A creative and highly competitive television executive who spent nearly his entire career in network broadcasting, Brandon Tartikoff took over a flailing NBC in the early 1980s and at 31 years old became the youngest president in the network's history. With such iconic series as "Hill Street Blues" (NBC, 1981-87), "Miami Vice" (NBC, 1984-89) and "The Cosby Show" (NBC, 1984-1992), Tartikoff turned the fortunes of NBC around to make it the most successful network for the ensuing two decades. In 1987, following more hits like "The Golden Girls" (1985-1992) and "L.A. Law" (1986-1994), Tartikoff simultaneously held the title of president of NBC Productions and had earned a reputation as a master of scheduling. Credited as the chief architect of the network's supremacy in primetime TV during the 1980s, he eventually left the Peacock Network in 1991 to attend to his daughter following a near-fatal car accident. Tartikoff embarked on a number of film and television endeavors, often under his own banner, while also serving briefly as the chairman of Paramount Pictures and New World Entertainment. Having twice battled Hodgkin's disease early in his life, Tartikoff finally succumbed to the cancer in 1997, leaving behind a legacy as one of television's most brilliant programming gurus.
Born on Jan. 13, 1949 in New York City, Tartikoff was raised in a Jewish home and attended Lawrenceville School during his teenage years, a college preparatory school where he excelled at baseball and fencing, while also harboring a desire to become a writer. From there, he went to Yale University in the late 1960s, during which time he worked as an account executive and sales manager for ABC affiliate WNHC-TV in New Haven, CT. Upon graduating Yale, Tartikoff moved on to Chicago, IL, where he worked for WLS-TV and helped revamp the flagging ABC affiliate with sensational programming like "Shark Week." Planning to move on to Los Angeles after a year in the Windy City, Tartikoff was shocked to discover that he had Hodgkin's disease at only 25 years old. Determined to beat the cancer while maintaining a regular work and exercise schedule, he found the disease tough to beat and had a close brush with death before embarking on an aggressive chemotherapy treatment that rendered him supposedly cured. Unbeknownst to him at the time, it would be the first of three battles with cancer he would have in his lifetime.
Once on the mend, Tartikoff made the move to Los Angeles and was hired as a programming executive at ABC in 1976. A year later, he made the jump to NBC when he was hired to head the comedy programming division by network guru Dick Ebersol. He rose quickly up the ladder to become president of NBC Entertainment by 1980, becoming at 31 years old the youngest division president in the network's history. When he took over for mentor Fred Silverman, Tartikoff had inherited a network in serious disarray. Affiliates where leaving, NBC had only three primetime shows in the Top 20, and Johnny Carson was considering jumping ship to another network. But because he had a seemingly endless well of ideas, Tartikoff was able to rapidly turn the fortunes of the network around in just a few short years, scoring big hits with classic series like "Hill Street Blues" (NBC, 1981-87), "Knight Rider" (NBC, 1982-86), "Miami Vice" (NBC, 1984-89) and "The Cosby Show" (NBC, 1984-1992), the latter having been the biggest hit of the decade and considered solely responsible for reviving the network.
Following a brief recurrence of his Hodgkin's disease, Tartikoff rebounded and continued churning out hit shows like "The Golden Girls" (1985-1992), "L.A. Law" (1986-1994), and "Family Ties" (NBC, 1982-89), which actually marked a rare misjudgment on his part due to his initial refusal to cast Michael J. Fox, declaring that he would never be a star. In 1983, Tartikoff actually guest hosted "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) and two years later became a member of the Screen Actors Guild following an appearance on the TV special, "Bob Hope Buys NBC?" (1985). He also appeared as himself on several other series, including "Night Court" (NBC, 1984-1992), "ALF" (NBC, 1986-1990) and "Saved By the Bell" (NBC, 1989-1993). Meanwhile, on Jan. 1, 1991, Tartikoff had another brush with death when he and his daughter Calla were involved in a near fatal car accident. While he recovered fairly quickly, his daughter had been severely injured and required extensive treatment for her injuries, necessitating a family relocation to New Orleans, LA to facilitate her therapy. At the time, Tartikoff left NBC to accept the position of chairman of Paramount Pictures, but in citing family obligations, he resigned abruptly in October 1992. During his brief tenure at the studio's helm, Paramount had a number of box office successes like "Wayne's World" (1992) and "Patriot Games" (1992), but also had its share of disappointments like "Leap of Faith" (1992) and "Coneheads" (1993).
While still in New Orleans, Tartikoff became part-time radio talk show host on WWAL-FM, while also developing programming for local television stations. After a two-year absence from Hollywood, he returned as chairman of New World Entertainment, signing a five-year contract and selling his company Moving Target Productions for $9 million to his new employer. In 1994, Tartikoff signed a three-year, first-look deal for international distribution with Solomon International Enterprises; spearheaded the short-lived late night talk show "Last Call;" and produced "The Steven Banks Show" for PBS. Later that year, Tartikoff had a brief run as the chairman of New World Entertainment before the company was assimilated into Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. From there, he moved into independent production, forming The H. Beale Company in 1996, while the following year he became chairman of Greenhouse Networks, a content provider for America Online. Always willing to appear on screen, Tartikoff made cameo appearances on shows like "Dave's World" (CBS, 1993-97) and "Arli$$" (HBO, 1996-2002). But his ambitions soon came to an end when Tartikoff battled Hodgkin's disease for the third and final time. He died on Aug. 27, 1997 at 48 years old, whereupon he received heartfelt tributes from a wide array of industry players that included Warren Littlefield, Ted Danson and Jerry Seinfeld.
By Shawn Dwyer