"Earth to Fred Silverman, Earth to Fred Silverman . . . Come home, Fred; much is forgiven . . ."
Buzzzz. "Yes?" "A Fred Silverman to see you, sir." Pause. "A Fred WHO?" . . .
"Do you know me? I was once a big executive at CBS, ABC and NBC. I brought you such wonderful shows as 'Sheriff Lobo,' 'Supertrain' and 'Pink Lady and Jeff.' Now, I can't even get Table Uno at The Palm . . ."
On a 102-degree, late-summer Los Angeles day, Fred Silverman appears at an Italian restaurant, looking defiantly chipper but highly out of place in a heavy, back-East, camel's hair jacket. He is a specter returned from the past, although the past in this case is only about a year ago, when Silverman was battling all creation as the besieged president of beleaguered NBC. Oh the ink that was lavished on his decline and fall! But now, long after his resignation, and after a few months of de-programming in Hawaii, Fred Silverman has bounced back. Kerplop.
Television is in his blood. And a lot of his is in its.
"I seriously believe that the next 10 years are going to be the best 10 years of my life," Silverman likes to say. He has always talked a good game. There are people at NBC who found him about as endearing as Qaddafi, and there are people elsewhere who think Fred Silverman, because he held key positions at all three networks, is single-handedly responsible for all that's wrong with television. But Silverman, 45, never forced anyone to watch the rotten hit programs he put on -- the public watched of its own volition -- and he also had more than his share of shows for which absolutely no apologies are necessary.
At CBS, he was instrumental in launching "All in the Family" and engendered "Kojak" and "Maude," among many others. At ABC, he had the brilliant idea of running "Roots" every night for one momentous week, and made television history. At NBC, he commissioned "Hill Street Blues," brought in talent like David Letterman and the "SCTV" gang, and laid the groundwork for "Fame."
Tonight marks his return to network television, this time as an independent producer. "Farrell for the People," a two-hour NBC movie at 9 on Channel 4, is the pilot for a projected series about a woman prosecuting attorney in the New York DA's office. The film is tight, engrossing and serious. Part of its plot concerns a murder case against an ex-con whose cause had been championed by a pugnacious novelist -- a situation obviously inspired by newspaper accounts of the Jack Abbott-Norman Mailer story.
The film also marks the return of Valerie Harper, who plays the tenacious Liz Farrell, enough of a feminist to bark at a cop, "Excuse me there -- my name's not 'Honey.' " Unfortunately, the trimmed-down Harper still seems a tad emaciated on the screen, and although she's supposed to be a no-nonsense dynamo, in every shot she looks as though she just walked out of intensive care at Elizabeth Arden. She's all done up.
There's plenty of Beverly Hills shrink talk in the script about feelings and caring and caring about your feelings, too. But "Farrell for the People" is still good solid television, and its treatment of urban racial tensions is almost in the neighborhood of "Hill Street."
Silverman, whose company's previous few tries at prime-time pilots never made it to air, is pleased with the show. He grins, he beams, he enthuses as in days of yore, when he held court with his tape cassettes on the sixth floor of the RCA Building. A TV critic once received a postcard saying, "If I read one more word about Fred Silverman, I am going to vomit," but the reason for all the space Silverman got was that he was always so much more fun to visit, and write about, than other network executives. He was, in some crinkled, unguarded, jelly-doughnut way, real. Whether victor or vanquished, Silverman remained, until the last bitter days at NBC, an accessible and infectious performer himself. He was good company -- rascal, operator, high-wire act, a video age's Barnum. He hated being called "rumpled" ("Do I look rumpled to you?" he will still ask), but those rumples may have served to certify him human.
What has Fred Silverman been doing? Sulking and dreaming of 40 shares long gone? No. He has started his own production company, InterMedia Entertainment; he's getting $64 million together to launch MagiCable, a new 24-hour, advertiser-supported information and entertainment cable network; he developed and is peddling a syndicated late-night show hosted by Canadian TV personality Alan Thicke; and he conducted a 30-hour seminar at his alma mater, Syracuse University, the results of which may one day be published in book form.
