It must secretly tickle TV production potentate Lee Rich that Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter collected 78 million votes between them, and that very same month his Dallas episode resolving the J.R. whodunit attracted 83 million Americans. If he created in J.R. Ewing a more compelling figure than the presidential candidates, at least Rich doesn’t kid himself that his craft is art. “I know exactly what Dallas is,” he says, “It’s crap. But we do it as well as possible, and people are entertained by vicarious thrills.”
Obviously. Thanks in part to the season-delaying actors strike, the series achieved the most prolonged climax in the annals of prime time and, in the process, changed U.S. social mores on Friday night. On what has traditionally been get-out-of-the-house-time and the lowest-viewing evening of the TV week, Dallas achieved the highest series rating in history.
The man who did it is a classic American entertainment entrepreneur—hardheaded with softhearted lapses. At 55 Rich is emblematic of everything both commendable and cynical about the industry today. In television, where series concepts often tend to be less imaginative than their bookkeeping, his credits include The Waltons, The Blue Knight and several other superior shows that the networks killed prematurely, like Karl Maiden’s Skag. Yet his Lorimar Productions also sinks to sinful self-imitation like Flamingo Road and Secrets of Midland Heights. Similarly his movies range from Being There, the estimable satire of TV starring Peter Sellers, to the execrable exploitation of the gay scene, Cruising. His specials have actually been special, notably Sally Field’s Sybil. But unlike All in the Family producer Norman Lear, Rich is not a writer (David Jacobs created Dallas) and is less of a social reformer. “Viewers don’t want real life,” he once said, “they live with that daily.”
That calculating credo seems to work. His independent Lorimar operation controls more hours of TV and churns out more movies than most of the so-called major studios. A two-man operation (Merv Adelson is still his copartner) at its founding in 1969, Lorimar now employs 300 and grossed more than $150 million this year. Quips Dallas star Larry Hagman of Rich: “I can’t think of a man whose name was bestowed upon him more aptly. But it’s only since Dallas that he has made it come true for me, too.” The reference, of course, is to the celebrated between-seasons contractual showdown with Hagman. “He knew he could only go to a certain point, and then we would replace him,” says Rich of Hagman’s reported $75,000 per show.
Rich didn’t learn his negotiating savvy on Seventh Avenue. His father was a banker in Cleveland, and Lee, after Ohio University, rose to senior VP of the Benton & Bowles ad agency in New York. Madison Avenue controlled much of TV then, and he supervised shows ranging from the original Dick Van Dyke to soaps like The Edge of Night. When the agencies phased out of production, he went into the business for himself in L.A. He rises at 6 a.m., reads two newspapers before breakfast and pumps an Exercycle for 12 minutes while watching Today and Good Morning America simultaneously on two bedroom TV sets. During his 12-hour day, he is a relentless busybody and a might brusque.
He has been married for 16 years to actress Pippa (The Virginian) Scott. She has also acquired a degree in architecture, and the Riches are about to build her thesis—a solar-heated beach house in Malibu. Pippa decided to slow up on acting after the birth of their children, Jessica, 15, and Miranda, 10. “TV can be harmful to children because they have very open minds,” says the man who purveys so much of it. “Parents have an obligation to make certain that children watch TV in a manner they deem appropriate.” Week-nights his own daughters aren’t allowed near the tube until their homework is done, and never after 10 p.m.—except, of course, on Friday.