows. The show, which aired from 1979 to 1984, featured people with curious talents, such as a woman who could put the tip of her nose in her mouth and a man who could run up a 20-foot wall.
“‘Real People’ celebrated the average person who’s trying to get by,” Silverman told The Times. But he declined to take credit for paving the way for reality shows, which he called “a terrible new genre of programming.”
Silverman made another decision while at NBC that did not bear immediate fruit but that in retrospect might have been among his most impactful — he signed David Letterman, a relatively unknown comedian, to host a morning talk show.
Though Letterman won two Emmy Awards for his efforts, daytime audiences shunned him, and Silverman was forced to cancel the show after just four months. Silverman, however, believed in Letterman and kept him under contract at NBC.
“It was the wrong show at the wrong time,” he said in the 2001 interview. “This was my error and not David’s, and I signed him to a $1-million-guaranteed-a-year contract, for which I got roundly criticized. But it was a good thing to do, because shortly thereafter he took over the late-night spot at 12:30 and was an enormous hit for NBC.”
Kobe Bryant, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sean Connery and more. (Los Angeles Times)
Rafer Johnson, winner of the 1960 Olympic decathlon gold medal
, was a man whose legacy was interwoven with Los Angeles history, beginning with his performances as a world-class athlete at UCLA and punctuated by the night in 1968 when he helped disarm Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin at the Ambassador Hotel. Johnson lit the Olympic flame at the opening of the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. He was 86. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
With his quick wit and easy smile, Alex Trebek drove the game show “Jeopardy!”
up the ratings charts and became a welcome television host in America’s living rooms. As the quiz show rolled through the decades, Trebek remained a comfortable fit — in a 2014 Reader’s Digest poll, Trebek ranked as the eighth-most trusted person in the United States, right behind Bill Gates and 51 spots above Oprah Winfrey. He was 80. (Los Angeles Times)
Guitarist Eddie Van Halen’s speed and innovations
along the fretboard inspired a generation of imitators as the band bearing his name rose to MTV stardom and multiplatinum sales over 10 consecutive albums. The streak made Van Halen one of the most successful bands in rock history, including two albums that reached diamond status (10 million copies sold): 1978’s debut “Van Halen” and 1984’s “1984.” He was 65. (Wibbitz/Getty)
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg championed women’s rights
— first as a trailblazing civil rights attorney who methodically chipped away at discriminatory practices, then as the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court, and finally as an unlikely pop culture icon. A feminist hero dubbed Notorious RBG, Ginsburg became the leading voice of the court’s liberal wing, best known for her stinging dissents on a bench that mostly skewed right since her 1993 appointment. She was 87. (Kiichiro Sato / Associated Press)
Chadwick Boseman’s breakout role
was playing Dodger Jackie Robinson in the 2013 sports biopic “42.” The next year, he made an electrifying lead turn as James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, in “Get on Up.” Then came the role that would change his career: As Black Panther, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first Black superhero
, Boseman became the face of Wakanda to millions of fans around the world and helped usher in a new and inclusive era of superhero blockbusters. He was 43. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Sumner Redstone outmaneuvered rivals
to assemble one of America’s leading entertainment companies, now called ViacomCBS, which boasts CBS, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, BET, Showtime, the Simon & Schuster book publisher and Paramount Pictures movie studio. Unlike contemporaries Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner, Redstone was not a visionary, but rather a hard-charging lawyer and deal maker who pursued power and wealth through the accumulation of content companies. He was 97. (Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Regis Philbin reigned for decades
as the comfortable and sometimes cantankerous morning host of “Live,” first with Kathie Lee Gifford and later Kelly Ripa, above. He earned Emmy nominations by the armful, hosted New Year’s Eve specials, rode in parades, set a record for the most face-time hours on television and helped reinvigorate prime-time game shows with “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” He was 88. (Charles Sykes / Associated Press)
Rep. John Lewis famously shed his blood
at the foot of a Selma, Ala., bridge in a 1965 demonstration for Black voting rights, and went on to become a 17-term Democratic member of Congress. An inspirational figure for decades, Lewis was one of the last survivors among members of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle. He was 80. (Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)
Country music firebrand and fiddler Charlie Daniels
started out as a session musician, which included playing on Bob Dylan’s 1969 album “Nashville Skyline,” and beginning in the early 1970s toured endlessly with his own band, sometimes doing 250 shows a year. In 1979, Daniels had a crossover smash with “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” which topped the country chart, hit No. 3 on the pop chart and was voted single of the year by the Country Music Assn. He was 83. (Rick Diamond / Getty Images for IEBA)
Carl Reiner first came to national attention in the 1950s
on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” where he wrote alongside Mel Brooks, Neil Simon and other comedy legends. He later created “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” one of TV’s most fondly remembered sitcoms, and directed hit films including “The Comic” (1969), starring Van Dyke; “Where’s Poppa?” (1970), starring George Segal and Ruth Gordon; “Oh, God!” starring George Burns and John Denver; and four films starring Steve Martin. He was 98. (Associated Press )
The flamboyant, piano-pounding Little Richard
roared into the rock ‘n’ roll spotlight in the 1950s with hits such as “Tutti-Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly.” The Georgia native’s raucous sound fused gospel
fervor and R&B sexuality, profoundly influencing the Beatles, James Brown (who succeeded him in one of his early bands), Jimi Hendrix (one of his backup musicians in the mid-’60s) and Bruce Springsteen. He was 87. (Boris Yaro / Los Angeles Times)
Don Shula was the NFL’s winningest coach
