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Influential Showbiz Attorney Irwin Russell Dead at 87

Innovative dealmaker's clients included Jim Henson, Carol Burnett, 'Hee Haw,' 'Candid Camera'

Irwin Russell, the influential entertainment attorney who was a key player in saving the Walt Disney Co. from corporate raiders in 1984, died Friday of complications from leukemia. He was 87.

Russell helped orchestrate the installment of Michael Eisner as CEO of Disney at a time when the failing Mouse House was in danger of being swallowed up by corporate takeover specialists. He helped steer the appointments of Eisner as CEO and Frank Wells as president, which lead to the revitalization of Disney as a formidable conglom and brand name in the global entertainment landscape. Russell served on the Disney board from 1984 to 2001.

As an attorney, Russell’s long list of clients ranged from Carol Burnett to Jim Henson the producers of “Hee Haw,” “Candid Camera” and “Baywatch.” He was known as an innovative thinker who broke ground in dealmaking for clients, such as the use of barter advertising time in the initial syndication deals for “Hee Haw” in the early 1970s.

Irwin Russell was a brilliant lawyer, an insightful executive, an eloquent writer and, in all things, a true gentleman,” said Eisner, who left Disney in 2005 and now heads his own Tornante shingle. “He represented me for 40 years, including my tenures at ABC, Paramount, Disney and, until the day he died, at Tornante. He was able to write – and get all parties to agree to – a one-page deal, something unheard of in American business. Ethics, doing it right and being fair were embedded in his DNA. This is a deep loss for all of us.”

Burnett first worked with Russell client as she was becoming a breakout comedy star on “The Garry Moore Show” in the early 1960s.  “He was a gentleman through and through,” Burnett said.

Born in New York City in 1926, Russell attended the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce but left to serve in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. He eventually received his B.S. from Wharton in 1947 and his law degree from Harvard Law School in 1949.

From 1951-53, he was an attorney for the National Wage Stabilization Board. In this capacity, despite still being only in his 20s, he played a central role in resolving high-profile wage disputes between management on behalf of the Truman Administration.

Russell worked in private practice in Gotham before he was recruited into the entertainment industry by producer David Wolper. He relocated to Los Angeles in 1971 to serve as exec VP, treasurer and a director of the Wolper Organization, Inc. for five years before resuming his private practice.

Russell was central to a wide range of landmark entertainment industry deals. He repped Henson in the deal that brought the Muppets to “Sesame Street,” among many other pacts.

Other clients included children’s author Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss), actor Robert Preston, and Christina Crawford, whom he represented in proceedings against her mother, Joan Crawford.

In 2010, Russell published a non-fiction book “Common Sense: For a Society Out of Control.” In the book he described himself as “either a practical idealist or an idealistic pragmatist.”

Russell is survived by his wife, Suzanne. The family requests that donations can be made to the Irwin E. Russell J.D. ’49 Financial Aid Fund at Harvard Law School.   A memorial service is being planned for next month

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