William Self, 89; produced hit TV shows for Fox, CBS

With “M*A*S*H,” “none of us wanted to make ‘McHale’s Navy’ over again . . . We wanted there to be people that died — this was a war zone.” — William Self. With “M*A*S*H,” “none of us wanted to make ‘McHale’s Navy’ over again . . . We wanted there to be people that died — this was a war zone.” — William Self.
By William Grimes
New York Times / November 22, 2010

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NEW YORK — William Self, a prolific producer who brought a long list of successful shows to television — “Daniel Boone,’’ “Peyton Place,’’ “Batman,’’ and “M*A*S*H’’ among them — died last Monday of a heart attack in Los Angeles. He was 89.

Mr. Self, like many other struggling actors in the 1940s, discovered that Hollywood can be a tough place to make a living, but unlike most of the competition, he played a top-class game of tennis that nourished relationships with the likes of studio boss Jack Warner and Charlie Chaplin.

A steady diet of small roles in good films — he made five movies with John Wayne, most of them directed by Howard Hawks, and five films with Spencer Tracy — and good contacts made on the tennis court led to a fast start as a television producer.

After overseeing the anthology series “The Schlitz Playhouse of Stars’’ in the early 1950s, he took executive positions at CBS-TV and 20th Century-Fox Television, where he developed or oversaw some of the most successful and prestigious shows on TV. He also produced the pilot episode of “The Twilight Zone.’’

He left Fox in the mid-1970s to form his own company with Mike Frankovich, which produced motion pictures and television shows. The partners produced the film “The Shootist’’ with John Wayne. Mr. Self later returned to CBS, where he produced miniseries and films.

William Edwin Self was born on June 21, 1921, in Dayton, Ohio. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Chicago in 1943, he worked briefly as an advertising copywriter and then went to Los Angeles to try his luck as an actor.

Tennis-court networking led to a small part in the 1945 film “The Story of G.I. Joe.’’ As Private Cookie Henderson, he died early. Many such parts followed. Tracy, dispensing fatherly wisdom, advised the young actor, who had a family to support, to seek his fortune elsewhere in the business.

When the Schlitz Brewing Co. decided that it wanted to begin filming its anthology series, “Schlitz Playhouse of Stars,’’ in Los Angeles, Mr. Self’s father, who placed advertising for the company, mentioned his son, who was hired as producer. Using stories bought from magazines, Mr. Self turned out 208 half-hour episodes over four years, attracting actors such as James Dean, Anthony Quinn, Edmond O’Brien, and Vera Miles.

After signing with William Morris, Mr. Self found himself producing “The Frank Sinatra Show,’’ an unmitigated disaster with no particular format and minimal interest shown by the star. It limped to an early demise after one season, and Mr. Self began producing pilots at CBS, where he produced “Where Is Everybody?’’ which became the first episode of “The Twilight Zone.’’

In 1959, Mr. Self jumped to 20th Century-Fox Television, where he took charge of “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis’’ and brought a long list of successful shows to television, transforming Fox into a leading supplier of programming to the networks. In 1968 he was named president.

In 1964, two of his series became hits: “Daniel Boone,’’ with Fess Parker; and the first prime-time soap opera, “Peyton Place,’’ which became a star vehicle for Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal and rose to number one in the ratings.

When ABC came to Mr. Self with a request for a series based on a comic book, he responded with “Batman,’’ one of the quirkiest and, initially, least promising shows ever to reach network television.

The arch concept and tongue-in-cheek dialogue sailed over the heads of audiences at the show’s disastrous test screenings, but prospects improved after a narrator was added and the action was punctuated with cartoon-style “Pows!’’ and “Bams!’’ to tip off the audience that the show was a comedy.

Mr. Self later produced “Julia,’’ the first series with a black actor, Diahann Carroll, as a star. At Fox, he also produced “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,’’ “Room 222,’’ “12 O’Clock High,’’ “Lost in Space,’’ “Nanny and the Professor,’’ and “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.’’

Mr. Self decided that “M*A*S*H’’ could be a television series immediately after seeing the film, but he faced obstacles. Fox’s film division planned a sequel, “MASH Goes to Maine.’’ Fred Silverman, the head of programming at CBS, told Mr. Self that the film could not be translated to television because it depended on nudity, profanity, and an unacceptable level of irreverence.

In the end, Mr. Self prevailed. After Larry Gelbart was hired as a writer and Gene Reynolds was brought on to produce and direct, the show, which was first broadcast in 1972, became one of the most acclaimed and daring series in television history.

“None of us wanted to make ‘McHale’s Navy’ over again,’’ Mr. Self said in a 2001 interview with the Archive of American Television. “We wanted it to have some substance. We wanted there to be people that died — this was a war zone.’’

At CBS, Mr. Self produced nearly 50 television films and several miniseries each year, including “The Blue and the Gray’’ (1982), a Civil War drama that won four prime-time Emmys. In 1982 he was named to run the company’s theatrical motion picture division. After CBS decided to get out of the movie business, he formed William Self Productions to develop films and television shows.

He made several dramas for the Hallmark Hall of Fame, some in partnership with Norman Rosemont and, with Glenn Close, “Sarah, Plain and Tall’’ (1991) and its sequel “Sarah, Plain and Tall: Winter’s End’’ (1999).