, leading the 1972 Miami Dolphins to the league’s only undefeated season. He coached the Baltimore Colts to one Super Bowl and the Dolphins to five, winning Lombardi Trophies after the 1972 and ’73 seasons. He was 90. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak
crushed dissent for decades until the 2011 Arab Spring movement drove him from power. During his presidency, which spanned nearly 30 years, he protected Egypt’s stability as intifadas roiled Israel and the Palestinian territories, the U.S. led two wars against Iraq, Iran fomented militant Shiite Islam across the region and global terrorism complicated the divide between East and West. He was 91. (Sameh Sherif / AFP/Getty Images)
Among his 40-odd films, burly Brian Dennehy
played a sheriff who jailed Rambo in “First Blood,” a serial killer in “To Catch a Killer” and a corrupt sheriff in “Silverado.” On Broadway, he was awarded Tonys for his roles in “Death of a Salesman” (1999) and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (2003). He was 81. (Dia Dipasupil)
Singer-songwriter John Prine
broke onto the folk scene in 1971 with a self-titled album that included two songs brought to broader audiences by Bette Midler and Bonnie Raitt: “Hello in There” and “Angel From Montgomery,” respectively. In 2019, he was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He was 73. (Frazer Harrison / Getty Images for Stagecoach)
Country singer Kenny Rogers
racked up an impressive string of hits — initially as a member of The First Edition starting in the late 1960s and later as a solo artist and duet partner with Dolly Parton — and earned three Grammy Awards, 19 nominations and a slew of accolades from country-music awards shows. Country purists balked at his syrupy ballads, but his fans packed arenas that only the titans of rock could fill. He was 81. (Suzanne Mapes / Associated Press)
Xerox researcher Larry Tesler
pioneered concepts that made computers more user-friendly, including moving text through cut, copy and paste. In 1980, he joined Apple, where he worked on the Lisa computer, the Newton personal digital assistant and the Macintosh. He was 74. (AP)
Ski industry pioneer Dave McCoy transformed a remote Sierra peak into the storied Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. Over six decades, it grew from a downhill depot for friends to a profitable operation of 3,000 workers and 4,000 acres of ski trails and lifts, a mecca for generations of skiers and boarders. He was 104. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Screen icon Kirk Douglas
brought a clenched-jawed intensity to an array of heroes and heels, receiving Oscar nominations for his performances as an opportunistic movie mogul in the 1952 drama “The Bad and the Beautiful” and as Vincent van Gogh in the 1956 drama “Lust for Life.” As executive producer of “Spartacus,” Douglas helped end the Hollywood blacklist by giving writer Dalton Trumbo screen credit under his own name. He was 103. (Annie Wells / Los Angeles Times)
“Queen of Suspense” Mary Higgins Clark
became a perennial best-seller, writing or co-writing “A Stranger Is Watching,” “Daddy’s Little Girl” and more than 50 other favorites. Her sales topped 100 million copies, and many of her books, including “A Stranger is Watching” and “Lucky Day,” were adapted for movies and television. She was 92. (Associated Press)
was the head of programming at CBS, where he championed a string of hits including “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “All in the Family,” “MASH” and “The Jeffersons.” Later at ABC, he programmed “Laverne & Shirley,” “The Love Boat,” “Happy Days” and the 12-hour epic saga “Roots.” He was 82. (Associated Press)
Former California Rep. Fortney “Pete” Stark Jr.
represented the East Bay in Congress for 40 years. The influential Democrat helped craft the Affordable Care Act, the signature healthcare achievement of the Obama administration, and also created the 1986 law best known as COBRA, which allows workers to stay on their employer’s health insurance plan after they leave a job. He was 88. (Associated Press)
News anchor Jim Lehrer
appeared 12 times as a presidential debate moderator and helped build “PBS NewsHour” into an authoritative voice of public broadcasting. The program, first called “The Robert MacNeil Report” and then “The MacNeil-Lehrer Report,” became the nation’s first one-hour TV news broadcast in 1983. Lehrer was 85. (David McNew / Getty Images)
was a founding member of the Monty Python troupe who wrote and performed for their early ’70s TV series and films including “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” in 1975 and “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” in 1979. After the Pythons largely disbanded in the 1980s, Jones wrote books on medieval and ancient history, presented documentaries, wrote poetry and directed films. He was 77. (Associated Press)
After Silverman was ousted from NBC in 1981, he shed 55 pounds and began a phoenix-like resurrection as an independent producer. Among the many shows be produced after founding the Fred Silverman Co. was “Matlock” starring Andy Griffith, “In the Heat of the Night” with Carroll O’Connor, and the return of Raymond Burr as Perry Mason in a series of made-for-TV movies.
He executive produced numerous television movies and series, including “Gramps” in 1995, “Diagnosis Murder” in 2001, and his last, “Drive Time Murders,” in 2006.
Silverman was born Sept. 13, 1937, in New York to a TV repairman. He earned his bachelor’s from Syracuse University and a master’s in television and theater arts from Ohio State University, where he penned a thesis analyzing ABC’s TV programming.
He always had a deep love for television, first as a medium and later as a profession. He applied to his first job in the field at age 21, later expressing “that an employee in the industry should treat his job, not just as a means of earning a living, but as a challenge, always looking to better that which has been done in the past; most important of all, such an individual must have a sincere interest and love for the profession.”
He received the Women in Film Lucy Award in 1995, which recognizes excellence and innovation in creative works that enhance the perception of women in TV. In 1999, he was inducted into the the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ Hall of Fame.
Reflecting on his achievements, Silverman said: “I had the opportunity to stretch the medium a little bit, to do some things that had never been done before. There had never been a show like ‘All in the Family.’ There had never been a show like ‘Hill Street Blues.’ And there had never been a show like ‘Real People.’ So that was fun.”
He is survived by his wife, Cathy, and their children, Melissa and Billy.
Pham is a former Times staff writer. Staff writer Dorany Pineda contributed to this report.