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Perry Lafferty, 87; ushered in iconic CBS shows

LOS ANGELES -- Perry Lafferty, a network executive whose reputation in the television industry was as stellar as the landmark CBS shows that he brought to the small screen in the 1970s, including ''All in the Family" and ''M*A*S*H," has died. He was 87.

Mr. Lafferty died of prostate cancer Aug. 25 at his home in the Los Angeles area, his family said.

His peers considered him among the last of a breed -- a network executive who came up through the ranks, beginning with producing radio shows before moving over to TV to produce early drama anthologies.

''Perry was a hip father confessor who wasn't looking down from the mount," said Larry Gelbart, who co-created ''M*A*S*H" and wrote many episodes of the comedy that aired on CBS from 1972 to 1983.

''You could say the network was beating up on you, and he acted as a very benign and positive kind of chief justice," Gelbart said.

Mr. Lafferty was ''as good an executive as I've ever worked with," said Fred Silverman, who was in charge of entertainment programming at CBS and president of NBC when Mr. Lafferty worked there. ''He had great taste, good instincts -- and a sense of humor."

During Mr. Lafferty's 11-year reign as head of West Coast programming at CBS, he brought ''quite a lineup" to the air, Silverman said, including such early 1970s shows as ''The Mary Tyler Moore Show," ''The Waltons" and ''Maude." The network was consistently number one in the ratings.

Putting the groundbreaking ''All in the Family" on CBS in 1971 -- a comedy unafraid of dealing with issues such as racism or drugs head-on -- ''was like putting a toe in the water to see how far we could go," Mr. Lafferty told Newsday in 2000.

In 1979, he went to NBC as a senior vice president of West Coast programs and talent, and during the early 1980s was in charge of the network's movies and miniseries.

''He was that unique individual who was a great executive," Silverman said. ''He believed in hiring good people and letting them do their thing."

At NBC, Mr. Lafferty's proudest achievement was ''An Early Frost," a 1985 Emmy-winning TV movie that he developed and produced. It tells the fictional story of a small-town couple's discovery that their son, played by Aidan Quinn, is dying of AIDS.

In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, TV executives deemed middle-class heterosexual America unready for dramas that confronted AIDS, Mr. Lafferty told the Los Angeles Times in 1991.

The disease had been the focus of only a couple of television shows, including a 1983 ''St. Elsewhere" episode on NBC. ''An Early Frost" went through 13 rewrites before it finally won approval from the NBC standards and practices department.

''It took a long time to get a script that wasn't a lecture on AIDS," Mr. Lafferty said.

Perry Francis Lafferty was born on Oct. 3, 1917, in Davenport, Iowa, and given his mother's last name, Perry, as his first. His father was an executive at the Red Jacket Manufacturing Co., a family business started in the late 1800s that made water pumps.

As a child, Mr. Lafferty listened to the radio for the music -- he was a proficient piano player by age 9 -- but began tuning in for the live soap operas and dramas. He earned a certificate in music in 1938 from Yale University, with an emphasis in Gershwin and Bach, his son, Steven, said.

After heading to New York City to work in radio, Mr. Lafferty married Fran Carden, a radio actress, in 1943. During World War II, he served in the Army Air Forces and produced live performances and radio shows for the troops.

When television arrived, he produced and directed such dramatic anthologies as ''Studio One" for CBS and ''Robert Montgomery Presents" for NBC.

After producing variety series for Arthur Godfrey and Andy Williams, he produced ''The Danny Kaye Show," an Emmy-winning series that premiered in 1963 and got him hired in programming at CBS.

''In a world that operates at least 50 percent on fear, he was very confident," Gelbart recalled. ''He had the strength of his convictions, and yours."

In ''Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of 'The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,' " a documentary that aired on Bravo in 2002, Mr. Lafferty confronted the controversy that dogged the irreverent variety show that was topical and sometimes in bad taste.

Of the ongoing fights with the censors, Mr. Lafferty recalled telling Tom Smothers, ''The harder you push, the harder (CBS is going to) push back -- and they're bigger than you are." (CBS abruptly canceled the show in 1969, and ABC picked it up for the summer of 1970.)

After retiring from television, Mr. Lafferty began writing mystery novels, including ''Jablonski of L.A." (1991), the first of two whodunits he wrote that featured retired FBI agent Jack Jablonski, and an aviation thriller ''The Downing of Flight Six-Heavy" (1992) that drew on Mr. Lafferty's experience as a pilot.

It was ''no surprise," The Associated Press review said, that the 1991 book read much like a TV movie.

Mr. Lafferty's wife of 56 years died in 1999.

In addition to his son, Steven, who is an agent at Creative Artists Agency, Mr. Lafferty leaves a daughter, Marcy, an actress-writer-producer who lives in Lexington, Ky.; and two grandchildren.

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