|Subject: Don Ohlmeyer, ‘Monday Night Football’ Producer
Dies at 72
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Date Posted: Monday, September 11, 05:00:03am
Don Ohlmeyer, whose influential television career ranged from producing ABC’s “Monday Night Football” during its 1970s heyday to guiding NBC to No. 1 in prime time two decades later on the strength of programs like “Seinfeld” and “ER,” died Sunday in Indian Wells, Calif. He was 72.
His family confirmed the death in a statement, saying the cause was cancer.
Mr. Ohlmeyer, a cocksure, creative personality, was well known to NBC when it hired him in 1993 to resurrect its once-dominant entertainment division. After a decade as a disciple to Roone Arledge, the president of ABC Sports, Mr. Ohlmeyer had left to be executive producer of NBC Sports, then formed his own company, Ohlmeyer Communications, to produce sports and entertainment programs.
Promised autonomy by Bob Wright, the president of NBC, Mr. Ohlmeyer evaluated the network’s prime-time assets: “Seinfeld” and “Law & Order” were not yet hits, “Cheers” was in its final season and “L.A. Law” was no longer a powerhouse.
“When I got there, I used to say there was the smell of death,” he told the Archive of American Television in 2004.
That did not last long. Carried along by new series like “ER,” “Friends” and “Frasier,” and the emergence of “Seinfeld,” NBC rose to No. 1 in prime time during the 1995-6 season. And in late night, the decision to help Jay Leno thrive as the host of “The Tonight Show” paid off. Mr. Leno had been chosen over David Letterman to succeed Johnny Carson, and Mr. Letterman’s new show on CBS eventually succumbed in the ratings race.
But the chain-smoking Mr. Ohlmeyer, who was the president of NBC West Coast, had a fractious relationship with Warren Littlefield, the president of NBC Entertainment, whose power was clipped when Mr. Ohlmeyer arrived. In Mr. Littlefield’s book, “Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV” (2012), written with T.R. Pearson, he said he viewed Mr. Ohlmeyer’s arrival as a vote of “severely limited confidence in me.”
Mr. Ohlmeyer kept Mr. Littlefield as his deputy but their personalities were vastly different — Mr. Ohlmeyer was blunt and autocratic, Mr. Littlefield was quieter and more collegial — as were their opinions on the development of hits like “ER” and “Friends.”
In Mr. Littlefield’s book, Jack Welch, the chairman of General Electric, which owned NBC then, made clear which executive he valued more. “The thinking was that Warren was a dry hole,” he said. “Ohlmeyer’s personality and charisma made us a bigger force in Hollywood in our view.”
Mr. Littlefield also described how, by 1996, Mr. Ohlmeyer’s drinking had become a liability in the office and at off-site events. He said he asked Mr. Wright to encourage Mr. Ohlmeyer to get help. “Don was clearly sick and needed our help and support,” he said.
Mr. Ohlmeyer subsequently entered the Betty Ford Center for a month of alcohol rehabilitation, then returned to NBC.
In 1998, Mr. Ohlmeyer feuded with Norm Macdonald, the sardonic comedian and anchor of the “Weekend Update” news segment on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.” Mr. Ohlmeyer called it increasingly unfunny and ordered Lorne Michaels, the executive producer of the late-night series, to remove Mr. Macdonald from the segment immediately.
Mr. Macdonald cast his exile as an overreaction by Mr. Ohlmeyer to his “Weekend Update” jokes about O. J. Simpson, who was a close friend of Mr. Ohlmeyer’s. During Mr. Simpson’s arrest and trial for the murders of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ron Goldman, Mr. Ohlmeyer stood by him, insisting that he would never abandon a friend in peril. Mr. Ohlmeyer said he had never told anyone to lay off Mr. Simpson, whether at “S.N.L.” or “The Tonight Show.”
Several months later, Mr. Ohlmeyer rejected an existing plan by NBC to carry commercials for “Dirty Work,” a film with Mr. Macdonald.
When Mr. Ohlmeyer stepped down in 1999, he told The Los Angeles Times: “There’s two reasons to do this job. One is you desperately want and need to win. The other is you care about what people say about you in the press, and what people say about you at cocktail parties.”
He added, “And they are mutually exclusive.”
Donald Winfred Ohlmeyer Jr. was born in New Orleans on Feb. 3, 1945. His father was a chemist and brewmaster and his mother, the former Eva Bivens, was a physical education teacher who influenced his interest in sports. The family moved to Glenview, Ill., where he went to high school. While attending the University of Notre Dame, Mr. Ohlmeyer made money hustling pool in local bars.