Silverman claims he doesn't miss the hurly-burly of running a network at all. "I can't tell you how wonderful it is to be away from it," he says over a two-martini lunch. "I was in a network executive's office the other day when the overnights came in. Everybody was hysterical. It felt so good to be on the sidelines and not have to look at those numbers."
But he isn't really on the sidelines. He'd go crazy on the sidelines. And he still has his opinions about the business, still likes to kibbitz about TV. This is some of what he is saying these days:
* Cable TV will be a $2 billion business by 1990 (it's a $1 billion business now), the three-networks' share of the total viewing audience will fall even faster than predicted, and the most fascinating subject in TV now is not what's coming from cable, but what the networks will do to ensure their own survival.
* He never misses a chance to watch "ABC News Nightline," and thinks Roone Arledge erred in not simply expanding Ted Koppel's show, rather than adding a new news hour ("The Last Word") to follow "Nightline" starting Oct. 26. The "CBS Morning News" is a bomb, but anchorman Bill Kurtis "is going to be very, very big at CBS News in the next two or three years" anyway.
* It was no mistake for Silverman to keep moving "Hill Street Blues" around the schedule, as has been charged, because that got the show "sampled" by millions of people who helped make it a hit.
* New NBC chairman Grant Tinker's first-year speeches are "almost beat-for-beat" the same kind of speeches Silverman made in his first year. "It's funny," Silverman says, "but it's also a little spooky." A much-ridiculed Silverman speech to affiliates in which he promised them better times by the following Christmas was made to boost affiliate morale, Silverman says, and to prevent defections to other networks by as many as 12 affiliates then considering a move. "That was no time to make a laid-back speech. Sometimes you have to do what seems right at the moment."
* NBC will probably move "Fame" to Friday nights to save it, because it makes a poor 8 o'clock leadoff for its Thursday lineup now. Silverman calls "Fame" a "very moral show" for the values it imparts about hard work and striving. He says the new season presents a "classic case" or two of a junky show competing with a quality show: "Fame" vs. "Joanie Loves Chachi" (Silverman says even his own two kids will probably opt for the latter) and "Cheers" vs. "Too Close for Comfort," a battle the worthless "Comfort" appears to be winning.
During his Elba period, Silverman traveled to Tokyo where, he recalls, laughing, he appeared on a talk show with a male and female host. "It was like a situation comedy," he says. "They had me in a studio where it was at least a hundred degrees, and at one point the woman turns to me and asks me, on the air, 'Do you always sweat this much?' It was the first time in my life I had absolutely no idea what to say."
Silverman said he considered suing reporter Sally Bedell over an alleged slew of inaccuracies in her book about him, "Up the Tube," but decided not to because it would have taken up too much of his time. As for the suggestion that he write The Silverman Version himself, he says, "Not now. It would sound like sour grapes, and it might hurt a lot of people. I'd rather wait 10 years; then the NBC thing will just be one chapter instead of the whole story." His reentry may include interview appearances with Barbara Walters, David Letterman or Phil Donahue, he says; he's not a coward with the press, as some network nabobs are.
Now Silverman has bought a house in Powder Ridge, N.Y. -- "the first house I ever owned and when I see a mouse in it, I can say, 'That's my mouse, that's a Silverman mouse' " -- and, as always and ever, he is trying to lose 25 pounds and give up smoking. But he eats a large lunch and smokes at least six Merits. Or Salems. Or -- well, they were cigarettes anyway. That's what they were.
When Silverman started at CBS as daytime programming chief in 1970, wunderest of all the wunderkinds in TV history, prime-time shows that got at least a 30 percent share of the viewing audience were considered safe. Times have changed, and now a 24 share is break-even. Silverman sighs. "God," he says, smiling and wincing both, "why couldn't it have been that way a couple of years ago? I'd be a hero now."
A few days after lunch, Fred Silverman is spotted again. He is driving his white Eldorado around the parking lot at CBS Studio Center in the Valley, over the hill from Hollywood. He is wearing another heavy sport coat, this one a wool tweed, and he says he can't wait to get back to New York, which operates on the same insane tempo he does. Then, poking his head out the window, he asks, "Could you use your influence to get me a parking space around here?" It is a joke, but there is some poignance to it.