George Sunga

George Sunga

Joseph Cultice/Love Artists Agency
Dick and Tom Smothers

Dick and Tom Smothers 

Isabel Sanford and Sherman Hemsley in The Jeffersons

Isabel Sanford and Sherman Hemsley in The Jeffersons

Norman Fell and Audra Lindley in The Ropers

Norman Fell and Audra Lindley in The Ropers

Fill 1
Fill 1
April 03, 2023
The Interviews Archive

Foundation Interviews: George Sunga

The producer recounts his journey on acclaimed shows such as All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and Three's Company.

Television was in its early days in the 1950s when George Sunga was a student at San Diego State College. He told his professors that he was interested in analyzing the new medium, and they took the unusual step of allowing him to do a study of television production for college credit. As a result of his report, Sunga got his first job in the field, in the mailroom of CBS Television City in Los Angeles. For a decade, he worked in various departments at Television City, eventually becoming the official production supervisor for CBS West Coast.

In 1966, Sunga landed his first associate producer job, for the controversial Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. In 1969, he was nominated for an Emmy for his work on the show; the series was abruptly cancelled later that year. During the 1970s, Sunga associate produced/produced Norman Lear sitcoms including All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Three's Company and The Ropers.

Sunga played a number of important roles at the Television Academy, including serving as the governor of the producers peer group for five terms and chair or cochair of the Emmy Awards committee for six years. A Filipino American, he also served on the Producers Guild of America board and was the founding chairman of the Guild's Diversity Committee.

He was interviewed in February 2008 by Jeff Abraham for The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation. The entire interview can be screened at

Q: Tell us a bit about your early years.
A: I was born and grew up in San Diego. I went to San Diego State and was allowed to do a special study at a new place in Los Angeles called CBS Television City.

Q: One of the shows you had recently discovered on television was Climax.
A: Climax was a live drama from CBS Television City. My professors concocted an idea to write to them and find out if they'd allow me to come in.

The people at Climax said, "Yeah, why don't you come up?" So for three days I sat in the rehearsal hall and watched how the director works with the talent, and then I was on the stage the next two days.

The director that I was allowed to follow and ask questions of was John Frankenheimer. He was only maybe twenty-six years old, and he was already an icon. Anything I wanted to ask about, he was available — couldn't have been more generous.

I completed that study over the next summer. It was about 225 pages, double-spaced, and the only copy I could create was a carbon copy. I sent it to CBS. They looked it over and evidently they liked it, and they sent the message that I wasn't allowed to go work anyplace unless I came to CBS first.

Q: What was your first official job?
A: In the mailroom. I got my first promotion to the lighting department. The job allowed me to be on stage eight and a half hours a day. Climax, [Art Linkletter's] House Party, The Bob Crosby Show, The Red Skelton Show — I'd just sit there and watch, soaking everything up.

From there I went to the film department. I learned the nomenclature; I worked with the editors. I went from that to night operations supervisor. That's a title they give you that means, "Now you work whenever we need you."

After that, leadership at CBS said, "We're gonna give you a promotion. You're gonna be the first production supervisor on the West Coast."

And I said, "What is a production supervisor?"

They said, "You tell us." So, I designed what that job was going to be, and it was basically being the front man for productions that came in from the outside, to help them.

Q: One of your early shows was The Judy Garland Show. What do you remember about working with Judy?
A: I honestly remember only the good things. She was a giant. It was so wonderful in the beginning when George Schlatter was the producer. Then programming at CBS had a different concept of what Judy Garland should be, so they changed the format.

Q: Was it Norman Jewison that came in?
A: Yes, Norman had a relationship with Judy prior — he knew what he was doing, and he had a good rapport with Judy. [Barbra] Streisand at age nineteen was a guest. This young lady captivated Judy. She made Judy sing better than anyone. It was the competition part of it. Sitting in the rehearsal hall listening to those two sing ... it was one chill up and down the spine after another. Out of Norman Jewison's eight shows, that was number one for me.

Q: When did you resign from your production duties?
A: My bosses came to me and said, "There's a new show starting called The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Saul Ilson and Ernie Chambers are going to be the showrunners. They want you to be the associate producer." I'm going, okay, I'm going to have to learn how to do an associate producer's job.

Q: What did you do as associate producer?
A: It starts with budgeting. It's scheduling. Knowing the post-production procedures. In this case it was also dealing with the people who go after audiences to make sure they're getting to the right people. And outside of that, it's to always be available, especially with writers. It's a day-to-day operation.

Q: One of the most memorable moments was when you had on The Who. What do you remember about that?
A: The number that they were going to perform, they were going to fire off an explosion just for effect, right in front of the drummer. We weren't aware that the drummer had discovered where the special effects guy hid the gunpowder, and he loaded up the effect with more gunpowder than had been anticipated. The explosion was so big it blew the drummer off the stage, back up against the side. I was in the control booth and you could feel the force of the explosion come right through the wall, right through your chest. It was really dangerous. We're so lucky that no one got really hurt.

Q: What was worse, the force of the drummer or the force of having Pete Seeger come on?
A: Pete, to me, was under control. He was calm, he had something to say, he didn't hit you over the head with it.

He had his old guitar and just sang, and he was so captivating as an artist. We taped that show early, and word got out that he was going to be performing, and the letters started to pour in. I think it was something like 30,000 people yelling, "You can't put Pete Seeger on because he's anti-American," or words to that effect. Tommy [Smothers], of course said, "We're gonna put him on." And we did. But it was a moment.

