Remembering Brandon Tartikoff
Brandon Tartikoff loved his job, even when his job was Manimal. That’s how the TV industry is remembering the exec, who died Aug. 27 at age 48 while receiving treatment for Hodgkin’s disease — as a man who would back an idea if he believed it might entertain, whether the show proved a failure or a success.
Mostly, it was the latter. As NBC’s precocious programming chief from 1980 to ’91, Tartikoff was an executive weaned on the tube, and his TV-centric views brought about a revolution in both sophistication and an arch awareness that viewers were as obsessed with TV as he was. He nursed hits like Hill Street Blues, Cheers, and Seinfeld; helped conceive The Cosby Show and Miami Vice; and stuck with low-rated quality shows such as St. Elsewhere and Law & Order. ”He had the best gut in the industry,” says L&O exec producer Dick Wolf, ”and his belief is what saved many shows.”
Producer Steven Bochco recalled seeing Tartikoff’s golden gut in action when Bochco proposed his idea for L.A. Law: ”I made my pitch, and all the other people started yammering about how law shows never do well. But Brandon never said a word. And at the end of the meeting he just said, ‘I like it; let’s do it.’ I’ll always respect him for going against the tide.”
Tartikoff was also that rare corporate suit who had a sense of humor about what he did, going out of his way to remind people of his lowest-brow successes (like ALF and The A-Team) and grandest flops (like the goofy 1983 sci-fi bomb Manimal). A friend, record producer David Was, describes Tartikoff as ”a flame-bellied competitor whether shuffling shows or playing fake baseball” — a joking reference to the L.A. softball team Tartikoff pitched for, which included such showbiz players as The X-Files creator Chris Carter.
Unfortunately, after leaving NBC for Paramount Pictures in 1991, Tartikoff’s career was never quite the same. He faced a series of personal tragedies, including the aftermath of a 1991 car crash that seriously injured his daughter Calla, now 14, and a recurrence of Hodgkin’s, which he’d first been diagnosed with at age 25. Recently he had begun to rebound, forming his own production company. He was also working on America Online’s entertainment network. According to his mentor, former NBC chief Fred Silverman, Tartikoff remained full of energy and ideas.
His funeral, held at L.A.’s Mount Sinai Memorial Park Aug. 29, was attended by more than 2,000 people, including Jerry Seinfeld, Ted Danson, and Mary Steenburgen. Harvey Shephard, former president of Warner Bros. TV, notes: ”Brandon didn’t let the power go to his head. He was witty and resilient right to the end.” (Additional reporting by Anna David and Joe Flint)