“He was my brother.” Producer Tony Thomas remembered his longtime partner Paul Junger Witt as an extraordinarily talented producer who had great taste in material and an instinctive skill at pitching shows to network buyers.
Witt died Friday in Los Angeles at age 77 after a long battle with cancer.
“He was a lion — an absolute lion,” Thomas told Variety. “He was laser-brain smart and strong and believed in his convictions and would not be deterred. He had terrific taste and he knew how to tell a story extremely well. He was a great salesman. He knew how to find the right way to articulate to a given network what the show was and the elements that they would respond to.”
Witt and Thomas worked together for more than 45 years. From 1975 on, the two were partners in the prosperous Witt/Thomas Prods., which later expanded to Witt/Thomas/Harris Prods. when writer Susan Harris, Witt’s future wife and creator of “Golden Girls,” became a partner. The company was home to shows ranging from “Soap,” “Benson,” and “The Golden Girls” to “Blossom,” “Empty Nest,” and “Beauty and the Beast” as well as films including “Dead Poet’s Society” and “Three Kings.”
In the early 1990s, Witt/Thomas/Harris had no less than six comedy series airing across the Big Four networks.
“We were in a foxhole for 30-plus years trying to sell and make television shows. And we shared everything and knew everything about each other,” Thomas said. “We loved and laughed and cried a lot in those years. He was my brother.”
Witt and Thomas first met in the early 1970s. The two became partners as producers of more than a dozen TV movies. Their first project still ranks as one of the most lauded telepics of all time, 1971’s “Brian’s Song.” The movie starred James Caan and Billy Dee Williams in the story of two pro football players who bond after learning that Caan’s character has a terminal disease.
The success of “Brian’s Song,” which won the Emmy in 1972 for outstanding program, set the tone for their friendship and business partnership.
“We quoted that movie all of our lives. It epitomized the bond we’d created over the years,” Thomas said. “We sweated over every frame of that movie to make sure it was the best it could be because everyone in that movie was so good. That experience and that story was engraved in our brains. It really was the blueprint of our friendship.”
Stylistically, Witt, Thomas and Harris were always a good fit. Even as they worked together all week, the trio would often spend time together on weekends, said Thomas, who is the son of entertainer Danny Thomas.
“We were a family,” Thomas said. “I didn’t have a big brother. Paul truly was my big brother.”
(Pictured: “Brian’s Song”)