Being a vice-president within a network or an executive producer at the world’s largest television production company isn’t exactly your run-of-the-mill career. But when you couple that with being the first black to do either, well… you come up with Stan Robertson, executive producer, who has been closely involved with such productions as Columbo, The Bold Ones, The Senators, and Harris & Company, the first black dramatic television series. ROUTES interviewed the prolific Robertson, a native of Los Angeles, to find out what the Hollywood experience is like.
ROUTES: How did you get started working in television?
Stan: It wasn’t easy. I began as a page with NBC after I graduated from the University of Southern California in 1957 with a degree in Telecommunications. I was only the third black page hired by the company. And man, was I put through the wringer! At that time, I sought employment at ABC and CBS, too. At ABC, the personnel manager told me, “If we hired you, we’d have to get another colored person so you’d have somebody to talk to.” That ended that. CBS wouldn’t even speak to me.
Well, I got the job at NBC after we had looked each other up and down for a while. I worked as a page on the ill-fated Nat King Cole Show. That was the first show, in my memory, ever to feature a black artist.
After that, I worked in the mail room. It was a bit strange. Nobody would even talk to me or take mail directly from my hands.
My first real break came when I moved into the program department. Grant Tinker, who is married to Mary Tyler Moore, was then head of the department for NBC on the West Coast. He really was a great help. However, for the first six months, I was told just to sit and watch productions in order to further acquaint myself with the medium.
Fortunately, Herb Schlosser and Julius Goodman, former NBC presidents, also helped me along the way. In 1965, I was named Manager of Film Programs, and successively, I was elected Vice-President for Movies-Made-for-Television, VicePresident of Current Programs and finally Vice-President of Motion Pictures and Mini-Series, before I was hired by Universal in 1976. Subsequently, I discovered that NBC had had to call in some liberal producers such as Gene Roddenberry, who produced Star Trek, and David Victor and Doug Minton, who produced Dr. Kildare, because so many others refused to work with me.
ROUTES: Do you think it’s more difficult for a black to make it in television management?
Stan: I can’t prove it. But if you look at who is there, you can draw your own conclusions. At the network level, to my knowledge, ABC has only Ron Taylor, VP of Current Programming and Stan Myles, Director of Dramatic Program Development; at NBC, since the departure of Peter Andrews, NBC’s former Vice-President of Special Projects on the East Coast, there’s Phyllis Tucker, Manager of Current Programs and Hamilton Cloud, an administrator in the movie department; CBS, doesn’t have anybody.
ROUTES: What are your present responsibilities?
Stan: I’m an executive producer with Universal Television. My job is to create, develop and produce movies for television, mini-series and regular television series.
ROUTES: What are some of the shows you’ve worked on that have personally been the most satisfying?
Stan: The whole Harris & Company experience encompassed for me both the high and low points of my career. The concept for the show was my own. Peter Andrews and I sat down about two years ago and kicked the idea around. I then took the project from its embryonic stages to a film with my name on it.
However, it was an extremely frustrating experience, after all the love and care that went into the show from everybody involved, to see NBC throw it away.
ROUTES: What Happened?
Stan: We originally made a pilot entitled Love Is Not Enough, which was shot in October 1977. Peter and I tested it all over the country. NBC did 27 pilots that season. Ours rated the highest for a new television series. So we felt sure we were on the air.
But I got a call from Universal saying NBC didn’t want to put us on the schedule, though they did commit themselves to do four episodes. I wasn’t worried because we were still in the game, and I had confidence in the show.
ROUTES: You seem to be saying that taking this show off the air without giving it a fair chance meant more than taking, let’s say, a situation comedy off the air?
Stan: That’s right, you take the first black family dramatic show off, and how many more are you going to get? Some people say that ABC is shooting a pilot with Lou Gossett in which he plays a head doctor in an inner city hospital and that CBS is developing a series for James Earl Jones in which he plays a detective. Of course, I hope they get on the air. But there are two things to think about. First, they aren’t family oriented shows. Neither could play in the family hour time slot. Second, both of these shows are presided over by white producers. These shows are white interpretations of what black people are about. Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin have gotten rich off telling you what they think the black experience is. Between them, they produce Good Times, The Jefferson’s, Different Strokes and What’s Happening?
I dare them to say these shows represent the total black experience in America.
ROUTES: Can whites write as sensitively on black issues as blacks can?
Stan: No, I don’t think so. Obviously, any technically proficient writer can produce a script with a clear beginning, middle and end, along with the dialogue. And I don’t want to say that blacks should just write black scripts and whites write white scripts. But a black writer familiar with the black lifestyle remains less likely to commit unconscious inaccuracies in his portrayal. For instance, Love Is Not Enough, first draft — written by a white writer — portrayed kids singing spirituals riding across country, and a supposedly responsible father [Mike Harris], allowing his daughter to hang out all night without even knowing where she was. One of the things that really piqued me was when the writer depicted Mike making a play for a woman after his wife had just died.
I mean, if I were constructing a script on Polish people, I’d have to get to know their customs and investigate how they live and what their habits are.
ROUTES: How did your early family life contribute to the development of your career?
Stan: My mother had a job in Los Angeles for many years working as a personal maid in the film business. She worked for Joan Crawford and Everett Riskin, who produced Here Comes Mr. Jordan, the movie Heaven Can Wait is based on. When I was small, my mom used to take me on visits to where she worked. That was how I was exposed to good books, theatre, movies, etc. The Riskins had a son, now the producer of The Duke of Hazards, and when the family took him to concerts and movies, they took me also. The father encouraged me to write. He was my original inspiration.
Another important influence was that I grew up in a warm, wonderful family atmosphere — big church dinners, bible school in the summer and that sort of thing. It was drudgery then, but in retrospect, I wouldn’t trade it for any other upbringing because it helped me to develop a sense of discipline and responsibility. And though times were tough, people were happy. I’m not talking about the Norman Lear Good Times happy either.
ROUTES: What projects are you working on now?
Stan: At present, I’m developing on a movie on Roberto Clemente and another pilot, depicting several social strata of people in a Midwestern city.