Fred Silverman, creative force at ABC, CBS and NBC who championed ‘All in the Family,’ dies at 82

Fred Silverman is the only television executive to have led ABC, CBS and NBC.
(Con Keyes / Los Angeles Times)

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.”

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.