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Don Ohlmeyer, Producer and Executive Who Helped Revive NBC in 1990s, Dies at 72

Don Ohlmeyer, a longtime producer and executive who helped lead NBC’s “Must-See TV” revival in the 1990s, died Sunday at his home in Palm Desert, Calif. He was 72.

Ohlmeyer’s death was announced by his longtime friend Al Michaels during the “Sunday Night Football” telecast on NBC. “He was truly special and one of a kind,” said Michaels. Ohlmeyer had a long run as a sports producer at ABC and NBC in the 1970s and ’80s before he moved to NBC as West Coast president in 1993.

Ohlmeyer was a famously tough boss but he brought a spirit of competitiveness to NBC in the early 1990s when the network was in the ratings basement. On his watch, NBC thrived with a fresh slate of hits that included “Friends,” “ER,” “Frasier,” “Mad About You,” “Seinfeld,” “Law & Order,” “Just Shoot Me” and “Will & Grace.”

Warren Littlefield, who served as entertainment president under Ohlmeyer, recalled his former boss as being “larger than life.”

“We didn’t always get along but I always respected him,” Littlefield told Variety. “I would battle lots of things creatively with him. But you can’t take away that NBC was a powerhouse of programming in his era. He deserves a deep bow for that.”

As a programmer and producer, Ohlmeyer was a natural leader who articulated a clear vision to his teams.

He was a populist. He was someone who subscribed to the big-tent theory of television,” said Preston Beckman, the former head of scheduling at NBC under Ohlmeyer. “He believed we should make shows that would bring as many people to the party as possible, and he was always trying to understand what it was that people wanted in their entertainment. He never wanted us to assume that we knew better or we were smarter than the audience.”

Beckman said NBC’s aura of invincibility in the 1990s was a direct result of Ohlmeyer’s leadership. “He was a big reason we had the swagger that we did in those years,” he recalled. “Don took pride in winning and winning big.”

Ohlmeyer was an unconventional choice for his NBC role. He made his mark in the 1970s as producer of ABC’s “Monday Night Football” and high-gloss event specials such as “Battle of the Network Stars.” He was a chain-smoker who eschewed suits and ties for khakis and loafers without socks. Working with entertainment president Warren Littlefield, he led a group of young executives who have since advanced to top leadership roles in the industry, including FX Networks chief John Landgraf, Showtime Networks CEO David Nevins and TNT/TBS head Kevin Reilly.

Don Ohlmeyer was a towering figure in sports and entertainment who had an indelible impact both on NBC and our industry,” said NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt. “His legacy will live on not only because he is directly responsible for some of the biggest hits in television — ‘Friends,’ ‘ER’ and ‘Will & Grace’ to name a few — but also because he brought NBC to a new level of classy, sophisticated programming of the highest quality which we all still aspire to achieve today.”

During his tenure at NBC, Ohlmeyer famously sparred publicly with Michael Ovitz, calling him “the antichrist” when then-Disney executive Ovitz recruited NBC executive Jamie Tarses as president of entertainment at ABC in 1996. He had a hard-charging lifestyle, and did a stint in rehab for alcohol abuse in 1996. 

A native of New Orleans who graduated from Notre Dame, Ohlmeyer entered in the business through sports, directing the 1972 Olympic Games for ABC and served as a producer on the Olympic Games in 1976. He then moved to NBC Sports for several years, then formed his own production company that focused on TV movies and sports specials. He produced such 1980s telepics as “Special Bulletin,” “Crime of Innocence” and “Bluffing It,” along with ABC’s “Crime of the Century” specials. He produced the 1987 Primetime Emmy Awards telecast.

Ohlmeyer briefly owned a 20% stake in ESPN through a deal struck in the 1980s when his Ohlmeyer Communications banner was backed by RJR Nabisco. He later cashed in the stake.

Ohlmeyer had been friends with O.J. Simpson through football circles, and defended his longtime friend when Simpson was charged with murder for the death of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman.

Ohlmeyer was famously critical of “Saturday Night Live” player Norm Macdonald and had him removed from the “Weekend Update” anchor slot. Macdonald maintained he was targeted for calling Simpson in murderer in “SNL” sketches about the murder trial. Ohlmeyer denied that he ever directed anyone to fire Macdonald and or longtime “SNL” writer Jim Downey over their Simpson material. Downey rejoined the show not long after Ohlmeyer left NBC after his contract expired in 1999. 

The executive mostly kept low profile after his NBC tenure ended. He returned as a producer for ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” for one season in 2000, as well as serving as ombudsman for ESPN from 2009-2011.

Ohlmeyer also taught television courses at Pepperdine University, and he took up painting later in life.

Survivors include his wife of many years, Linda Jonsson, four sons and nine grandchildren.

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