Q: Were there notes coming from the suits at CBS that you couldn't have Pete on?
A: They were the ones who made us aware that there were so many notices from people who did not want him on the show. The one area that we had to learn to live with, and Tommy especially, was program practices. The censors. We had some very good friends in that area. If they said, "You can't say this," they would give us three variations that they would allow. When their bosses in New York found out that's how closely they were working with us, they said cease and desist. They sent somebody out from New York who was dead serious, a person who didn't give us a feeling that they wanted to help, and all they could do was give us notes like, "You can't do that." It was a rough go.

Q: How did you go from associate producer to producer in the third season?
A: I think what it really amounted to was Tom had people around him that he could trust. My role expanded into booking and bringing people into the writing staff.

Q: What was it that got the show cancelled?
A: There's a documentary called Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and it made me sit up because we thought the show was cancelled because of pressure from broadcast standards. But it wasn't. It was the President. It was "Nixton," as Tommy and Dickie would say. We discovered that "Nixton" certainly did not have a funny bone in his body — he was the one who pressured both Dr. Frank Stanton and William Paley [leadership at CBS]. That's how we got kicked off.

Q: Didn't they use the excuse that you did not deliver the shows on time?
A: The show was there. I scheduled the couriers to deliver it. I made sure it got there.

Q: The Smothers Brothers eventually sued CBS.
A: Yes. I did three days on the stand on behalf of the Smothers. I talked to the jury and explained our position, including how we got the tapes to New York. We didn't want to give them to CBS on Friday so that they had time to make changes by Sunday. We released the show to them Sunday morning. Convincing a jury of that and having the attack-dog lawyer coming at me — it was an interesting zen experience for me to just sit there and not get rattled by a big-time lawyer. The boys won, but it was a lot of angst to go through.

Q: You also got an Emmy nomination for the show, right?
A: Yeah, in the last season we were nominated for best series and best writing. The show won for writing. Laugh-In got it for best production.

Q: What was happening in the early '70s at CBS?
A: In 1971 Norman Lear premiered All in the Family. It was hated, it was loved, but those people who hated it watched it, those who loved it watched it, so you're getting like a fifty-five share — an audience that no show ever got. It paved the way for the Norman Lear kind of sitcom, the multiple camera live, or almost-live, show in front of an audience. Then from All in the Family came Maude, Good Times ... it opened up a lot of doors.

Around 1974, I got a call to go to Norman Lear's office to meet some writers. They had an opportunity to go on a new show called The Jeffersons, and they wanted me to come aboard as an associate producer.

They said, "You're gonna do the last thirteen shows of the fifth season of All in the Family with us so that you can get used to the routine. In the meantime, we're gonna get ready to do The Jeffersons." There was an overlap, and we designed a weekly schedule to do two shows in one week with the same producing staff and the same associate producer, which was daunting.

They gave me carte blanche in getting it done. It was a great experience, especially working with those guys. They came out of vaudeville and radio, so they knew what worked. The staff could go home at five thirty, have dinner at home, and not come in until nine o'clock the next morning. They spoiled me rotten to be able to work with people who had that much confidence, but look at the material they wrote for All in the Family, The Jeffersons and then eventually for Three's Company, which came just a little later.

Q: What was your role in postproduction?
A: After the show was shot, the A.D. would do the first rough cut. The director, the key writers and myself would see that rough cut. The guys on the creative side are looking to see if we need to make cuts. Producers and myself would figure out if we have to do anything additional in postproduction. I figure out the music, if necessary, and whether it's source music or score music. After it's all cut, I take that into sweetening. I had the perfect set of ears, peculiarly, for sweetening. I could match it, I could hear the holes, I could hear it before my audio guy could, or we would collaborate. It was done in less than three hours. Finished.

Q: How do you sum up your contribution to the Lear legacy?
A: I had the opportunity to train some of the better associate producers in the business. I had something to offer, and they listened, and we all worked together. I was at one point in charge of the associate producers. Norman Lear saw to that, so I think it's what Norman Lear contributed to me, more than what I can say about my contribution. I introduced ways of sweetening, ways of organizing postproduction.

Q: The success of Three's Company spun off The Ropers, which brought you a new title, right?
A: They made me a producer — I started getting the credit "produced by." I was still working with the director and my three writers — handling the facilities, doing the sweetening, a bit of casting. My casting directors and I had taken some liberties — they said if in the script it doesn't specify sex or ethnicity, you're free to go any way you want. Just bring in people you think could do the job and we'll see how far we can get. On The Ropers we brought in a wonderful Black actress who played a doctor who was examining Mr. Roper. Later, in Three's Company, they needed a best friend of Jack Tripper when he was in the Navy. We found a wonderful Black actor and he became that friend. I've talked to SAG and the Writers Guild about how to get more opportunities to put diverse people in roles. I was proud of that.

Q: What is the key to effective production management?
A: You better know what you're doing, number one. You've got to have the best people skills possible to really make it work. You have to know why the budget is the way it is. You have to know why schedules are done that way and why you can't do it another way. It's all-encompassing. It's trying to make everybody on the team work toward the same goal.

Q: How do you want to be remembered?
A: That I took part in this business; that I was rich with friends in the business; and that I was a champion for all the people who want to be producers in this business.

The contributing editor for Foundation Interviews is Adrienne Faillace.

Since 1997, the Television Academy Foundation has conducted over 900 one-of-a-kind, long-form interviews with industry pioneers and change-makers across multiple professions. The Foundation invites you to make a gift to the Interviews Preservation Fund to help preserve this invaluable resource for generations to come. To learn more, please contact Amani Roland, chief advancement officer, at or (818)754-2829.

To see the entire interview, go to:

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #2, 2023.

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