A television legend responsible for some of the most iconic shows of the 1970s, network executive Fred Silverman has remained the only individual who headed the programming divisions of the three major networks - CBS, ABC, NBC - while churning out hit after hit. After starting his career with local New York stations, Silverman thrived at CBS as a programming executive who made his name by putting such iconic series as "All in the Family" (CBS, 1971-79), "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (CBS, 1970-77), and "M*A*S*H" (1972-1983) onto the air. Despite his quick and steady success, he was unhappy with CBS and soon moved on to run ABC, where he revitalized the flagging network with other classic shows like "Charlie's Angels" (ABC, 1976-1981), "The Love Boat" (ABC, 1977-1986) and "Fantasy Island" (ABC, 1978-1984). With a solid decade of near unprecedented success, Silverman took a step up in title and responsibility with his new network, NBC, only to fall flat after boasting he could turn around their misfortunes in less than a year. Though he had a couple of hits with "Hill Street Blues" (NBC, 1981-87) and "Diff'rent Strokes" (NBC/ABC, 1978-1986), Silverman was largely responsible for a number of flops as well as the short, but disastrous reign of producer Jean Doumanian on "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ). But he rebounded as an independent producer with "Matlock" (NBC/ABC, 1986-1995), "Jake and the Fatman" (CBS, 1987-1992) and "Diagnosis: Murder" (CBS, 1993-2001), cementing his legacy as one of the small screen's greatest behind-the-scenes talents.
Born on Sept. 13, 1937 in New York City, Silverman was raised the son of a TV repairman in Queens and dreamed of a career in television from an early age. After earning his bachelor's at Syracuse University and his master's at Ohio State University, he began his career at WGN-TV in Chicago before working for six weeks at the then-independent station WPIX in New York. Silverman went on to join CBS as the head of daytime programming, becoming at age 25 the youngest-ever department head at the network. He also married his assistant, Cathy Kihn, with whom he had two children, Melissa and William. By 1970, Silverman had been promoted to vice president of programming under Robert Woods and in the following year was instrumental in the network's so-called rural purge, where he helped eliminate such country-oriented series as "Green Acres" (CBS, 1965-1971), "Mayberry R.F.D." (CBS, 1968-1971) and "The Beverly Hillbillies" (CBS, 1962-1971). In their place, Silverman helped to launch such iconic shows as "All in the Family" (CBS, 1971-79), "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (CBS, 1970-77), "M*A*S*H" (1972-1983), "Barnaby Jones" (CBS, 1973-1980) and "Kojak" (CBS, 1973-78).
Under Silverman's guidance, CBS vaulted to the head of the network pack with other hits like the "All in the Family" spin-offs "Maude" (CBS, 1972-78) and "The Jeffersons" (CBS, 1975-1985), as well as "The Bob Newhart Show" (CBS, 1972-78) and "Good Times" (CBS, 1974-79), which he pitted against rival ABC's new show "Happy Days" (1974-1984). But Silverman was never fully happy at CBS, nor did he fit the executive profile, with most of his colleagues being far more patrician versus his working-class background. So in 1975 he jumped ship to ABC to become president of its entertainment division and immediately found himself trying to save the marginal "Happy Days," which he had very nearly brought to the brink of cancellation thanks to the success of "Good Times." One of his first accomplishments was suggesting to producers that they make The Fonz (Henry Winkler) into a major character - a move that catapulted the show in the ratings. Also during his tenure, he launched another round of classic shows like "The Bionic Woman" (ABC/NBC, 1976-78), "Charlie's Angels" (ABC, 1976-1981), "Three's Company" (ABC, 1977-1984), "Eight Is Enough" (ABC, 1977-1981), "The Love Boat" (ABC, 1977-1986) and "Fantasy Island" (ABC, 1978-1984).
