Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Marvin Himelfarb’s next chapter begins. Marvin Himelfarb is retiring from Fox News after nearly two decades of producing both TV and online programming. Before that he was a successful writer of iconic prime-time TV shows (Fantasy Island, Hart to Hart, Silver Spoons) and producer of trailers and other promotional content for Hollywood movies. And before that he ran a successful Washington D.C. ad agency. In his 53 years in media, he has been successful in just about every aspect of the business. He has worked with giants like Aaron Spelling, Steven Spielberg, Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes and me. Okay, I don’t really fit in with that list (yet!) but I did word Fox News for a couple of years — occasionally doing work for Marvin whose personality is even more whimsical than his name. Despite his good humor though, he’s a consummate professional who knows when to play things straight. 

Today (6/19) is Marvin’s last day at Fox. But to say he’s retiring isn’t accurate. In any event, I had the opportunity to speak with him and ask him some questions about his amazingly diverse media career.

JWK: You were born in Washington D.C. and from there made your way to Hollywood. How’d you get there?

MARVIN HIMELFARB: I took a plane. I can’t resist. Great story. It’s a good story. It’s a real success story. I had a very successful ad agency in Washington D.C. for 15-plus years. My partner was David Abramson. We started with really nothing and we built it up. Actually, let me back up a second. My first partner was Elliot Denniberg. Elliot and I started our own agency and then it morphed into Abramson-Himelfarb with David Abramson. David’s dead but I (still) talk to Elliot every day. We’re still best of friends. He went on to do a successful ad agency in Washington, as well. But I digress.

David and I had a very successful agency. One of the things I do and do best is commercials. I’ve won a lot of Clios which is the Oscars of the advertising world…I used a fellow named Richard Sanders in a commercial. He’s from Hollywood but he was doing a play in Washington, D.C. Richard said, after the commercial, if he ever can return the favor please let him know. Well, lo and behold, a year or so passes and Richard gets a starring role in a show called WKRP in Cincinnati. He writes me or we call. There was no email. This was like in 1640 or something…Ironically enough — I say “ironically” because I ended up in news — he (played) the news director. He’s a funny guy, a very clever guy. He said “I’m doing this show. If you want to write a story I’ll get it right to Hugh Wilson — who was an ad man himself — who created the show. I did and he sold it. Nothing happened with it but it was enough for me to see that I really had a talent for writing for TV.

I had been with the agency, again, for 15 years or so and it was time for a move. Fortunately, my wife at the time was all in favor of it. We went to LA and proceeded not to work for a year. I had a house and ex-wives and children and pools and everything. Again, another friend who I had worked with in Washington, David Landsberg — who at this point was being very successful in Hollywood with offices on the Burbank lot (which) at the time was part Columbia and part Warner Brothers. He and his partner Lorin Dreyfuss — who also happened to be Richard Dreyfuss’ brother — were a team of writers assigned to writing pilots. But, while you’re assigned, you’re on salary and they had to write for the shows that Columbia and Warner were doing. Two of them were Hart to Hart and Fantasy Island. They brought me on to be part of their writing team so they could concentrate more on the pilots and I would write for Hart to Hart and Fantasy Island. Talk about a lucky break! After almost going broke for a year, it was wonderful!

As you know, in Hollywood — and New York too — it’s the old overnight success story. All of a sudden, I was collecting $40,000 dollar checks and living the good life. It literally was practically overnight…As it turned out, working with David and Lorin, we became very close and we opened a company called Hot Spots, a production company on the side, with offices on Sunset…We were very successful with trailers and commercials for movies. Again, Hollywood loves success.

The very first one we did was a little movie called Police Academy. This is a landmark film and I’ll tell you why.  At the time (Warner) had no faith in the movie. Th worst time of year, at that point, was February to open a movie. It was an open (then) to get rid of it kind of thing. Well, it opened and it went through the roof! Eight Police Acadamies later it was still going through the roof!…The reason I say it changed everything (is because) all the other movie companies and movie producers looked at it and said “Maybe February’s not so bad.” Now, it’s really not. Now it almost a year-round business…We had a ball! We did everything.

We did a lot of trailers for Fox, as a matter of fact. Who’d know that years later I’d be at Fox News. I got to work with people like — here I go name dropping — Steven Spielberg. We did the trailers and the commercials for Back to the Future and stuff like that…It was probably the most fun — just pure fun — (while) making a lot of money that I’ve ever had in my life…We were on the list to come in an do stuff for Fox and Warner (and) everybody. It was just great. It bought me a beautiful home high in the hills. Then, after that, I moved to Malibu and (was) collecting $40,000 residual checks. It was incredible! I was paying off God knows how man ex-wives and my kids loved it! I have three kids — all very successful. It was great.

Then, living the good life, I get a call from a friend of mind — Clint Holmes — who has a show called New York at Night which was on Channel 9 but it was a super-powered station which is what they called it then. This was 1991. He said can you come out for a couple months and work on the show? I was having a great time. I still had the home in Malibu (but) I came out. Unfortunately — (because) it was a good show — it was cancelled at the end of the season.

JWK: It was a talk show?

MH: Yeah, a talk show. The idea was that it was like a late-night show but done at eight o’clock — for people who go to bed early. But it was typical — with the desk and the band and the couch and the whole thing. Word got around and we were having A-list guests. It was great. It was a lot of fun. Clint Holmes…is still a good friend.

So, I came in for three months and was about to go back when one of the producers that I worked with on Clint’s show said his dad was working with Roger Ailes to start a network called America’s Talking. I said at the time, you know, “That’s great.” He said “I told my dad you would do an interview.” I told “I’ll do it but, you know, I’m really going back to LA.” Well, I did the interview and it was incredible. I fell in love with it. It was with Chet Collier — who has since passed on — and Roger. And they hired me and I thought “I’ll do it for a little bit.” Then, a year later, the network closed down and (became) MSNBC. I think Bill Gates put up a lot of money and wanted a news network. We were all fired.

So, I’m going back (to California). I still haven’t sold the house in Malibu. (Then) I get a call from one of Roger’s people — this was in May of ’96 — that Roger has a job for you at a high-level start-up — there was nothing more to it — in July or August. So, I was getting severance from NBC. I figured “The hell with it. I’ll hang around New York, go to the theater, which I love, and see what happens in July. And I did — and that turned out to be Fox News. And here I am nineteen years later. Who knew it was going to be such a success? Roger did and Rupert Murdoch did.

Rupert Murdoch — and Roger too — it’s an amazing story. My grandchildren will read about it in the annuls of broadcasting history, along with Weavers and the Paleys (and) the people that invented The Today Show. It really will. I’m not exaggerating…(It was) against all odds. CNN was number one by so much. MS(NBC) had just come on the scene…Ted Turner (said) “We’ll bury Fox in six months.”

JWK: You’ve had success in just about aspect of the media — advertising, entertainment content and news. What have you enjoyed the most.

MH: No one’s ever asked me that before, John…Let me just sum it up by saying I’m really, really proud…looking back that I “made it” in three incredibly tough cities — Washington D.C., Hollywood, California and New York. I’ve been successful in all three cities. Not many people can say that.

Note: Marvin also told me that one of his biggest thrills was seeing his name on the credits as an episode of one of the shows he wrote began. So, Marvin, enjoy.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11