I once had the privilege, pain and precarious position of being Fred Silverman’s right-hand man at NBC back in the heyday of network television when I was Vice President, Assistant to the President, who was then the TV programming wunderkind himself. Before that, I worked with Fred at ABC, where I was Director of PR.
Here’s how my occasionally tumultuous relationship with one of the most unpredictable bosses and successful television programmers in history began.
One day, excitedly my wife cupped the telephone. Her eyes were bulging. “It’s . . . Silverman.
Months earlier, Fed Silverman, then ABC’s programming wizard, had defected to become president of NBC. It was 1978, and I was still at ABC where I had known Fred well, wrote his speeches. Now he was on the phone—perhaps with a job offer?
My wife dashed over to turn the TV on to NBC. What if the Wunderkind wanted to know what I was watching? (Why, my favorite soap, Another World, Fred. What else would I be doing at home on vacation?)
But he didn’t want to know what I was watching. He wanted to see me. Next day I hurried over to the sixth floor of the then RCA Building, where there really was Another World—the office of the president. Silverman’s name was making headlines. He was magic. That’s why when he did offer me a job, I jumped.
Fred wanted me to help him with his speeches and correspondence and represent him at meetings. Overnight, I zoomed up the ranks to Somebodyhood in television. Suddenly I was a vice president and assistant to the president or NBC. I can’t tell you how proud I was. Proud as a you-know-what.
Fred might not have been the easiest guy to work for, but I’ll miss his disarming qualities. At least with Fred you knew where you stood. If he thought you were funny, he’d practically roll out or his chair laughing. If you’re a lummox—one of his favorite terms or non-endearment—look out.
Fred was not against speaking his mind to anybody. “Don’t call me “Freddie,” he once admonished a reporter. “Freddie is what you call a cocker spaniel.”
If he liked you, Fred would give you the egg roll off his plate. In 1978, however, I found him surrounded by more than egg rolls. His coterie or execs were up to their pin stripes in a chop suey of deals. With cigarette smoke wafting in his face, Fred pored over program development reports as thick as were the then Manhattan phone books and about as interesting. But he was Fred, always ebullient and optimistic. “I’m still optimistic about the future” could well be his epitaph. So, with glee, I jumped into the chop suey beside him.
I recall the shows that had their premieres during Fred’s first season at NBC. I wondered how they could compete against the arsenal he himself had built when he was at CBS and then ABC. Blockbusters like Happy Days, Three’s Company and one I named my latest book after, Love Boat 78, which just became available on Amazon. Fred’s big gun, or maybe water pistol, back then was The Waverly Wonders starring Joe Namath. It was to be our secret weapon. As it turned the secret was that it was a comedy. Sorry Joe. I still think you were one of the greatest quarterbacks in history.
There followed a succession of comedies that proved witless and hitless. The worse these shows became, it seemed the louder their laugh tracks roared. This would only infuriate Fred. “Who are they kidding? Send it back,” he’d rail, stomping out of a screening room and slamming the door on the rest of us. When he screened “Different Strokes,” however, his spirits soared. Fred knew what a comedy was.
He knew The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Maude and M’A’S’H. He knew The Love Boat, Laverne & Shirley and Soap. He played a major role in putting all of them on the air. His own successful past was always Fred’s toughest adversary.
I have to say I liked Fred Silverman, even if talking to him often was like talking to a spectator at a tennis match. He’d have three screens to the right of his desk. He’d look at you, then at one of the screens, then back at you, then at the screens.
But I knew what he had been through trying to keep those screens filled. The disappointments. Those noble experiments to make innovative shows work.
It was a challenge to work for his indefatigable optimist, but I don’t regret a single minute of it.
Fred, may you rest in peace, but I’m sure you’re probably still busy programming and developing, perhaps a show about where you undoubtedly are now–heaven.