Award-winning producer-writer-director George Schlatter is a kind of P.T. Barnum of the small screen.
An innovative showman, the 81-year-old Schlatter turned the comedy genre on its head with the hip, groundbreaking series "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" (1968-73) and helped usher in the reality show format with "Real People" (1979-84).
But that's not all, folks. He also created the "American Comedy Awards," produced countless TV specials, including "A Party for Richard Pryor" and "Sinatra: 80 Years My Way," and earned more than a few honors for his work, including Emmys and Golden Globes.
He and the Rat Pack were buds. He made stars out of unknowns Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin and was fired from "The Judy Garland Show" after five episodes because he and CBS disagreed about his vision for the variety series.
He broke down color barriers. In fact, Schlatter, who was once a white greeter at an African-American club in Los Angeles, insisted in the 1950s that Sammy Davis Jr. be allowed to stay at the New Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas while performing there, which was unprecedented in the segregated resort town. Then in the 1960s he hired Mark Warren, whom Schlatter said was one of the first African-American TV directors.
In person, Schlatter's larger than life. A bear of a man with a ready smile, he has a hearty laugh and a big, booming melodic voice -- he sang for two seasons as a teenager at the St. Louis Municipal Opera. His Melrose Avenue office is grander than some apartments and covered ceiling to floor with photographs from his 60-year career.
Not surprisingly, he's a treasure trove of delicious stories, such as the time he persuaded then-presidential nominee Richard M. Nixon -- not known for his rollicking sense of humor -- to say one of "Laugh-In's" catchphrases, "Sock it to me," on the Sept. 16, 1968, episode. Nixon's cameo gave his campaign a huge boost by lightening his dark persona.
Schlatter noted that he wanted to do something big for the first show of the new season. The show's veteran writer, Paul Keyes, who wrote most of the material for the comedy team of Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, was a friend of Nixon's.
"Paul said, 'How about Richard Nixon?' I said it would be great if we could get him to say 'Sock it to me.' So they went over to CBS, where the Republican candidate was taping a news conference," Schlatter says. "All of Nixon's advisers were saying, 'You can't do this. It will ruin you." But Nixon agreed.
"I had to do six takes so he could say 'Sock it to me' and look happy," Schlatter says. "Congress had to send a special letter allowing us to avoid the equal-time provision on the guarantee that his appearance was nonpolitical and that it was also under 10 seconds. It was the first time Nixon was shown as a nice guy."
Schlatter even put together a pilot for NBC of an African-American version of "Laugh-In" titled "Soul," with Redd Foxx and Nipsey Russell. "Soul," Schlatter says, never made it to a series because NBC was "not ready for it. It was revolutionary."
Ron Simon, curator at Paley Center for Media, says Schlatter is "certainly one of the great television showman. He can bring together great ideas and talent and put on a great show. He is always very contemporary, but he has a great feeling and understanding of what has worked in show business history."
Schlatter paid his dues before becoming an innovative TV producer. "I was born with a wooden spoon in my mouth," he says, laughing.
He got his first big break in MCA's band and musical acts department, booking piano players. It was during his first week at MCA that he met Sinatra, who would become one of his closest friends and frequent collaborators.
"I was delivering mail," Schlatter recalls. "Suddenly, there was a commotion, and people came from all over because Sinatra was in the building."
The Chairman of the Board showed up at MCA once a year at contract-renewal time. "Sinatra came in, and they gave him his contract," Schlatter says. "He took the contract and said to me, 'Is this OK?' He handed it to me. I said, 'yeah.' He signed the contract, and he handed it back to me and said, 'I've got ties older than this guy.' The Sinatra relationship built from that meeting to when I did the eulogy at his funeral. He was an event."