1906: Lord Grade, Who Would Make Some of the Best and Worst TV, Is Born

High-school dropout Lew Grade produced fine fare such as 'Sophie's Choice' but didn't sneer at low-brow entertainment.

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Baron Lew Grade in 1997, artistic portrait by the Earl of Snowdon. Lord Lew Grade is shown with a cigar in mouth, bald-headed, wearing dark trousers, white shirt, tie, and seemingly taking a dance step.
Baron Lew Grade in 1997Credit: Earl of Snowdon, Wikimedia Commons

December 25, 1906, is the birthdate of Lord Lew Grade, the deal-making show-biz entrepreneur who was in at the beginning of commercial television in Britain. He would be responsible for producing some of the country’s best and worst shows, before moving on to do the same in motion pictures.

Like the American movie pioneer Samuel Goldwyn with whom he is often compared, Grade is remembered for coming out with some wonderful lines. For example, when his 1980 adventure flick “Raise the Titanic” went way over budget, Lord Grade acknowledged at a press conference that it probably “would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic.” (It didn’t help that the film went on to bomb at the box office.)

Teen entrepreneur

Lovat Winogradsky was born in Tokmak in the Russian Empire, today in Crimea, Ukraine, (and again part of the Russian “Empire”). His father was Isaac Winogradsky and his mother the former Olga Eisenstadt. In 1912 the family emigrated to Britain, settling, like tens of thousands of other Russian-Jewish families, in London’s East End, in their case Brick Lane.

Lew had two younger brothers, both of whom, Leslie and Bernard (who changed his family name to Delfont) collaborated with Lew in business later in life.

Lew attended the Rochelle Street Elementary School, 90 percent of whose kids were Yiddish speakers. He was an excellent student poised to go on to high school on a full scholarship when a family friend convinced him to take a job with a London clothing manufacturer. So successful was he that, within a year, he had opened a small garment business. He was all of 16.

Grade also revealed talent as a dancer. In 1926, he won what was billed as the World Charleston Championship, in London (one of whose judges was Fred Astaire). The honor led to an immediate contract to dance in a cabaret at what was then the astronomical fee of 50 pounds a week.

Lew changed his name to “Grad” when he began dancing, but when a newspaper article mistakenly referred to him as “Grade,” he adopted that spelling.

Around 1934, he began to function as a talent agent, in partnership with Joe Collins (the future father of Jackie and Joan Collins). Among the acts they are remembered for representing in England were the "harmonica king” Larry Adler and the jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.

During World War II, he organized shows for servicemen, and once he was out of uniform, he continued his work as an impresario after the war by relocating to the United States. There he established relationships with a number of American artists, some of whom he arranged to bring to the UK to perform.

'Low Grade Lew'

Grade was an old-school, cigar-chomping show-biz personality who operated on a credo that said a handshake was more reliable than a team of lawyers. He also claimed, sometimes in response to the charge that he purveyed lowbrow entertainment – which also earned him the nickname of “Low Grade Lew” – that he was simply trying “to give people pleasure after a hard day's work.”

He entered television in 1954, when the first commercial broadcasting franchises became available in Britain. Over the coming decades, as the boss of what became Associated Television, he was responsible for producing such highly regarded shows as “The Avengers,” “Robin Hood” and “The Muppet Show,” as well as popular miniseries about "Moses the Lawgiver" and "Jesus of Nazareth." (About which the legend said he tried to cut costs by asking the director if he could make do with Jesus having six disciples.)

In the 1970s, Grade expanded into film production and distribution, and was involved in such prestige films as "Farewell My Lovely," "Sophie's Choice" and "On Golden Pond."

Unfortunately for Grade, the failure of such properties as "Raise the Titanic" and "The Legend of the Lone Ranger" more than offset the successful projects and left him vulnerable to being pushed out of his position by a partner he had trusted.

But Grade carried on and remained active in business until his death on December 13, 1998, less than two weeks short of his 92nd birthday.