Robert Precht, Producer of ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ Dies at 93

Robert Precht, who for more than a decade produced “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the influential Sunday night variety extravaganza that for 23 years brought singers, comedians, rock bands, jugglers, animal acts and the Italian mouse puppet Topo Gigio into the living rooms of millions of viewers, died on Nov. 26 at his home in Missoula, Mont. He was 93.

His death was confirmed by his daughter Margo Precht Speciale, the producer of an upcoming documentary about Mr. Sullivan.

Mr. Precht joined the Sullivan show as its associate producer in 1958, 10 years after the program made its debut as “The Toast of the Town.” He became producer two years later, replacing Marlo Lewis, and was eventually named executive producer.

Mr. Precht arrived too late for Elvis Presley’s electrifying appearances in 1956 and 1957. But he was in charge when the Beatles performed on the show in 1964, first in New York and then in Florida. And when the Beatles performed at Shea Stadium in Queens in August 1965, Mr. Precht filmed the concert for a documentary for Mr. Sullivan’s production company.

“This is probably the most fantastic television operation I’ve gotten into,” he told The Daily News of New York a day before the concert. “We’ll have 11 cameras in the ballpark, but there’ll be no chance for rehearsal or for checking our sound system. And with 55,000 people liable to do anything, we don’t know what will happen.”

The Beatles were the most important act on the Sullivan show during Mr. Precht’s tenure. But as the producer, he knew that he could not rely on the rare megastar to fill an hour every week, and that he had to cast widely for talent, famous and obscure, to keep the masses watching.

“It would be easy to book the show without ever leaving the office,” he wrote in an article for The Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester, N.Y., in 1961. But, he said, members of his staff saw every Broadway show and went to nightclubs, concerts and films in search of acts to book.

“Because there’s no type of act we won’t use,” Mr. Precht added, “there’s no place we won’t scout for talent.”

In 1964, Mr. Sullivan accused the comedian Jackie Mason of making an obscene gesture on camera during his monologue. Mr. Mason said he was reacting to Mr. Sullivan, who was standing out of camera range holding up two fingers and then one to indicate how many minutes were left for his routine. Upset, Mr. Mason held up his own fingers and told the audience, “Here’s a finger for you, and a finger for you, and a finger for you.”

Mr. Sulivan was convinced that one of those gestures was obscene. He canceled Mr. Mason’s six-show, $45,000 contract and refused to pay him for the performance. Mr. Precht confronted Mr. Mason as he left the stage to tell him he was fired.

Mr. Mason sued Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Precht for $3 million in damages in New York State Supreme Court; an appellate judge ruled that Mr. Mason’s gestures had not been obscene. In 1966, Mr. Mason returned as a guest.

Mr. Precht recognized that “The Ed Sullivan Show” stood out among all the other variety shows on television.

“I don’t know if another variety show will ever have the appeal and impact of the Sullivan show,” he told The Missoulian, a newspaper in Missoula, in 1990, almost two decades after the show had left the air. “It’s hard for me to think of someone dying to get home on a Sunday night to watch a variety show.”

Robert Henry Precht Jr. was born on May 12, 1930, in Douglas, Ariz., and moved with his parents to San Diego when he was about 12. His father was an ironworker. His mother, Agnes (Branagh) Precht, was a homemaker and a Red Cross volunteer.

Mr. Precht made news in 1949 when, as a sophomore at the University of California, Los Angeles, he was voted a “great lover” by his fellow students, which earned him the right to escort Elizabeth Taylor to the school’s junior prom. It was part of the promotion for the Bob Hope film “The Great Lover.”

After transferring to the University of California, Berkeley, Mr. Precht received a bachelor’s degree in international relations in 1952. That same year, he married Elizabeth Sullivan, known as Betty. She died in 2014.

He spent four years in the Navy after graduating and then began working in television — first as an assistant producer of the children’s show “Winky Dink and You” and then as an associate producer of “The Verdict Is Yours,” which presented dramatized versions of real trials.

In 1959, shortly after he began working for his father-in-law, Mr. Precht produced “Ed Sullivan’s Invitation to Moscow,” a special that brought the Sunday night vaudeville formula to the Soviet Union. That program, which coincided with the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to the United States, won a Peabody Award.

Andrew Solt, whose company, Sofa Entertainment, acquired the Sullivan archive, containing more than 1,000 hours of programming, from the family in 1990, said that Mr. Precht modernized the show.

“He brought the perspective of a new generation; he focused on the music, and the bookings were top notch,” Mr. Solt said in a phone interview. “One of the reasons it was so easy to watch was that they never had the same set twice. He made it state of the art.”

“The Ed Sullivan Show” was canceled in 1971. Mr. Precht spent the next 20 years largely producing music and awards shows, including the 50th- and 60th-anniversary celebrations of the Grand Ole Opry and the annual Country Music Association Awards.

Mr. Precht had begun buying cable television systems with Mr. Sullivan in 1967. After Mr. Sullivan’s death in 1974, he also began to acquire TV stations.

In addition to his daughter Ms. Speciale, Mr. Precht is survived by another daughter, Carla Precht; two sons, Robert and Vincent; and six grandchildren. His son Andrew died in 1995.

The success of the Beatles and other rock groups on the Sullivan show created a problem for Mr. Precht, The New York Times reported in late 1964: too many screaming teenagers in the audience, who created “an hourlong din that distracts other performers and mars the audio portion of the show.”

In one instance, the comedian Alan King appeared to be annoyed during his routine by the screeching that carried over from a performance by the Dave Clark Five.

Mr. Precht told The Times that the “whole show is being colored by the kids’ reaction,” and that he was trying to find out how so many teenagers got tickets to the theater. One measure to change the audio mix, he said, was to “turn down the microphones that pick up audience reaction in order to reduce the din going out on the air.”

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