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June 10, 2005

TV Executive David Tebet Passes at 91 Brought Johnny Carson to The Tonight Show

David Tebet (far left) with William B. Williams, Frank and Barbara Sinatra the Friars' Club. Tebet was a lifetime member of the Board of Governors of the New York Friars' Club.

David Tebet, a television executive whose career was distinguished by a rare gift for dealing with talent, died on June 7 of complications from a stroke. Tebet, who was 91, passed away at the Coronado, California, home of his nephew, Dr. Ralph Greenspan.

Among Tebet’s many professional achievements, one of the most significant was the successful recruitment of Johnny Carson to take over as host of The Tonight Show when Jack Paar departed in 1962. Years later, after Carson moved the production from New York to Los Angeles, he hired Tebet as vice president of his production company. When he moved to California with The Tonight Show, Tebet, who remained with the show until his retirement, lived in the Beverly Hills Hotel for more than 15 years.

The formidable success of The Tonight Show brought vast sums of money to the corporate coffers of NBC. In a 1987 interview with United Press International, Tebet noted that, “In those first years alone, he [Carson] generated maybe 15 percent or 16 percent of NBC’s profit. And I’m not just talking NBC network—I’m talking the entire company.”

Born Dec. 27, 1913, in Atlanta, Tebet grew up in Philadelphia, where he studied journalism at Temple University. He later found work as a theater publicist in New York City, and in 1959 was hired by NBC as vice president for talent. His primary responsibility was to recruit talent to the network, and to keep them happy once he landed them. Among the stars he lured were Michael Landon, James Garner and Dean Martin. A model of decorum and master of diplomacy when dealing with the often mercurial personalities of big-name celebrities, Tebet was described by comedian George Burns as “the vice president in charge of caring.”

Among the lesser-known footnotes of Tebet’s life was the fact that he was said to be the inspiration for Felix Unger, the fastidious divorcé in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. Slovenly Oscar Madison was reportedly based on Tebet’s onetime roommate Sammy Cahn, the renowned songwriter. Tebet was also said to have been writer Paddy Chayefsky’s model for Max Schumacher, the level-headed television executive played by William Holden in the movie Network.

In 1947, Tebet married actress Nanette Fabray, from whom he divorced after four years. He is survived by two nephews and a niece.

For his contributions to television, Tebet was granted the medallion for distinguished service by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. He was also a lifetime member of the Board of Governors of the New York Friars’ Club.

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