Pioneering TV exec dies; grew up in Southport recalled as 'snotty'
Published 7:53 am, Thursday, December 25, 2014
Brandon Stoddard, a television executive at ABC who grew up in Southport -- later calling it one of the "most snotty towns in the United States" -- and oversaw production of multipart dramas like "Roots" and "The Winds of War" that helped popularize the miniseries, died Monday at his Los Angeles home. He was 77.
The cause was cancer, his sister Cecily Stoddard Stranahan said.
Stoddard, born in Bridgeport, worked at ABC for two decades. He was director of daytime programming, ran the network's motion picture division and, from 1985 to 1989, served as president of ABC Entertainment, responsible for putting together the network's prime-time schedule. He built a reputation as a supporter of quality television, such as it was, bringing serious and occasionally controversial fare to a network that at the time was generally associated with featherweight shows like "Fantasy Island" and "The Love Boat."
Shows developed for the network while he was leader of the entertainment division -- including "Roseanne," "The Wonder Years" and "Thirtysomething" -- improved ABC's prime-time ratings, especially among younger viewers. For a time during his tenure, ABC climbed ahead of CBS into second place in the yearly ratings race.
Stoddard was born to Johnson and Constance Stoddard in Bridgeport on March 31, 1937, and grew up nearby in Fairfield's affluent Southport neighborhood -- "one of the single most snotty towns in the United States," Stoddard once called it. His father was a lawyer.
Young Brandon played guitar in a calypso band as a teenager, but he aspired to be an actor. He performed in plays at Deerfield Academy and at Yale, although he gave up the idea of acting professionally after an audition at an agency where, as he performed in a scene as a man dying, he realized none of the three potential agents was paying attention.
He served in the Army, made a brief and unhappy start at Columbia Law School and began his professional career in advertising, where he worked through the 1960s. In the early '70s, while he was head of ABC daytime programming, the network introduced "Schoolhouse Rock" and its "Afterschool Specials."
Stoddard's first marriage ended in divorce. In addition to his sister Cecily, he is survived by his wife, Mary Anne Dolan; another sister, Anne Patterson; two daughters, Alexandra Brandon Stoddard and Brooke Stoddard; and four grandchildren.
"He was entertaining," his sister Cecily said. "He was entertaining from the time he was 6."
It was in telling longer-form stories on TV that Stoddard had his biggest impact.
Television movies produced on his watch included the Emmy-winning "Friendly Fire" (1979), based on C.D.B. Bryan's book about the aftermath of the accidental death of a U.S. soldier in Vietnam, starring Carol Burnett and Ned Beatty; and "The Day After" (1983), a post-apocalyptic tale, conceived by Stoddard, about a small U.S. town in the wake of a nuclear blast. That movie, which starred Jason Robards, garnered an enormous audience and catalyzed a fierce political debate about America's nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union and the propriety of U.S. television's taking on such a potentially fear-inducing subject.
Although Stoddard, who was sometimes called the father of the miniseries, probably did more than anyone else to expand the archive of the genre, he did not invent it; "The Forsyte Saga," a BBC adaptation of works by John Galsworthy, appeared on British television in 1967 and on U.S. television in 1969.
"QB VII," based on the Leon Uris novel about a writer sued by a doctor he accused of collaborating with the Nazis, was broadcast by ABC in 1974 and is generally considered the first U.S.-produced miniseries. Stoddard had no hand in it, but he did bring several others to the air to great acclaim and ratings success, starting with "Rich Man, Poor Man" (1976), a tale of brothers with diverging fortunes (Peter Strauss and Nick Nolte) based on a novel by Irwin Shaw.
Those that followed included "The Thornbirds" (1983), about three generations of a family in the Australian outback; "The Winds of War" (1983), based on Herman Wouk's World War II novel; "Amerika" (1987), a follow-up of sorts to "The Day After," which posited what life would be like in America under Soviet rule, and "War and Remembrance," based on Wouk's sequel to "The Winds of War."
By far the most celebrated and influential of Stoddard's miniseries was "Roots," based on Alex Haley's novel tracing a black American family from Africa through slavery in America through liberation after the Civil War. It was broadcast over eight consecutive nights in 1977.
"The problem with `Roots' was there had never been on television a successful black drama," Stoddard recalled in a 2007 interview for the Archive of American Television. "We were scared no one would come to the party."
The series starred a young unknown actor, LeVar Burton, and other black actors, including Leslie Uggams and Ben Vereen. But Stoddard's strategy was to make sure to include familiar white faces -- like Lorne Greene of "Bonanza" fame -- in the marketing campaign. An advertising line -- "The triumph of an American family" -- was plastered on every promotion, and there were promotions almost daily beginning six months before the broadcast.
"When you're doing a miniseries, so much of it is about the promotion and the publicity and the advertising, because you've got one night to get them in the house," Stoddard said.
Still, advertising sales were slow, and an initial pre-broadcast review in Time magazine was lukewarm.
"I was absolutely terrified," Stoddard said.
Unnecessarily, it turned out. "Roots" earned ratings that flabbergasted Stoddard and other ABC executives; according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, 85 percent of U.S. homes with televisions watched all or part of the series.