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January 05, 2010

Renowned Producer David Gerber Passes at Age 86

A prolific television figure for more than 50 years, he won numerous awards for his groundbreaking series, films and miniseries.

David Gerber, a prolific television producer and executive whose body of work reflected a significant commitment to innovative, often multiracial, programming, died Saturday, January 2, 2010, at University of Southern California Medical Center. The cause of death was heart failure. His wife of 39 years, actress Laraine Stephens, was at the 86-year-old Gerber's side at the time of his passing.

Gerber, whose numerous entertainment industry and international accolades included a Primetime Emmy, Golden Globe and Peabody Award, produced many of the television industry’s historic movies, series and miniseries. He also headed the television divisions of major studios, key production companies and his own celebrated production companies in a career of more than half a century. Credited with taking on serious, often controversial subjects, he achieved many industry firsts, including the Emmy-winning Police Story and Police Woman, the first successful genre series with a female lead, as well as That’s My Mama, one of the first comedy series featuring a full cast of African American actors.

In addition, he was largely responsible for such groundbreaking projects as the television series In the Heat of the Night; Beulah Land, the controversial Civil War miniseries that became 12th-high-rated in television history; the critically acclaimed The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case; the World War I story The Lost Battalion; and his last television movie, Flight 93, which detailed the heroic stories of the passengers of the United Airlines flight of September 11, 2001, and its crash into a Pennsylvania field—a production that was nominated for six Primetime Emmys.

Born July 25, 1923, in Brooklyn, New York, Gerber’s education was interrupted by service as a radio gunner tech sergeant in the U. S. Air Corps. When his B-17 was shot down over Germany, he became a prisoner of war in Stalag 17B and was forced to walk through Germany at liberation. The experienced inspired a story he had been developing for the screen under the title The Long Walk Home. He later received a bachelor of arts degree from the University of the Pacific under the G.I. Bill of Rights.

Following graduation, Gerber joined the BBD&O advertising agency, then a television packager at the Famous Artists Agency. He later became senior vice president of television at General Artists Corporation and vice-president of Twentieth Century-Fox Television, where his first effort was the long-running Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and the breakthrough urban comedy Room 222. He was involved with the sale of more than 50 primetime television projects when he entered production with the comedies Nanny and the Professor and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. He won the first of two Christopher Awards for the ABC After School Special, Follow the North Star.

In 1972 Gerber formed his own company, which was affiliated with Columbia Pictures Television, where he was also involved in such series as Needles and Pins, The Quest, John O’Hara’s Gibbsville, Born Free and Medical Story, among others.

Recruited to head MGM Television in 1981, Gerber was responsible for such series as Today’s FBI, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and the Peabody Award-winning George Washington miniseries, among many successful projects that turned the company into a leading supplier of quality programming. When he became chairman and chief executive officer of MGM Worldwide Television Group in 1991, he was involved in the return of three noteworthy series, thirtysomething, and The Young Riders (ABC) and In the Heat of the Night (NBC). Under Gerber’s tenure, 25 television movies were produced, among them such acclaimed films as Finding the Way Home, starring George C. Scott and Hector Elizondo; Tenth Man, Inherit the Wind, starring Jason Robards and Michael Douglas, two Dirty Dozen movies and The Freeway Killings, starring Angie Dickinson, Richard Crenna and Ben Gazzara. Starting another independent company in 1992, Gerber took over all MGM development and produced the four-hour miniseries Nothing Lasts Forever and the movie The Price of Love. He then became president of All American Television and continued to produce films and series.

Among numerous industry and community awards, Gerber has been recognized with his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Caucus of Producers, Writers & Directors Lifetime Achievement, NAACP and Nosotros for his depiction of ethnic cultures on television, and Lifetime Achievements from the Casting Society of America and the Publicists Guild.

Active with the University of the Pacific, he served on the Board of Regents and established the David and Laraine Gerber Endowment Fund in International Studies. In 1989, he was the University’s Alumni of the Year. He also served the Stockton community, which presented him with its Arts Commission Career Achievement Award. Within the television industry, he has served three terms on the executive board of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, the Producers Guild board of directors and on the Caucus steering committee.

Also active in Los Angeles community affairs, Gerber served for many years on the board of the House Ear Institute, which honored him as Humanitarian of the Year. Both Laraine and David Gerber were honored with a Chair in Ophthalmology by the Jules Stein Eye Institute and with the dedication of the Laraine and David Gerber Research Center within the House Ear Institute.

When he decided to indulge in a special hobby, Gerber developed a 100-acre vineyard in the Sierra Foothills of Northern California, where he began producing his own brand of fine California wine, named Laraine wines as a tribute to his wife, which has now become a highly successful international business.

Gerber’s sole immediate survivor is his wife, Laraine, who suggests donations may be sent to:

The David and Laraine Gerber Endowment Fund at University of the Pacific, 3601 Pacific Avenue, Stockton, California 95211; The USC Cardiac Electrophysiology Service, c/o Leslie A. Saxon, MD, 1510 San Pablo Street, Suite 22, Los Angeles 90033; House Ear Clinic, 2100 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles 90057, and any animal rescue charity of choice.

Funeral services will be private, with an industry memorial to be organized.

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On September 13, 2006, David Gerber had the distinction of being interviewed for the Television Academy Foundation's Archive of American Television. During the nearly three-and-a-half-hour interview, which took place in Bel Air, Calif., Gerber talked about his start in television working at advertising agency BBDO as a television supervisor (on such accounts as Burgermeister beer) and as a packager at Famous Artists Agency. He also talked about becoming familiar with network and agency executives and the importance of making vital career connections.

He described his tenure as senior vice president of television at General Artists Corporation (GAC) working with such television luminaries as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. He described his move to 20th Century Fox where he worked as Vice President in charge of television packaging. He talked about working with producer Irwin Allen on his many science-fiction series. He then related how he became affiliated with Columbia Pictures Television, and became executive vice president (and explained how he suggested that the name of the division be changed from “Screen Gems” to “Columbia Pictures Television”).

He further described the creation, issues covered, and production of the 1970s drama series Police Story. He also spoke in detail about spin-off series Police Woman (and working with star Angie Dickinson), and the highly rated miniseries Beulah Land (and the controversy surrounding its production). He talked about becoming the president of MGM Television and discussed the series he oversaw, including thirtysomething (and his initial excitement over the pilot script and fight to get the series financed) and In the Heat of the Night (and working with star Carroll O’Connor). He also talked about later series and television movies he produced.

Throughout the interview, he noted his managerial style of expecting the best from people, his personal interest in the post-production process, and offered advice to aspiring producers. The interview was conducted by the director of the Archive, Karen Herman.

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