By Ben Grossman -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/23/2005 8:00:00 PM
Bringing the NFL back to NBC was a coup, even for a man with Dick Ebersol's unique credentials. But, for Ebersol, this was more than just another acquisition: He finalized the deal in April, just after returning to work following a plane crash that took the life of his 14-year-old son, Teddy, and left Ebersol bedridden for months.
“It was emotionally just a sweet way to come back into the business,” he says. “It was a great way to come back from the most sad and horrible part of my life.”
For a man whose first job in sports was to make athletes look empathetic, little did Ebersol know that, nearly 40 years later, the sports and entertainment world would be picking him up in his time of need. “My wife and I received just over 4,000 letters, I don't know how many thousands of cards, 16,000 e-mails,” he says of the accident's aftermath. “The embrace of the industry was unbelievable.”
No doubt that outpouring was because of the lives Ebersol has touched over the years. He started at ABC Sports, picking up work while he was a high school student in France. Near the end of his sophomore year at Yale, a letter came out of the blue asking him to interview for a job as an Olympics researcher. Landing the job, Ebersol roamed the U.S. and Western Europe, putting together mini-bios on Olympic athletes that showed the human side of these heroes.
He worked through both the summer and winter Games in 1968, including the now-legendary Mexico City Olympics, famous for the raised fists of black American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos. After graduating from Yale, Ebersol became an assistant to a man who would have an unrivaled influence on his career: the late Roone Arledge.
“Roone was far and away the most original thinker I ever met in network television; he could go into a control room and out-produce anybody,” Ebersol says with unabashed awe. “The number of young people he educated is legion today among the leaders of television.”
Ebersol worked at ABC until 1974, when then-NBC CEO Herb Schlosser offered him an opportunity he couldn't pass up. Johnny Carson wanted the weekend repeats of The Tonight Show taken off the air, and NBC needed a replacement show. Ebersol got the new title of director of weekend late night programming and introduced Schlosser to a young Canadian by the name of Lorne Michaels, who had some thoughts about a sketch-comedy show. In October of the following year, Saturday Night Live was born. Just 28, Ebersol was NBC's first VP under the age of 30. He's 58 now.
Ebersol would stay with SNL until 1976, when he left for Los Angeles to become head of comedy, variety and specials for the network. He was pushed out by then-NBC President Fred Silverman in 1979, over what Ebersol calls “a difference of opinion.” But by 1981, Ebersol was persuaded to return to SNL by the late Brandon Tartikoff, who was once Ebersol's assistant. His return brought about another life-altering encounter.
“The second host that I had was an actress I didn't know named Susan St. James,” he says. “I went to her hotel to meet with her, and within five minutes, we were crazy about each other. We were dating by the end of the week and married six weeks after.”
His secret in landing the actress? “She says that I wore some pretty sexy leather pants to that first meeting, but I don't remember,” he says with a laugh.
At the time, Ebersol also formed a production company that would develop Friday Night Videos, Saturday Night's Main Event and Later With Bob Costas. He left SNL again in 1985 and devoted his time to the company, called No Sleep Productions, before returning to NBC in 1989 as both president of NBC Sports and senior VP of NBC News.
While Ebersol has been involved in the TV production of virtually every major sporting event in the country, 1995 sticks out as a high point in his career. Ebersol, over a series of four months, embraced his Olympics background by securing two deals for NBC to broadcast the Olympics from 2000 all the way through 2008, a groundbreaking achievement. “Those represent to me the great innovative deals of my career,” says Ebersol, who credits NBC Universal Television Networks Group President Randy Falco as well.
For a man who has been involved in everything from the creation of an iconoclastic show to the building of a television sports empire, it's the Olympics that still excite him the most. “If there's anything that is the center of my career both creatively and emotionally, it's the Olympics,” he says. “It's the only thing left I literally produce myself, and if I didn't, I think I probably would have moved on by now.”
NBC now has extended its Olympics arrangement until 2012, when Ebersol's contract ends and when he says he'll step out of the production truck for the last time. He and his wife will split time between Martha's Vineyard and Colorado. And after last year's tragedy, he will do so with a new perspective.
“I will never be cynical again about people,” Ebersol says. “You learn at a time like that just how loving and caring people can be.”
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