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OBITUARIES : STANLEY ROBERTSON, 1925 - 2011

Pioneering TV executive

Stanley Robertson broke color barriers as he rose through NBC's network television ranks in the 1960s and '70s.

December 07, 2011|Dennis McLellan
  • Stanley Robertson became NBC's first black vice president in 1971.
Stanley Robertson became NBC's first black vice president in 1971. (Los Angeles Times )

Stanley Robertson, who broke color barriers as a pioneering black network television program executive at NBC in the 1960s and '70s and later as a movie studio production executive, has died. He was 85.

Robertson, who had been in poor health recently, died Nov. 16 of an apparent heart attack at his Bel-Air home, said his wife, Ruby.

An associate editor at Ebony magazine before quitting in 1954 to study telecommunications, Robertson launched his television career as a page at NBC in Burbank after graduating from USC in 1957.

Rising through the network's music library and music rights department, he became NBC's manager of film program operations on the West Coast in 1965. In that role, Robertson oversaw the network's prime-time filmed series, including "Star Trek," "The Name of the Game" and Bill Cosby's 1969 sitcom "The Bill Cosby Show."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, December 08, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Stanley Robertson: The obituary of TV and movie executive Stanley Robertson in the Dec. 7 LATExtra section said that a celebration of his life would be held Monday. It will be held the following Monday, Dec. 19, at 11 a.m. at the Courtyard by Marriott, 6333 Bristol Parkway, Culver City.

In 1970, Robertson was appointed to NBC's newly established executive position of director of motion pictures for television on the West Coast. A year later, he became NBC's first black vice president when he was promoted to vice president of motion pictures for television.

Describing Robertson as "a tall, lean scholarly man in his mid-40s," Times TV critic Cecil Smith wrote in 1970: "That Robertson is black and the first member of his race to achieve high echelon executive rank in television is to him singularly unimportant."

"I was around before they knew what tokenism was," Robertson told Smith.

On Monday, Cosby told The Times: "What I love about Stan is right now ... I see a spirit that is still fighting -- fighting those who are racists, who still have the power, who still manipulate TV, the movies.

"I will not tell you the things that happened to us when we walked into offices of people who were racist in Hollywood and who knew how to stall your engines. And they had learned how to speak softly and close the door gently and then make the angry calls. And for this, I felt the disrespect -- we both did -- from those individuals," Cosby said.

Herb Schlosser, who headed NBC's West Coast program department before becoming president and chief executive in the '70s, recalled that TV "was just beginning to open up to black actors, not very much to directors, and there weren't very many black executives.

"In that sense, Stanley was a pioneer. What he had was he was easy to work with, and he had a very good story sense. He had the goods; he was not token."

Schlosser, who promoted Robertson to vice president, said "he made a contribution not just to NBC but to the quality of some of the shows. This was really a good guy not just in ability; he was really a lovely human being, sensitive, kind and knowledgeable."

Robertson left NBC in 1976 and became a contract writer and producer at Universal. At the studio, he developed and executive produced the short-lived NBC show "Harris and Company," the first weekly dramatic series about a black family, starring Bernie Casey as a blue-collar widower with five children.

After Robertson was named vice president of production at Columbia Pictures in 1984, a Times article called him "Hollywood's only black production executive." At Columbia, he supervised a minority hiring program.

Robertson launched his own production company, Jilcris Inc., in 1988 and had a production deal at Universal and later at Paramount.

He was executive producer of "Ghost Dad," a 1990 comedy starring Cosby. He and Cosby also executive produced "Men of Honor," a 2000 biographical drama starring Robert De Niro and Cuba Gooding Jr.

The only child of working-class parents, Robertson was born with partial blindness Nov. 20, 1925, in Los Angeles.

Robertson attended the California School for the Blind in Berkeley and John H. Francis Polytechnic High School in L.A. He then studied journalism at Los Angeles City College and after graduating in 1949 worked as a reporter for two years at the Los Angeles Sentinel before becoming the paper's managing editor.

Although Robertson underwent 14 major eye operations by the time he was 20, he still had limited vision and was unable to drive.

"What Stan Robertson was about was overcoming problems and situations in the industry and in his personal life," said television producer George E. Crosby, who was mentored by Robertson. "He was a very giving person with his knowledge and his expertise. He was just a man of integrity and a man who fought for inclusion."

In addition to Ruby, his wife of 58 years, Robertson is survived by his children, Jill and Christopher.

A celebration of his life will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at the Courtyard by Marriott, 6333 Bristol Parkway, Culver City.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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