Leonard Goldberg tells a story about a guy who once sought his counsel about buying a network. “Who’s the most important guy at a network?” asked the prospective media mogul. “Is it the engineer who puts all the affiliates on the air?” “Huh?” Goldberg replied. “That’s flipping a switch. No, it’s the guy who picks the shows, like Brandon Tartikoff. If he picks the right shows, you have a hit. If he picks the wrong shows, you have a flop.”
“What kind of a business is that?” the fellow demanded, and he abandoned his plans.
Goldberg enjoys this story because, as a guy who’s done the picking for both networks and studios, he appreciates the apparent folly of a billion-dollar enterprise that rises or falls on so ephemeral a commodity as instinct. And yet, that gamble is exactly what has always fired him up about show business. “There is no continuing success; you’re always up to bat again, and that’s what makes it so exciting,” he says. “You come up with an idea for a show, you try to sell it to a network, you cast it, you find a director, it goes on the air, and you never know. If you analyzed everything with spreadsheets, I don’t think anyone would have started the entertainment business.”
Today, Goldberg can look back at a remarkable winning streak in both film and television. As head of programming at ABC and later at Screen Gems, he introduced the movie-of-the-week format and green-lit such landmark telefilms as Brian’s Song and served as executive producer on Something About Amelia and The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. His vaunted producing partnership with Aaron Spelling resulted in some of the most successful TV series of the ‘70s, including Charlie’s Angels, Fantasy Island, Starsky and Hutch and the critically acclaimed Family. During his presidency of 20th Century Fox, the studio had big-screen hits like Die Hard, Broadcast News and Big. For his independent Mandy Films banner, he’s produced such films as Double Jeopardy, Sleeping with the Enemy, and the smash big-screen version of Charlie’s Angels and its sequel.
The formats and series that bore Goldberg’s imprint — especially in his heyday in the ’70s — not only dominated the airwaves, they forever changed the television landscape. And, at age 72, he remains an active producer to this day. Among his upcoming projects is a long-in-the-works big-screen version of the Wonder Woman comic in conjunction with Joel Silver and Warner Bros.
As a young man, Goldberg never anticipated a career in show business. The son of a Brooklyn garment merchant, he set his sights on Madison Avenue, complete with a gray flannel suit and a commute by train to Westchester. After graduating from the Wharton School of Economics, he went to work for the New York advertising agency BBDO. His job involved matching corporate sponsors with television shows; in the process he was dazzled by the amazing small-screen medium.
“I became entranced by television. Its reach was so astonishing,” he recalls. “In those days a great show would get as high as a 50 rating. I’d walk down a street in New York thinking, ‘My God! Half these people saw that show last night.’ They had a shared experience. I wonder if it moved them. I decided I wanted to get in on it. I began to study the medium very intently. I had this idea that I could do it — that if I read something or heard something that interested me or made me laugh or cry, maybe it would do the same for other people.”
Goldberg’s instincts would prove savvy and his fortune great, not only for finding material, but for hooking up with people. On the first evening of his first business trip to Los Angeles, he found himself facing the prospect of dinner alone — until the phone rang in his hotel room with an invitation. It was Aaron Spelling, whom he’d met that day. Spelling whisked the impressionable out-of-towner to Scandia, then L.A.’s best restaurant, where the diminutive Texan displayed his audacity by specifying that his salad be “half-chopped.”
“If I ever write a book about Hollywood, I’m going to call it Half-Chopped,” Goldberg says with a laugh.
Equally fortunate was his introduction by his then-girlfriend Marlo Thomas to her agent, a firebrand just out of the mailroom at William Morris. His name was Barry Diller. “I remember thinking, ‘This guy has it — whatever it is you have to have,” says Goldberg, and he persuaded the young Diller to come to Manhattan to work for him at ABC, where by then Goldberg was vice president of network programming.
Goldberg himself was just 32 at the time. He had risen so rapidly that he grew a beard to make himself look older, and upon hearing that young executives were perceived as impetuous and volatile, he says, “I made a conscious decision to be Mr. Calm, Cool, and in Control.” He maintains the beard and a markedly approachable, even-handed manner to this day. Yet producer Larry Gordon, he says, took to calling him “One Track,” because, as Gordon observed, “Once I got an idea to do something, you could either get on the train or get run over by it, but that train was going down the track.”
Such was the case when it came to crafting a viable approach to original long-form programming. In the late ’60s, after three years at ABC, Goldberg says, “I was bored of hearing pitches for series. I thought, ‘Isn’t there something else we can do with the medium? Maybe we can attack subjects that we can’t do on series TV.’”
Original movies for television had been tried briefly at another network, with mixed results. Goldberg and Diller came up with the 90-minute weekly format, a moniker, and a business plan that involved a 15-day shooting schedule, capped salaries, and flat fees to avoid lengthy negotiations. They went to work trying to sell the concept, and to their surprise, ABC backed the plan. Now they needed production partners in Hollywood. “It was February, and we needed to produce 26 movies to start showing in September.” The major studios were skeptical, but Goldberg and Diller pushed ahead.
“We announced in the trades that we were making the first movie of the week, and the phone started ringing,” says Goldberg. “The same studios that had passed, once they saw we were serious, wanted to get involved.”
The made-for-television movie became a thriving format, even as Goldberg had moved on to become head of production at Screen Gems, where he continued to make long-forms in partnership with Diller at ABC.
In 1970, on a flight to Los Angeles, he found himself weeping while reading an article in Look magazine about the career of a young Chicago Bears running back, Brian Piccolo, and his untimely death from cancer. “The stewardess asked me if I was all right. I said, ‘Yes, it’s just this story I’m reading.’” Goldberg called Diller as soon as his plane touched down. “Diller said, ‘Give the magazine to your driver and have him bring it to my house.’” The next morning his phone rang at 7:30 a.m. It was Diller, saying, “Let’s go, let’s secure all the rights.”
Goldberg and Diller set up the project in the next three weeks.
“That would never happen today,” Goldberg muses on an afternoon this past summer at his Beverly Hills production office, where he continues to pick and package movie projects. “As the business has gotten bigger, it’s much harder to get things done. It would take someone three weeks to get back to you.”
But at that moment the two executives had captured lightning in a bottle. The 1971 gridiron drama Brian’s Song, a powerful tale of heart, tragedy and interracial friendship starring James Caan and Billy Dee Williams, came to fruition as a ringing validation of what Goldberg had intuited.
The Los Angeles Times hailed it as “the most memorable 90 minutes you’ll see on television this season … There is hardly anything about Brian’s Song that is less than triumphant.” The telefilm won a George Foster Peabody Award and five Emmy Awards, including outstanding single program in drama or comedy, outstanding writing and a supporting-actor statue for Jack Warden.
Goldberg was to roll the dice yet again on a new format — he greenlit Leon Uris’ novel QB VII as a sprawling multi-parter that ran two consecutive nights. ABC triumphed with a 55 share, and the miniseries was born.
And while Goldberg allows that he’s had his share of disappointments, he says it almost always happened when he strayed from his own best instincts. “Anytime I’ve said, ‘Well, I don’t get this, but maybe other people will,’ I’ve had a 100 percent rate of failure.” A few of those flops were projects he truly believed in, which was even harder to take in stride. “Even keel is hard if you’re passionate,” says Goldberg, “but you have to be [passionate]. As a business, all we have are flickering images on the screen. If we’re not excited about creating them, why the hell should anybody else be?”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Leonard Goldberg's induction in 2006.