Once again, Silverman's touch helped turn around an ailing network, which had once been an industry joke but had since risen to the top of the ratings. In 1978, he was looking for a greater challenge and was lured to NBC with the title of president and CEO of the entire company. He brashly predicted that the network would be No. 1 in the ratings by Christmas, but his boast rang hollow especially when their hopes for the 1980 Summer Olympics were dashed by President Jimmy Carter, who ordered an American boycott of the games in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. Silverman oversaw failure after failure like "Hello, Larry" (NBC, 1979-1980), "Supertrain" (NBC, 1979), and "Pink Lady" (NBC, 1980), a variety show widely considered one of the worst ever put on air. Making matters worse, Silverman ushered in the brief, but disastrous Jean Doumanian reign on "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ), which eventually led to star Al Franken castigating Silverman on the show. Despite occasional hits like the critically hailed "Hill Street Blues" (NBC, 1981-87) and popular comedies like "Diff'rent Strokes" (NBC/ABC, 1978-1986) and "The Facts of Life" (NBC, 1979-1988), hardly anything seemed to work for Silverman, who was spread thin by too many responsibilities. By 1981, NBC was in the toilet and Silverman was out, though in hindsight he did have the good sense to hire Brandon Tartikoff as president of the entertainment division.
Relocating to California, Silverman moved into independent production and formed The Fred Silverman Company. His first efforts were the animated series "Pandemonium" (CBS, 1982-83) and "Meatballs and Spaghetti" (CBS, 1982-83), but he soon was in primetime and late night production funded by MGM-TV. Silverman served as executive producer of the disastrous syndicated talk show "Thicke of the Night" (1983-84), which temporarily made an industry joke of its host Alan Thicke. Silverman's maiden voyage in primetime series was the comedy "We've Got it Made" (NBC, 1983), in which two male roommates (Matt McCoy and Tom Villard) hire a buxom maid (Teri Copley). It ended its NBC run after one season, although Silverman revived it for a year of first-run syndication in 1987. Meanwhile, he scored his first success working in tandem with writer-executive producer Dean Hargrove in reviving "Perry Mason," luring Raymond Burr back to play the famed Los Angeles defense attorney. An ongoing TV-movie series for NBC launched in 1985, the "Perry Mason" movies proved popular as over 20 were ultimately made. Still, Silverman struggled to regain his footing with weekly series, with shows like "Morningstar/Eveningstar" (CBS, 1986) failing to find an audience.
Since he had grown up in a TV world where the dictum was to always produce the least objectionable programming possible, Silverman appeared stuck in middle-of-the-road, even older-skewing concepts that often featured senior-aged TV stars. Despite the shifting sands of time and tastes, he stuck with the formula and struck gold with the launch of "Matlock" (NBC/ABC, 1986-1995) starring Andy Griffith as a folksy, but cagey defense attorney. The show ran for more than a decade as a weekly series and eventually found further success with several two-hour specials. Silverman had a second success with "Jake and the Fatman" (CBS, 1987-1992), which revived the career of William Conrad, who played an aging prosecutor - a role that originated in a pair of "Matlock" episodes. Silverman next joined forces with Carroll O'Connor and writer-producer Juanita Bartlett to turn the 1968 feature film "In the Heat of the Night" into a weekly series of the same name (NBC/CBS, 1988-1995), which also starred Howard Rollins as Virgil Tibbs.
Following a short run for the otherwise high-profile procedural, "The Father Dowling Mysteries" (NBC/ABC, 1989-1991), starring another veteran TV face, Tom Bosley, Silverman suffered a few flops in this period, including "One of the Boys" (NBC, 1989). But in the 1990s, he was still going strong, executive producing "Diagnosis: Murder" (CBS, 1993-2001), starring 70-year-old Dick Van Dyke as a medical doctor who helps his homicide detective son (Barry Van Dyke) solve murders. Meanwhile, he turned more to television movies as the executive producer of "Recipe for Murder" (ION, 2001) and "Murder Among Friends" (ION, 2001), and even churned out a few well-received "Diagnosis: Murder" movies following the show ending its run in 2001. After returning to ABC in an advisory capacity later in the decade, Silverman took a surprising turn to reality-based television as the producer of "America's Most Wanted: American Fights Back" (Fox, 1996- ).