Quality and controversy typify David Susskind’s remarkable career, which began in television’s infancy and ended with his sudden death in February 1987. Susskind produced hundreds of live dramas, miniseries, and specials in addition to his groundbreaking talk show, Open End, which featured guests ranging from Nikita Khrushchev to Truman Capote.
“My father really cared about quality,” says Andrew Susskind, now president of the television division at Weintraub Entertainment Group. “He was a nut about it. He was always drawn to material that was of a higher caliber than television wanted to do or did most easily.”
Born in New York City on December 19, 1920, Susskind grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts. After two years at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he entered Harvard University, where he earned an undergraduate political science degree with honors in 1942. He hoped to teach at the university one day.
World War II sea duty in the South Pacific broadened his outlook, however, and following his discharge from the navy in 1946 he went to New York to work as a 50-dollar-per-week publicist for Warner Bros. “To be frank,” Susskind said, “I started with the notion that it would all be pretty glamorous. But it didn’t take me long to discover that show business has its rough, tough, practical side too.”
Later that year he became an agent for the Music Corporation of America. “If Warner Bros, provided my elementary education,” Susskind said, “then MCA put me through finishing school. I can’t think of any better preparation for being a producer than what I did there: putting together packages, negotiating contracts, soothing stars’ temperaments. It all taught me something.”
In 1948, at the age of 27, Susskind left MCA to join Talent Associates with the goal of becoming a producer. During that time, Susskind worked with many of the most talented writers, directors, and performers on the scene, including Delbert Mann, Daniel Petrie, Tad Mosel, Morton Foote, Paddy Chayefsky, Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger, Paul Newman, and Kim Stanley.
With tireless enthusiasm, an eye for talent, and a knack for salesmanship, he began an association with the Philco-Goodyear Playhouse, for which he produced 133 shows from 1948 to 1955.
“A lot of people found him difficult to work for because he was unrelenting in his quest for quality,” Andrew Susskind says. “Those who either shared his vision or were inspired by his vision did their very best work [with him] and continued to work for him. Many worked time and time again for him. Those who couldn’t didn’t. I can't imagine too many people having neutral feelings about him. He inspired intensity, one way or the other. When I was growing up, I always heard him called Controversial David Susskind. I thought Controversial was part of his name.”
In the summer of 1952, Susskind launched Mr. Peepers, a gentle comedy about a hapless junior-high-school science teacher (played by Wally Cox), his fellow faculty members (including Tony Randall), the school nurse (Patricia Benoit), and his perplexed landlady (Marion Lorne). The show was so well-liked by the critics and the public that NBC picked it up for the fall season, and it became Susskind’s first major success. Its notoriety included an early cover of the fledgling TV Guide, which said Mr. Peepers “comes close to being the perfect TV show.”
The high point of Susskind’s involvement with live drama came in 1957, when he produced programs for Kraft, Rexall, DuPont, and Armstrong. A Susskind-produced show could be seen on television practically every night, and his mix of original dramas and adaptations of classic novels, movies, and plays reflected his own eclectic taste.
Spanning several years, his DuPont presentations included productions of Wuthering Heights, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, A Tale of Two Cities, and I, Don Quixote. Programs for Rexall included The Swiss Family Robinson, The Devil and Daniel Webster, The Ransom of Red Chief, Hansel and Gretel, and a musical adaptation of Pinocchio. For the Armstrong Circle Theater he developed biweekly dramas based on true stories. They included shows about a miner who found a vein of uranium worth $60 million, the sinking of the Andrea Doria cruise ship, and a 1956 killer hurricane.
By June 1958 he had 25 live dramatic specials set for the following season — twice as many as any other producer. And with his biweekly Armstrong Circle Theater productions, Susskind was producing about 30 percent of all the live dramas seen on television during the 1959 season.
In 1959, he also launched The Play of the Week, presented Laurence Olivier in his American television debut in The Moon and Sixpence, and produced a half-dozen programs for Oldsmobile and another dozen specials based on MGM film classics. Susskind had become the undisputed champion of big-name, high-quality drama.
He was also its most controversial spokesman. By the late ‘50s, a new breed of westerns had the classics outgunned, and Susskind aggressively condemned what he called “the ocean of mediocrity brought on by the panic buying of quiz shows and westerns.” In 1959, he told Time magazine, “A western or two can be fine, but 32 a week is awful.”
In 1958, fueling his reputation as an outspoken iconoclast, Susskind began hosting his new syndicated interview program Open End, so-called because the late night program lasted as long as Susskind thought the interview merited. In 1966, with the added attraction of a live studio audience and a panel of guests who spoke from personal experience, he began The David Susskind Show, which continued in syndication until September 1986. Devoted to single subjects, the program became the forerunner of the now-common multiguest, audience participation gabfest focused on volatile subjects.
Susskind’s challenging questions and his ability to attract important and outspoken men and women made Open End influential from the start. During the program’s 28 years, Susskind assembled a guest list that reads like a 20th century “Who's Who,” including Harry Truman, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dean Rusk, Thurgood Marshall, Clare Boothe Luce, Norman Mailer, and John Kenneth Galbraith.
Open End was at its most controversial in October 1960, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev appeared. Maintaining his role as questioner, Susskind declined Khrushchev’s challenge to debate East/West relations.
But by the early 1960s, Susskind’s success was in an eclipse. The networks were abandoning classic stories for westerns. In 1966, he looked back on those days as a time when “phones didn’t answer, people wouldn’t see me. I couldn’t believe that a career could go up in smoke. It was as if I were a rookie.” But he persisted. “I think the really interesting thing is being on the mat when they’re counting 10, then getting up at nine and winning.”
For the next two decades he continued to appear on his talk show and produce major programs for television. These included The Power and the Glory; East Side, West Side; Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman and The Crucible; Shakespeare’s The Ages of Man; Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie; Mark Twain Tonight; The Diary of Anne Frank; McMillan and Wife; Eleanor and Franklin; Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years; Blind Ambition; and one-man shows for PBS based on the lives of Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, and Pope John XXIII.
At the time of his death. Susskind was developing several projects, including a PBS documentary commemorating the 25th anniversary of the death of John F. Kennedy. In addition to scores of honorary degrees and civic and critics’ awards, Susskind and his myriad productions garnered eight Sylvania Awards, three Peabody Awards, and scores of Emmys.
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating David Susskind's induction in 1988.