‘Tonight’ producer De Cordova dies at 90

Producer-director won 7 Emmys, worked in H'wood for over 50 years

Fred De Cordova, the fifth and longest lasting producer of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and producer-director of such classic TV shows as “The Burns and Allen Show” and “The Jack Benny Program,” died Saturday at the Motion Picture and Television Fund’s Country Hospital in Woodland Hills, Calif. He was 90.

With the looks of a movie star and natural charisma, the seven-time Emmy winner (he was nominated 17 times) persevered in Hollywood for more than 50 years, including stints as director of the film comedies “Bedtime for Bonzo” and its sequel “Bonzo Goes to College.”

De Cordova’s face was rarely seen on “The Tonight Show,” but the back of his head was probably the most familiar in television. He joined the show in 1971 and stayed with it for the next two decades, becoming executive producer in 1984. He continued in the capacity of executive consultant when Jay Leno took over as host of the program. De Cordova was as closely identified with the latenight NBC show as Ed McMahon and Doc Severinsen. So when Martin Scorsese needed an actor to play the producer of a “Tonight Show”-like talkshow in “The King of Comedy,” he called on De Cordova.

It’s a testament to his congeniality that he lasted with Carson where four other producers had failed, exchanging quips before the show with its host to the delight of the live audiences. And though he was criticized for being too conservative in pushing the show forward with varying formats and hottest-at-the-moment celebrity guests, he suited his star’s temperament and outlook. “The Tonight Show” remained relatively unrivaled in the ratings or critical esteem during the Carson era.

The latenight program was De Cordova’s longest gig, but not necessarily his creative high-water mark. That may have been his producing and directing of “The Jack Benny Show,” regarded as one of the best comedy series in early television. A close second would be “The Burns and Allen Show,” on which he also served as producer and director. De Cordova was adept at handling large talents with large egos and maintaining personal friendships with them. He extracted the best of these vaudeville and radio performers’ abilities and helped them adapt to the new medium.

Born in New York City, he was studying law at Harvard when he met John Shubert, of the New York theatrical dynasty. Upon graduation in 1933, he began work for Lee and J.J. Shubert in various capacities — stage manager, general stage manager and dialogue director. Over the next 10 years, he was associated in various capacities with such shows as “At Home Abroad” and “The Show Is On,” starring Beatrice Lillie; “The Ziegfeld Follies of 1935,” which featured Bob Hope and Fanny Brice; the original “Hellzapoppin’ “; and Danny Kaye’s “Straw Hat Revue.” He also produced summer operetta seasons for the Shuberts and others.

In 1944 De Cordova left for Hollywood, where he was employed by Warner Bros. as a dialogue director. Within a year he was a director, making his debut with “Too Young to Know.” By 1947 he’d moved over to Universal, where he directed Deanna Durbin in “For the Love of Mary.” Other routine films such as “The Desert Hawk,” “Peggy,” “The Countess of Monte Cristo,” “Little Egypt” and “Finders Keepers” followed.

His most famous film — but only in retrospect — was “Bedtime for Bonzo,” starring a chimpanzee and Ronald Reagan. He also directed “Bonzo Goes to College.”

By the early 1950s, De Cordova realized, “I had done a whole batch of pictures and I saw that I wasn’t going to become William Wyler,” he once told an interviewer. So he transferred his attention to the new medium of television.

He had the good fortune to debut in 1951 with “The Burns and Allen Show” and was never out of work thereafter. He directed the pilot for the Bob Cummings show and then served as producer-director for four years on the sitcom “December Bride.” He took up similar duties for laffer “Mr. Adams and Eve,” starring Ida Lupino and Howard Duff, and “The George Gobel Show.” In the late ’50s he took over the reins on “The Jack Benny Program” and later served in a similar capacity on “My Three Sons.” He directed episodes of “The Farmer’s Daughter,” “Bewitched,” “The Donna Reed Show” and “The Smothers Brothers” as well.

In the 1950s he also directed Bing Crosby’s first television special and a TV version of “Blithe Spirit,” starring Noel Coward, Lauren Bacall and Claudette Colbert. He made the occasional return to film directing, including “I’ll Take Sweden” in 1965 and “Frankie and Johnny” in 1966.

In 1988 De Cordova published his memoirs, “Johnny Came Lately,” which focused heavily on the “Tonight Show” years. He is survived by his wife, Janet.

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