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Brandon Tartikoff
Brandon Tartikoff at the 1988 Emmy Awards.jpg
Tartikoff at the 1988 Emmy Awards
Brandon Tartikoff

January 13, 1949
Died August 27, 1997(1997-08-27) (aged 48)
  • Television network executive
  • Hollywood studio chairman
Known for
Office President of NBC Entertainment
Term 1981–1991
Predecessor Fred Silverman
Successor Warren Littlefield
Spouse(s) Lilly Samuels (1982–1997, his death)
Children 2

Brandon Tartikoff (January 13, 1949 – August 27, 1997) was an American television executive who was the president of NBC from 1980 to 1991. He was credited with turning around NBC's low prime time reputation with such hit series as Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, Law & Order, ALF, Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Cheers, Seinfeld, The Golden Girls, Wings, Miami Vice, Knight Rider, The A-Team, Saved by the Bell, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, St. Elsewhere, and Night Court.

Tartikoff also helped develop the 1984 sitcom Punky Brewster; he named the title character after a girl he had a crush on in school. He was also involved in the creation of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Beggars and Choosers.


Early life and career

Born to a Jewish family in Freeport, New York, Tartikoff was a graduate of the Lawrenceville School and Yale University, where he contributed to campus humor magazine The Yale Record.

While attending Yale, Tartikoff worked as an account executive and sales manager for WNHC-TV in New Haven, Connecticut, as well as in Hartford, Connecticut. Tartikoff spent vacations in Los Angeles looking for a job in network television. After graduating from Yale, he took a series of jobs in advertising and local television, including WLS-TV in Chicago, Illinois.

Career at NBC

Tartikoff was hired as a program executive at ABC in 1976. One year later, he moved to NBC (after being hired by Dick Ebersol to direct comedy programming). Tartikoff took over programming duties at NBC from Fred Silverman in 1981. At age 32, Tartikoff became the youngest president of NBC's entertainment division.

When Tartikoff took over, NBC was in last place behind ABC and CBS, and the very future of the network was in doubt. A writers' strike was looming, affiliates were defecting, mostly to ABC, and the network had only three prime time shows in the Top 20: Little House on the Prairie, Diff'rent Strokes and Real People. Johnny Carson was reportedly in talks to move his landmark late-night talk show to ABC. The entire cast and writers of Saturday Night Live had left that late-night sketch-comedy series, and their replacements had received some of the show's worst critical notices. By 1982, Tartikoff and his new superior, the highly regarded former producer Grant Tinker, slowly but surely turned the network's fortunes around.

As head of NBC's Entertainment Division, Tartikoff's successes included The Cosby Show, for which he had pursued Bill Cosby to create a pilot after having been impressed by Cosby's stories when Cosby guest-hosted The Tonight Show. Tartikoff wrote a brainstorming memo that simply read "MTV cops", and later presented the memo to series creator Anthony Yerkovich, formerly a writer and producer for Hill Street Blues. The result was Miami Vice, which became an icon of 1980s pop culture. Knight Rider was inspired by a perceived lack of leading men who could act, with Tartikoff suggesting that a talking car could fill in the gaps in any leading man's acting abilities.

During the casting process of Family Ties, Tartikoff was unexcited about Michael J. Fox for the role of Alex P. Keaton. However, the show's producer, Gary David Goldberg, insisted until Tartikoff relented saying, "Go ahead if you insist. But I'm telling you, this is not the kind of face you'll ever see on a lunch box." Some years later, after the movie Back to the Future cemented Fox's stardom, Fox goodnaturedly sent Tartikoff a lunch box with Fox's picture on it, with a handwritten note reading: "Brandon, They wanted me to put a crow in here, but... Love and Kisses, Michael J." Tartikoff kept the lunch box on display in his office.

Jerry Seinfeld credited Tartikoff with saving Seinfeld from cancellation during its first four years of struggling ratings. Johnny Carson broke the news of his retirement in February 1991 to Tartikoff at the Grille in Beverly Hills. For several days, only Tartikoff and NBC chairman Bob Wright knew of the planned retirement.

Tartikoff wrote in his memoirs that his biggest professional regret was cancelling the series Buffalo Bill, which he later went on to include in a fantasy "dream schedule" created for a TV Guide article that detailed his idea of "The Greatest Network Ever".

Appearances on NBC's shows

During his time at NBC, he made appearances in several of the network's shows. He was played by David Leisure in an episode of ALF, when ALF suggests a sitcom about a family who hosts a loveable alien, making the tongue-in-cheek remark "Not in a million years, pal." He hosted Saturday Night Live in 1983 and appeared as himself in an episode of Saved by the Bell, where he briefly entertains the notion of a "show about a high school principal and his kids", before scoffing at the idea. During his 1983 appearance on Saturday Night Live, one skit featured Tartikoff in a black leather ensemble, with the words "Be There" spelled out in rhinestones on the back of his jacket. "Be There" was NBC's slogan during the 1983–84 season. Tartikoff appeared as himself on episodes of Night Court and Night Stand with Dick Dietrick, and in the background of one of the final episodes of Cheers.

Post-NBC career

He left NBC in 1991, moving to Paramount Pictures to become its chairman. A year later, Tartikoff left that post to spend more time with his daughter, Calla, who was injured in a car crash near the family's Lake Tahoe home.

In 1994, he made his comeback to national TV with Last Call, a short-lived late-night discussion show he produced. That same year he also produced The Steven Banks Show for PBS. Later that year, he began a brief run as chairman of New World Entertainment. Just prior to his death, Tartikoff served as the chairman of the AOL project "Entertainment Asylum", for which he teamed with Scott Zakarin to build the world's first interactive broadcast studio. He also continued to do on-air appearances on shows such as Dave's World and Arli$$.


In 1982, Tartikoff married Lilly Samuels, and the couple had two daughters, Calla Lianne and Elizabeth Justine. In 1991, eight-year-old Calla suffered a severe brain injury in a car accident and received intense therapy in order to walk and speak again. Princess Calla on Disney's “The Gummi Bears” was named for Calla Tartikoff.

Tartikoff's parents were survivors of the collision of two 747s in Tenerife, Canary Islands, in 1977.


Tartikoff died on August 27, 1997, at age 48 from Hodgkin's lymphoma, with which he had had three separate bouts over 25 years. He was interred in Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, California. The Deep Space Nine sixth-season premiere, "A Time to Stand", began with a title card reading "In memory of Brandon Tartikoff". A similar card appeared at the end of the ninth-season premiere of Seinfeld, "The Butter Shave". On August 29, 1997, Dateline NBC ran an extended tribute to Tartikoff which featured many famous figures whose careers he had influenced, including Warren Littlefield, Dick Ebersol, Bill Cosby, Michael J. Fox, Ted Danson, and Jerry Seinfeld.

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