David Lawrence

David Lawrence

Courtesy of David Lawrence
David Lawrence with his wife Jackie Joseph-Lawrence

David Lawrence with his wife Jackie Joseph-Lawrence at an Emmy-night Governors Ball

Courtesy of David Lawrence
Fill 1
Fill 1
October 21, 2022
Online Originals

David Lawrence's Life in Television

The writer, producer — and onetime Television Academy president — reflects on more than half a century in Hollywood.

Jane Wollman Rusoff

Television movies, variety hours, sitcoms, clip shows — there's seemingly no programming genre to which writer-producer David Lawrence hasn't lent his talents.

Lawrence started his career at age sixteen‚ first in radio, then television. He turned ninety-one on September 12.

From 1969-1970, Lawrence was president of the Hollywood chapter of the Television Academy, where he produced star-studded, profitable fund raisers, like "The Lucille Ball Ball."

As a producer, Lawrence mainly focused on made-for-TV movies and miniseries, some based on true stories, like Voyage of Terror: The Achille Laura Affair, about the cruise ship hijacked by terrorists from the Palestinian Liberation Front in 1985; Helen Keller: The Miracle Continues, tracing the deaf-blind author and activist's achievements and challenges in college and beyond; and Consenting Adult, based on Laura Z. Hobson's novel about a young man's coming out to his parents.

In the 1970s and 1980s, he was also the go-to producer for clip shows, including a special that showed off some of the funniest moments, with interview wraparounds, of the groundbreaking comedy series M*A*S*H.

Emmy contributor Jane Wollman Rusoff recently caught up with Lawrence, who was speaking by telephone from his home in Sherman Oaks, California, where he lives with his wife, actress-host Jackie Joseph-Lawrence. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

For several years, you were supervising producer for the shows owned or sponsored by Procter & Gamble Productions. Tell me about working on The Judy Garland Show.
She was very talented but also very difficult. A top CBS executive in New York, a man we nicknamed "The Snake," hated her and never wanted her on the network in the first place. A top CBS executive in Hollywood hated her, too. They did everything they could to make her life miserable. They kept changing her producer every third show.

It started out as a weekly special with guest stars from her past at MGM. Those were terrific shows. Then CBS pulled the rug out from under her and turned it into a situation comedy. The show lasted only a year [1963-1964].

Tell me about the 1990 miniseries Voyage of Terror: The Achille Lauro Affair, on which you were supervising producer.
I rented the actual hijacked ship. Burt Lancaster [starring as Leon Klinghoffer, the American man who was killed and thrown overboard by the hijackers] and I had only one blow-by-blow. We were rehearsing a scene he had nothing to do with, but told me there was something he didn't like.

I said, "I don't agree at all, but I'll shoot it our way, and I'll shoot it your way. And then we'll decide in post [production]."

He got very irate: "I've heard that before. I know you'll shoot it both ways and then use your way! That's the trouble with you producers — you think you know it all!"

I said, "That's the trouble with you actors — you know it all!" And we broke into laughter and hugged.

I wound up shooting only my version, which he had agreed to beforehand.

You also co-produced the 1985 telefilm Consenting Adult, with Marlo Thomas and Martin Sheen as parents of a gay son, played by Barry Tubb. Same-sex topics were still highly sensitive on TV in those days. How did you get a deal?
I took it to CBS, but [an executive] said, "As long as I'm [here], I am never going to do a story about [gay slur]!"

I said, "First of all, this isn't a story about homosexuals; it's a story about the people who have the same kind of reaction that you just voiced. And I'm not going to come back to CBS with another project as long as you're here."

The next day I took it to ABC. They said, "We'd love to do it."

Which of your projects is your favorite?
Helen Keller: The Miracle Continues [1984]. The production was so beautiful because of one actress, Mare Winningham. After I hired her to play Helen, she called me and said, "Can I possibly come to visit you? I want you to hear the voice I'd like to use for Helen." Helen's speech pattern was unusual, so Mare came to see me and tried a couple of voices. Among all the actresses I've worked with, as good as they were, Mare was the best.

You became president of the Television Academy's Hollywood chapter in 1969. What stands out among your memories?
Their offices were over a belly-dancing studio on Sunset Boulevard, and they had a staff of two. At that time the membership was very small. They were in debt. [When I came aboard], they had just done their annual fundraising event — a musical, for which they charged $25 for dinner, wine and a show. I said, "We're going to start making money." So, I produced a "Salute to the Stars" [series of] live performances. The first was "The Lucille Ball Ball," a salute to Lucy with a very long list of entertainers who participated at no charge.

Subsequently, we did Bob Hope, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jimmy Durante, Jack Benny and Johnny Carson.

I charged $35 for dinner and wine. The only costs we had were for a discounted hotel ballroom, the orchestra and the food. We made a profit each time and paid off our debts.

What else did you accomplish in that role?
I think we improved the influence of the Television Academy. We separated the Daytime Emmys as its own awards show. The nighttime show we split into two shows: above-the-line and creative crafts.

You started out writing and producing for radio when television was in its infancy. Tell me about those days.
Radio ruled. When I was sixteen, I wrote a fifteen-minute show, The Hall of a Thousand Dreams. I started playing a recording of it for the program manager at radio station KWIK [in Burbank].

After about five minutes, he said, "How many of these could you do a week?" I said, "How many do you want?" Within three weeks, I had a sponsor.

Then the station gave me a half-hour for an idea I had for a musical variety show about a teenage night club. My first guest was one of my fellow students, a little girl named Debbie Reynolds.

My next idea was for a teenage disk jockey show. The first guest star was Robert Mitchum, who had just come out of prison for marijuana possession.

When you compare early TV to the medium today, what has changed most?
There are things you could do now that were impossible before — and not just from a production standpoint but as the basis for a program.

You can tell stories now that would be impossible to get past anyone who was in charge of censorship. I hesitate to say that television has grown up, but it certainly is growing.

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