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Herbert Schlosser, a force behind 'SNL' and 'Laugh-In,' dies at 95
The former NBC executive Herbert Schlosser and his wife, Judith, on Feb. 28, 2011 at an event in Manhattan held by the Museum of the Moving Image. Schlosser, who put an indelible stamp on the network by negotiating Johnny Carson’s first deal to host “The Tonight Show,” putting “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” on the air and overseeing the development of “Saturday Night Live,” died on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021 at his home in Manhattan. He was 95. Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Herbert Schlosser, a longtime NBC executive who put an indelible stamp on the network by negotiating Johnny Carson’s first deal to host “The Tonight Show,” putting “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” on the air and overseeing the development of “Saturday Night Live,” died Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 95.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Judith Schlosser.

Herbert Schlosser was president of NBC in 1974 when he faced a late-night predicament: Carson no longer wanted the network to carry repeats of “Tonight” on weekends. But pleasing Carson, the network’s most important star, led to an inevitable question: What would NBC televise at 11:30 on Saturday nights?

Schlosser wrote a memo in early 1975 that laid out the fundamentals of an original program that would be televised from NBC’s headquarters at Rockefeller Center; would be carried live, or at least taped on the same day, to maintain its topicality; would be “young and bright,” with a “distinctive look, a distinctive set and a distinctive sound”; would “seek to develop new television personalities”; and would have a different host each week.

“Saturday Night is an ideal time to launch a show like this,” Schlosser wrote. “Those who now take the Saturday/Sunday ‘Tonight Show’ repeats should welcome this, and I would imagine we would get much greater clearance with a new show.”

“Saturday Night Live,” originally called just “Saturday Night” — which followed much of Schlosser’s formula, and which was produced, then as now, by Lorne Michaels — made its debut on Oct. 11, 1975, after Game 1 of the World Series, between the Boston Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds. Schlosser had attended the game in Boston with Bowie Kuhn, the strait-laced baseball commissioner, and invited him to his hotel room to watch.

“He didn’t laugh. And I thought, ‘Well, that’s Bowie,’” Schlosser recalled in “Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live as Told by Its Stars, Writers, and Guests” (2002), by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales. “And then after a while, he started to chuckle. And then he’d actually laugh. And I figured, ‘Well, if he likes it, it’s going to have a wider audience than most people think.’”

Schlosser, a lawyer, had been an executive in NBC’s business affairs department, where he negotiated programming contracts to carry, among other events, the 1964 Summer Olympics from Tokyo and talent deals likes ones with comedian Bob Hope, whose specials were a mainstay of NBC’s prime-time schedule.

“There were always kickers to his deals,” Schlosser told the Television Academy in an interview in 2007. With each new one, NBC had to buy a piece of land from Hope, one of the largest private landowners in California.

“We bought it, got capital gains and never lost money on it,” Schlosser said.

In 1966, Schlosser was named NBC’s vice president for programs on the West Coast, based in Burbank, California. Over six years, he was involved in developing numerous shows, among them some with Black stars, like popular comedian Flip Wilson’s variety series and “Julia,” a sitcom starring Diahann Carroll as a single nurse with a son. He also hired the first woman and the first Black person to be vice presidents in the department.

Schlosser particularly championed “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” a fast-paced satirical series that made its debut in early 1968. It was considered outrageous then for the political and risqué humor of its skits, performed by a cast of future stars including Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin.

George Schlatter, executive producer of “Laugh-In,” recalled that Schlosser had protected him from those within NBC who found the show’s content offensive.

“Every Tuesday morning there was a parade into his office — censors, lawyers, bookkeepers,” Schlatter said by phone. “They’d say, ‘Herb, talk to him.’ Then he’d say to me, ‘I promised them I’d talk to you.’ And he’d say, ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing.’”

Herbert Samuel Schlosser was born on April 21, 1926, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. His father, Abraham, owned a furniture store; his mother, Anna (Olesker) Schlosser, was a homemaker.

After serving stateside in the Navy, he studied public and international affairs at Princeton University, graduating in 1949. Two years later, he graduated from Yale Law School.

He started as a lawyer with a Wall Street firm, but the insurance work there bored him, and he moved to Phillips Nizer Benjamin Krim & Ballon (now called Phillips Nizer LLP), a Manhattan firm with many film and television clients. That experience led to his hiring around 1957 as general counsel of California National Productions, a film, merchandising and syndication subsidiary of NBC. He later became its chief operating officer before moving to NBC’s business affairs department in 1960.

As a lawyer with the department, he led the talks to bring Carson to NBC to replace Jack Paar as the host of “Tonight” in 1962. At the time, Carson was with ABC as emcee of the game show “Who Do You Trust?” and ABC required him to fulfill the last six months of his contract.

Schlosser said he had agreed to pay Carson $2,500 a week (about $21,000 today). But when ABC held up his departure, one of Carson’s agents made a further demand.

“He said, ‘Now that you can’t get him, we want more money,’” Schlosser recalled in the Television Academy interview. “I said, ‘We’re sticking with our price.’”

Schlosser rose steadily at NBC. He was named executive vice president of the television network in 1972; promoted to president a year later; and named president of the National Broadcasting Co., the network’s corporate parent, in 1974 and CEO in 1977.

“He supported quality programs and had an idea that news was probably the most important thing the networks did,” Bud Rukeyser, a former executive vice president of corporate communications for NBC, said in a phone interview. “He gave news the benefit of the doubt. If news wanted a half-hour to do something, the answer was always yes.”

But Schlosser was ousted in 1978 and replaced by Fred Silverman, who had engineered ABC’s rise to first place in prime-time ratings as its chief of programming.

Schlosser’s standing had been hurt by NBC’s inability to produce a new prime-time hit series the previous season and climb out of third place.

Shortly before Schlosser left NBC, the network presented “Holocaust,” a four-part miniseries that he had greenlighted. It won eight Emmy Awards. His main contribution to the project, he said, was persuading the executive producer, Herbert Brodkin, to change the title of the series, which had been called “The Family Weiss,” after some of its main characters.

Schlosser didn’t have to go far for his next job: He was named an executive vice president of RCA, NBC’s parent company. His assignment was to develop software for RCA’s SelectaVision videodisc project. Three years later, he was named to run all of RCA’s entertainment activities, which also included RCA Records (but not NBC).

He left in 1985 to become a senior adviser at Wertheim & Company, a Wall Street investment bank, as well as chairman of the planned Museum of the Moving Image, which opened in Queens in 1988. He remained there as either chairman or co-chairman until 2013.

In addition to his wife, Judith (Gassner) Schlosser, Schlosser is survived by his son, Eric, the author of “Fast Food Nation”; a daughter, Lynn Jacobson, a former film and television executive; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

Schlosser once recalled his certainty that “Saturday Night Live” could be a part of NBC for a long time, just as “Tonight” and “Today” were. Another model of late-night success at NBC under his watch was “The Midnight Special,” a series featuring pop and rock performers, that was broadcast on Fridays after “The Tonight Show” from 1973 until 1981.

“NBC had this tradition of succeeding with shows like that,” he told the Television Academy. “To me, it was a no-brainer.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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