John Litvack, the experienced WB Network executive who helped teach J.J. Abrams, Joss Whedon, Greg Berlanti and others how to run television series, died March 21 at a long-term care facility in Los Angeles of complications following heart surgery. He was 69 and had been in failing health since undergoing triple-bypass surgery in January.
Litvack was considered an elder statesman during his 1997-2004 run as head of scheduling and current programming at the WB Network. Earlier in his career he’d held exec posts at CBS, NBC and Disney TV. He spoke to creatives from experience thanks to the time he spent time behind the camera as a director of soap operas in the 1970s and as a co-exec producer of “Hill Street Blues” in the NBC drama’s final season.
“He knew story,” said Jordan Levin, the former WB Network president who also worked with Litvack at Disney in the early 1990s.
Litvack was highly regarded by showrunners and others for his skill at spotting problems with stories and generally helping to keep successful shows running smoothly. At the WB, he was a key coach for producers such as “Felicity” creator Abrams, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s” Joss Whedon and “Dawson’s Creek” showrunner Greg Berlanti, who were then inexperienced in pacing themselves through the marathon that is series television.
Berlanti called Litvack “an amazing friend, teacher and executive” via Twitter on Monday.
Most recently, Litvack was a consulting producer on the Fox drama “Fringe,” from Abrams’ Bad Robot banner. He spent four years as a co-exec producer on the WB/CW drama “Smallville,” where he had forged a close relationship with showrunners Miles Millar and Alfred Gough.
“He was a man who absolutely loved the medium. He strove for excellence, he demanded the best, and he was very proud of the executives and the creators who he worked with to achieve programming that really resonated and stood the test of time,” Levin said.
Litvack was known to be blunt in offering his opinions, so much so that he had a reputation for being grumpy. But he could also be a showrunner’s greatest advocate if he believed in his talent, friends said.
A native of Newton, Mass., Litvack earned an undergraduate degree from Columbia University and got his start in TV as a cue-card holder for “Captain Kangaroo.” He worked his way up through production jobs until he had steady employment as a director of network TV soap operas “The Edge of Night,” “The Guiding Light,” “As the World Turns” and “Search for Tomorrow.” He served as director of daytime programs for CBS from 1975-78.
By 1979, Litvack relocated to the West Coast. He spent two years as head of current programming at MGM Television. In 1981 he was named VP of current drama at NBC, just as Grant Tinker and Brandon Tartikoff were starting their storied run of turning around the then-slumping Peacock. Litvack was hands-on with signature shows including “Hill Street Blues,” “The A-Team,” “Miami Vice,” “St. Elsewhere” and “Remington Steele.”
After working on the final season of “Hill Street” in 1986-87, Litvack worked in development at MTM Prods. In 1989 he joined Disney TV as senior VP of current programming, where he worked with future WB execs Levin and Garth Ancier.
Litvack’s survivors include two sons, Cameron, a television writer, and Zachary, a neurosurgeon in Washington, D.C.; and three grandchildren.