Perhaps it was a combination of a strong commitment to his values, inner strength, and a keen sense of humor, but Brandon Tartikoff had the rare gift of being able to successfully elevate a failing television network from the bottom to number one for five years running and still remain one of Hollywood's most likeable characters to both industry insiders and the public. He has been called a wunderkind for becoming at age 31 the youngest person to run a television network. After a decade at NBC, he went on to become the president of Paramount Pictures and then the chairman of New World Entertainment, a company that creates television projects for syndication, cable, and the Internet. Though a busy executive and a man who had been fighting recurring bouts of Hodgkin's disease since age 23, Tartikoff found time to be with his wife, Lilly, and their daughters, Calla and Elizabeth.
A native New Yorker, Tartikoff started out at a television station in New Haven, CT, following boarding school and an education at Yale. He next moved to Chicago to work for ABC affiliate WLS where he made the station successful by devising creative promotional packages and producing and writing a comedy variety series. While there, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease and underwent chemotherapy. Despite a 50-pound weight loss and the ensuing pain of radiation treatments, Tartikoff did not miss work and his cancer eventually went into remission. The young whiz got his first real break when Fred Silverman, the head of the ABC network, hired him as the manger of dramatic development at ABC in 1976. Under Silverman's tutelage, Tartikoff was quickly promoted to program executive of current dramatic programming. In 1977, the young executive was hired by NBC as their director of comedy programs. When Silverman became the network's newest president, he made Tartikoff his head of West Coast programming. In 1980, Silverman named the 31-year-old President of Programming. During their first years at the new network, Tartikoff and Silverman had trouble settling in. Offering such silly dramas and comedies as Manimal and the abysmal The Adventures of Sheriff Lobo did nothing to promote NBC to audiences. Matters changed, however, when Silverman was replaced by former MTM producer Grant Tinker. By the end of the decade, Tinker and Tartikoff had turned the ailing NBC into a 500 million dollar profit-making entertainment machine.
One of the unusual measures taken by Tartikoff during the rebuilding period was to ignore the early low Nielsen ratings of the critically acclaimed Family Ties, Cheers, and St. Elsewhere. Whereas other overly ratings-conscious executives may have ruthlessly canceled the poorly rated shows, Tartikoff was convinced they were indeed high-quality, well-written programs and so allowed audiences time to discover them. The ploy worked and all three became top rated series through the 1980s. As the decade progressed, Tartikoff and Tinker still had a few misfires such as The Bay City Blues and Jennifer Slept Here, but they were also responsible for such groundbreaking hits as Miami Vice, Hill Street Blues, and L.A. Law. As chief of entertainment, Tartikoff had a knack for discovering untried talent, and when he truly believed in a project and the people behind it, nothing could stop him from giving them the chance he thought they deserved. While NBC had its share of "lowest common denominator shows," Tartikoff saw that many of the programs were directed especially towards educated, middle to upper-middle class viewers, a trend that continued through the '90s. In the early '80s, Tartikoff's cancer returned and more chemo followed until the disease again went into remission. He never told his higher ups about his illness, nor did he let it slow him down. Other notable shows for which Tartikoff was responsible include Seinfeld, The Cosby Show, Hunter, The A-Team, The Golden Girls, and Highway to Heaven. During these years, the amiable Tartikoff became a semi-celebrity, appearing on talk shows and sometimes even making cameo appearances on shows such as Saved By the Bell. He has even hosted NBC's Saturday Night Live.
By 1990, Tartikoff was the highest paid network executive in the industry and when Tinker left that year, he was promoted to president of NBC Entertainment and president of NBC Productions. But by then, NBC's profits and popularity had begun to level off. After nearly a decade at NBC, Tartikoff left NBC to become the head of New World Entertainment and Paramount Pictures. He also ran his own production company, H. Beale -- named after Peter Finch's character in Network, a feature film Tartikoff liked so much that in the mid-to-late '90s, he narrated a showing of it on one of Ted Turner's cable channels, peppering the story with anecdotes from his own network experiences. While at Paramount, Tartikoff was instructed to cut costs and so focused on releasing more modest but successful productions such as The Addams Family (1991), Wayne's World (1992), Patriot Games (1992), and Indecent Proposal (1993). On the downside, he also approved the release of Beverly Hills Cop 3 and the ambitious bomb 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992). A car accident earlier that year resulted in his daughter Callas suffering a serious head trauma. He himself had broken ribs during the wreck and missed a couple months of work. In October 1992, Tartikoff resigned from Paramount stating that he needed to be near Calla to facilitate her recovery. He returned to work, this time for America Online to supervise the company's development of entertainment industry-oriented online programs. He was quite busy with his new business, but the cancer again returned.
On August 27, 1997, 48-year-old Brandon Tartikoff lost his fight with the disease. His funeral was attended by many whose careers he had boosted, including directors Rob Reiner and Danny De Vito, NBC executives past and present Fred Silverman, Grant Tinker, and Robert Wright, and actors Jerry Seinfeld and Ted Danson. In keeping with Tartikoff's style, the sadness of the occasion was lifted with jokes and humorous anecdotes. ~ Sandra Brennan, Rovi