One night, he won $200 from a director for ABC Sports who then hired him as a $25-a-day gofer for the upcoming Notre Dame-Purdue football game. Mr. Ohlmeyer received similar assignments around the Midwest from ABC, hitchhiking to each event from the campus in South Bend, Ind.
The director he hustled was Chet Forte, a compulsive gambler, who later became Mr. Ohlmeyer’s partner on “Monday Night Football” broadcasts.
Mr. Ohlmeyer started working full time at ABC in 1967 and rose quickly from production assistant to associate producer — skillfully editing tape of events like the Daytona 500 — to producer. When he began producing the Indianapolis 500 for ABC, his goal was to make the broadcast as enthralling as his experience of “Grand Prix,” the film by John Frankenheimer. He was in the ABC control room during the 1972 Summer Olympics, when the network covered the massacre of 11 Israeli team members by Palestinian terrorists.
“Monday Night Football” was an established hit when Mr. Arledge promoted Mr. Ohlmeyer to producer in 1973. Viewers were engaged by its distinctive if unusual threesome of announcers: Howard Cosell, a dyspeptic, easy-to-dislike commentator best known for boxing and his relationship with Muhammad Ali; Don Meredith, the mellow and mischievous former quarterback who could drift into song or wit; and Frank Gifford, the handsome football hero and straight man who tried to tame the other two.
Mr. Ohlmeyer was known as a workaholic who used NFL Films footage as an inspiration, seeking low angles and tight close-ups that revealed players’ emotions. He also effectively handled Mr. Cosell, a brilliant but brittle personality who had never called football before. Mr. Ohlmeyer dealt firmly with him, persuaded him to rerecord segments if he thought he could do better and fed him information that made him sound prescient.
During one game, Mr. Ohlmeyer told Mr. Cosell through his earpiece that the New England Patriots’ next play was going to involve a particular pass pattern by tight end Russ Francis. On cue, Francis scored on the play that Coach Chuck Fairbanks had discussed with Mr. Ohlmeyer during a pregame meeting.
As they left in a limousine after the game, Mr. Cosell gloated. “How’d you like that call, kid?” he asked.
An incredulous Mr. Ohlmeyer asked, “Do you think that plastic thing in your ear is a brain?”
When Mr. Ohlmeyer left ABC in 1977 to join NBC for the first time, he told Mr. Arledge that he needed to prove himself rather than stay in his outsize mentor’s orbit.
As the executive producer of NBC Sports for five years, Mr. Ohlmeyer elevated the quality of its broadcasts and gave it some of the swagger of ABC’s sports division. But he was disappointed when the opportunity to oversee NBC’s broadcasts of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow was scuttled when President Jimmy Carter boycotted the United States’ participation because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
Two years later, he left to create Ohlmeyer Communications, where he continued to produce sports programs like the Skins Game, a golf exhibition; television movies like the Emmy Award-winning “Special Bulletin,” a story about nuclear terrorism that was presented as if it were happening in real time; and musical events like “Season’s Greetings: An Evening With John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra.”
With backing from RJR Nabisco, Mr. Ohlmeyer’s company acquired 20 percent of ESPN for $60 million, which brought him onto the cable sports channel’s board and gave him a hungry outlet for his sports programming. He eventually cashed in his stake and sold his sports programming assets to ESPN for about $24 million, according to “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN,” by James Miller and Tom Shales (2011).
“Don Ohlmeyer made more money out of ESPN than anybody else,” Steve Bornstein, a former president of ESPN, told Mr. Miller and Mr. Shales. “Hey, he’s a smart guy.”
He is survived by his wife, the former Linda Jonsson, who is called L.J.; his sons Drew, Chris, Todd and Kemper; and nine grandchildren. His marriages to Dossie Mahaffey and Adrian Perry, who was known as Muffy, ended in divorce.
A year after Mr. Ohlmeyer’s time at NBC ended, he returned to produce “Monday Night Football” at the request of Howard Katz, the president of ABC Sports. Mr. Katz wanted his friend to reinvigorate the franchise, to make each game an event, as it used to be in the 1970s. He kept Al Michaels as the play-by-play announcer but replaced the analyst Boomer Esiason with two men — the verbose comedian Dennis Miller, a surprising addition, and the former quarterback Dan Fouts, a conventional choice.
Mr. Ohlmeyer was expected to stay in the job for two years but left after one season, saying he had wearied of the travel.
“From the second week of the preseason, I realized I had made the most dreadful mistake of my life,” he told the television archive, adding, “Every flight was like going to the electric chair.”
In retirement he golfed, painted and taught communications courses at Pepperdine University. But he made one further foray into sports television, acting as the ombudsman for ESPN from 2009 to 2011.
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