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1997: TV Addict Who Rescued NBC Dies Young

David Green
David B. Green
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David Green
David B. Green

On August 27, 1997, television-network executive Brandon Tartikoff died, at the age of 48. Tartikoff was made TV history when he became president of NBC Entertainment in 1980, at 31, and took the network from dead last in the ratings to the top-rated network five seasons in a row, after introducing such shows as “Cheers,” “Hill Street Blues” and “Seinfeld.”

Tartikoff is still remembered today for his creativity, enthusiasm and wit, as well as for the grace with which he weathered his illness (he suffered from Hodgkin’s lymphoma) and other personal challenges.

Brandon Tartikoff, the son of Jordan and Enid Tartikoff, was born January 13, 1949. He grew up in Freeport, New York, on the south shore of Long Island, and from his youth was an inveterate TV watcher, often with the volume turned down, so his parents wouldn’t suspect.

When he was 13, however, his parents became concerned that Brandon was hanging out with the wrong crowd, and they sent him off to the Lawrenceville School, an exclusive boarding school in New Jersey. There he was a star student and athlete, although he ended up on probation in his senior year when, as a member of the dramatics club, he ran a fake ad in a playbill that read, “Compliments of Gibtraf Gas Company, Pipeline to the Midwest.” (“Gibtraf” is “big fart” spelled backward.)

Lawrenceville was followed by Yale, from which Tartikoff graduated in 1970. One of his teachers there was the acclaimed American writer Robert Penn Warren, who in one class asked students for their comments on a story by D.H. Lawrence. Tartikoff suggested that the tale might have worked better “if the guy in the story hadn’t won over the girl so early,” to which Penn Warren supposedly responded, “Perhaps, Mr. Tartikoff, you ought to consider a career in television.”

In fact, both during college and during all of his vacations, Tartikoff worked at TV stations. After graduation he worked at WLS-TV in Chicago, where he came to the attention of Fred Silverman, the president of ABC-TV. Silverman hired him, and although a year later Tartikoff was hired away by NBC, the two were reunited in 1978, when Silverman became NBC’s president, and named Tartikoff head of West Coast programming.

Tartikoff suffered his first bout of Hodgkin’s disease at age 25, while in Chicago. He underwent treatment, the cancer went into remission, and he didn’t miss a day of work. But the lymphoma returned less than a decade later, in 1982, after he replaced Silverman as head of NBC Entertainment. At the time, Tartikoff’s first shows were beginning to air, and although they included such critical successes as “St. Elsewhere” and “Cheers,” ratings remained in the basement.

Despite pressure to fire Tartikoff, his new boss, Grant Tinker, stuck with him. By 1985, Tartikoff’s cancer was again in remission, and NBC was at the top of the ratings charts, where it remained for the next six years.

Jerry Seinfeld, star of one of NBC's flagship sitcom's during Tartikoff's reign.Credit: AP

Under Tartikoff’s tenure, NBC premiered such other acclaimed programs as “The Cosby Show,” “Miami Vice,” “Hill Street Blues” and “L.A. Law,” “Family Ties” and “Seinfeld,” and less refined blockbusters like “The A-Team” and “Knight Rider.” At one stretch, the network came in first in the Nielsen ratings over 68 straight weeks.

Tartikoff himself appeared frequently on various NBC shows, once as host of “Saturday Night Live.”

On New Year’s of 1991, about the time Tartikoff was leaving NBC to become chairman of Paramount Pictures, he was in a car accident with his eight-year-old daughter Cally. His injuries were not severe, but Cally suffered brain damage. In 1992, Brandon and his wife, Lilly Samuels Tartikoff, a former dancer with the New York City Ballet, relocated to New Orleans, where they had found a therapist to work intensively with Cally. (Today, Cally and her mother, a major fundraiser for cancer research, own a small restaurant in Malibu Colony, Los Angeles.)

Tartikoff’s illness recurred in 1997, and by then his immune system could not withstand the treatment. At the time, he was involved in independent TV production and beginning to create content for Internet.

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