Adelson’s long career was marked by highs and lows that were equally spectacular. He was once one of the most powerful independent moguls in Hollywood, but in later years lost his fortune on bad bets during the early dot-com era and in the meltdown that followed the merger of AOL and Time Warner. He was forced to declare bankruptcy in 2003 and spent his final years living in modest digs in Santa Monica.
“I’ve had a lot of ups and downs, haven’t I,” Adelson remarked to Variety in 2005.
To friends, Adelson was a Jay Gatsby-like figure. He never lost his drive for pursuing showbiz deals and entrepreneurial endeavors. He married one of the most famous women in the world, Barbara Walters, not once but twice in the 1980s. Even after his financial struggles in the 1990s and 2000s, Adelson retained the admiration of many of the future industry leaders who considered him a mentor.
“Merv was a wonderful classy guy who was a mentor,” said CBS Corp. president-CEO Leslie Moonves, who worked at Lorimar in the 1980s. “He was someone I wanted to be like. I looked up to him.”
Bruce Rosenblum, president of Legendary TV and Digital and chairman of the Television Academy, recalled Adelson as “a tremendous mentor to countless executives around town.” Adelson and his former Lorimar partner Lee Rich “built a phenomenal company and he will be dearly missed,” Rosenblum added.
Adelson came of age on the blue-collar side of Beverly Hills, the son of a Russian immigrant who owned a chain of grocery stores. He told tales of delivering groceries to the homes of stars such as Gary Cooper and Bette Davis.
In 1951, at age 22, Adelson borrowed $10,000 from his father to start the first 24-hour supermarket in the gambling boomtown of Las Vegas.
As the Tropicana and Stardust Hotels opened to glamorous crowds, Adelson struck up a partnership will a small-time real-estate developer, Irwin Molasky. The two built a residential development on the edge of the Desert Inn Golf Course, and reaped a tidy fortune. But when they went on to build a 55-bed hospital project, they ran out of money.
To make up the difference, they found an investor in Morris “Moe” Dalitz, who owned the Desert Inn. That was the first of his associations with mobster figures that would dog Adelson for the rest of his life.
After his success in Las Vegas, Adelson went on to other development projects, most notably the 6,000-acre La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, Calif., which opened in 1965.
But Adelson made his biggest fortune on the success of Lorimar, the production company he founded in 1968 with seasoned producer Rich. The name stemmed from a combination of the first names of Adelson’s wife, Lori, and Rich’s wife, Mary.
The company scored with the 1971 holiday TV movie “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story,” about a family struggling to survive the Depression in Virginia. The movie led to the CBS drama series “The Waltons,” which ran for 10 seasons and remains synonymous with wholesome family fare.
Among the many hit shows to stem from Lorimar were “Eight is Enough,” “Alf,” “Knots Landing,” “Falcon Crest,” “Full House” and the wildly popular primetime soap “Dallas.” “Dallas” became a worldwide sensation thanks to the cliffhanger of its 1980 season, which made “Who Shot J.R.?” part of the TV lexicon.
Lorimar by this time was far more successful in TV than some of Hollywood’s major studios, so much so that it went public in 1981 with the help of investment banking whiz Michael Milken.
Flush with its TV success, Lorimar expanded into film production by the late 1970s. It fielded notable titles including 1979’s “Being There” and 1982’s “An Officer and a Gentleman.” But a string of misses took a financial toll on the company. By 1986, Lorimar sought a merger with another well-heeled independent, Telepictures, which was fueled by the success of syndicated hits including “The People’s Court” and “Love Connection.” That same year, Rich departed Lorimar to become chairman-CEO of United Artists.
By 1988, Lorimar Telepictures was facing more financial trouble, after more troubles at the box office and a financial scandal in involving corruption and fraudulent reporting in the company’s home video division hammered the stock price. Warner Communications chief Steven Ross quietly proposed a merger that was worked out in a matter of weeks. The price tag: $1.2 billion.
After selling the company, Adelson was named vice chairman of Warner Bros. at the same time he launched a new firm, East-West Capital Associates with a $56 million investment from Warner Bros. Within a year, Warner Communications became wrapped up in another mega merger with Time Inc. Adelson left the studio in 1991. Amid all of the professional turbulence, Adelson was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer — the same disease that would claim his friend Ross in 1992.
Through East-West, Adelson invested in a host of tech firms and nascent Internet ventures. His portfolio ballooned and he was feted as an savvy investor and philanthropist. But when the Internet bubble burst, Adelson’s fortune plummeted. So did the value of the Time Warner shares that he held on to after the disastrous AOL-Time Warner union in 2000.
Among his last ventures was a music and home video project dubbed JammX Kids, designed to battle obesity among children by encouraging them to dance. Adelson worked his connections to get JammX Kids specials to air on the former WB Network and to set a home video distribution deal with Warner Bros.
Ever the showman, Adelson declared to Variety in 2005: “I’m having more fun now than I’ve ever had in my entire career.”
Among Adelson’s many other accomplishments was helping to launch the American Film Market, which was first based at La Costa before moving to Los Angeles. Adelson was a pioneer in the use of foreign pre-sales to help finance domestic film production.
Adelson was married four times, including two trips down the aisle with ABC News star Walters — first in 1981 for three years and again in 1986 for six years. He later married attorney Thea Nesis, with whom he adopted two daughters.
Pat Saperstein, Cynthia Littleton and Kathleen Sharp contributed to this report.