RIP Dick Clark: A Major Player Behind the Music

Most people who knew of him only from “American Bandstand” and hosting “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” probably have no idea what a significant figure Dick Clark was in the TV business as a producer.

Clark, however — who died Wednesday — was extraordinarily productive, producing a wide variety of DickClark_330award shows, specials and event programming, not the least being all those years of the Golden Globes. Frankly, he deserved a medal just for dealing with that, even before the lawsuit.

I still remember going to interview him in his office, a place dominated by memorabilia, and with several very large dogs bounding about.

Back in October 2001, I wrote a profile of Clark for the Los Angeles Times under the headline “Dick Clark Stays Tuned.” In the course of the interview he said, “I’ve always said if I can stay healthy, I want to work until I die.”

Clark didn’t stay healthy — a serious stroke in 2004 made speech a problem — and still essentially worked until the bitter end. So for auld lang syne, as it were, I’d like to play him off with this one:

See Dick run. And run and run and run.

Early in his career, not long after “America Bandstand” made its debut, Dick Clark–the world’s oldest teenager–came to the realization that he wasn’t necessarily going to be able to be a bright-eyed young on-camera host forever.

So Clark, who was to the Eisenhower years what Carson Daly is to the current MTV crowd, made what he calls in hindsight a “very, very intelligent decision: I said there will only be a finite amount of time that they’ll let me stand in front of a camera and behind a microphone, so I better start building something upon which I can fall back, which is producing …. The day I inherited the ‘Bandstand,’ we created a production company, and I invested what I made as a performer in salaries for other people.”

“Bandstand” will commemorate its 50th anniversary with a prime-time special next year, but that’s only the tip of the Dick Clark Productions pyramid. Award shows, and the propriety of them at this point in time, have been very much in the news of late, and no one dishes out more of them than Clark, who produces such long-running franchises as the American Music Awards, Daytime Emmys, Golden Globes and Academy of Country Music Awards.

Moreover, Clark, now 71, is back on camera again, five days a week, as one of the gang on “The Other Half,” a male version of “The View” that premiered last month and is playing on stations around the country, including KNBC in Los Angeles.

Clark’s busy date-book is noteworthy on various levels, starting with his ability to buck the trend toward forsaking older producers and performers in the headlong pursuit of younger demographics. In addition, those who identify Clark only as the genial on-camera host of his “Bloopers” specials or the perennial “Dick Clark New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” overlook his prolific track record as a producer–albeit one feeling the squeeze, as all independents have, from consolidation of the entertainment industry.

Finally, Clark’s determination not to slow down stands in contrast to certain contemporaries–perhaps foremost among them Johnny Carson, whose self-imposed withdrawal from public life came to mind again recently, when a “50 Years of NBC Late Night” special served up clips, but no Johnny.

“I’ve always said if I can stay healthy, I want to work until I die,” Clark said, surrounded by career memorabilia in his Burbank office, where his three dogs–a Weimaraner, Dalmatian and a mutt–have the run of the place.

“It’s rare when you find something you want to do that you dreamed of doing since the time you were a child. I knew I wanted to get into radio when I was 13, and to be able to do it all your life, be paid to do it, enjoy it and never get up saying, ‘Oh God, I have to go to work today’–wow, what a bonus. On the other hand, I admire people who can just hang it up and play golf. I’d go out of my mind.”

Clark and Carson were partners on “Bloopers and Practical Jokes,” and after Carson gave up “The Tonight Show” in 1992, Clark tried to woo him out of retirement by proposing a special tied to Carson’s interest in astronomy. “I met with him, and he looked at me straight in the eye and said, ‘I really appreciate you thinking of it, but I don’t want to do that. I’ve stopped,”‘ Clark recalled.

Recognizable as he is, Clark has always viewed himself as a businessman first, a performer by accident. In addition to TV series and movies, he branched out into restaurants and expresses interest in mining new technologies. If Carson built his own small empire thanks to “Tonight,” Clark noted that Carson was “always content to do his one job, and do it better than anybody ever did it.”

Not so with Clark, who finds himself back on television regularly as one of the co-hosts on “The Other Half,” which he does not produce, because “somebody offered me a job. I miss that part of my life. I’m sort of good at it, and ageism is a problem. I see [ageism] as a producer: ‘Well, we’ll hire a young guy to do that.”‘

“As a senior citizen, it’s miserable. Because unless you’re not blessed with good health, your mind is active, you can do it all, it’s just the outward shell falls apart, [so you’re] not in vogue. I could never for the life of me understand why, when we had 60 situation comedies on the air, they didn’t go back and get the old guys who know how to do it [instead of] Peter Principle-ing up these learners, and a lot of them failed because they didn’t know how to do the job.”

The entertainment industry’s refusal to tap into older talent seems especially incongruous right now, as broadcasters showcase workhorse news anchors who have all long since exited the adults 18-to-40 age bracket. Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Ted Koppel are all in their 60s. Barbara Walters turned 70 last month, and Dan Rather and Morley Safer will soon join her. Mike Wallace is 83.

“Age gives the appearance of knowledge, and therefore it fits the newscaster,” said Clark, who began his career in news before someone decided he looked too young and recast him as a disc jockey. As for the apparent disconnect between news and entertainment, Clark noted that for all the talk of synergy, with big corporations, “one hand never knows what the other’s doing.”

Clark’s company, by contrast, is a family-run enterprise. He works with his wife, Kari, and it’s not uncommon for a dog to wander into a meeting. While he concedes recent years have been tough on independent producers, he remains committed to staying a solo act.

“The carrot that’s still front of your nose is to be your own boss,” he said. “The majority of my adult life I never had to work for anybody. I always worked for somebody [to the extent] that I’m beholden to the guy who pays the bills, but it’s an independent company. You walk in here, we’ve got dogs running around. There are certain benefits to being your own boss that are not all tied to ownership. It’s [about] being more comfortable.”

Granted, the entertainment business has become a less hospitable place than the days when NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff could see Clark sitting at his desk through the window (“Before the bushes grew up,” Clark noted) and would invite him over to hash out some idea.

Yet for all the ways the TV world has changed, Clark provides a certain thread of continuity through his roster of award shows, which not only keeps growing but, for all the talk of saturation and irrelevance in the face of recent tragedy, shows no signs of abating.

“Every year somebody says, ‘Aren’t there enough of them?’ That’s an easy angle for guys that write [about television],” Clark said. “The answer is very simple: There’s going to be as many of these as the audience wants.”

So Clark finds himself preparing not only for “Bandstand’s” mid-century milestone but for the 30th anniversary of “Rockin’ Eve,” a 25th year behind the Globes telecast and the 29th annual American Music Awards. Given television’s history of casting aside its elders and canceling shows after the first commercial break, it’s hard not to marvel at such longevity–not only for the specials he produces but for Clark himself, who has somehow managed to stay in front of the band.

“That’s a lot of long runners,” he said, “in a business that’s six weeks at a time.”

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