November 29, 2018

A TV Life

NBC executive Tom Sarnoff ’43 looks back on his star-studded career
by Katie Fiermonti

When Tom Sarnoff ’43 was just four years old, he made his TV debut at the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) studio in New York City. Company executives wanted to show Sarnoff’s father, the visionary founder of RCA/NBC, David Sarnoff, the new live studio and snuck his young son into the building.

“They told him he would maybe see some dancing girls on the monitor,” laughs Sarnoff. “But out I stepped and surprised him. I said, ‘Hello, Daddy,’ and that was the start of live television. They didn’t pick up my contract though.”

Though Sarnoff’s longtime broadcasting career turned out to be behind the camera, he still had the opportunity to hobnob with famous celebrities of the era, including Bob Hope, Elvis Presley, and Danny Kaye. But it may have been Sarnoff’s association with a small, green clay figure that provided his most lasting legacy. 

just-gumby.jpg#asset:56691

“I made the deal for Gumby 63 years ago,” says Sarnoff, now known as the “Godfather of Gumby.” “There wasn’t anything like it at the time. Art Clokey had created a film called Gumbasia. He showed it to me, and I was fascinated. I got New York to order a short series and it took off.” 

Before Gumby was ever a verdant glint in his eye, Sarnoff was absorbing the educational opportunities afforded him by Andover and by his family’s work in the burgeoning media industry.

Following his two older brothers, Robert ’35 (who succeeded his father as chairman of RCA) and Edward ’38, Sarnoff attended Andover and “loved it.” One of his most vivid memories was of an after-school fight, which he lost, and a friend who stuck up for him. “Only one guy was on my side. That guy came up to me after and said, ‘You got in a lot of good shots.’” That friend was legendary actor Jack Lemmon; the two went on to become close friends. 

After Andover, Sarnoff attended Princeton University then left to serve as a combat engineer during World War II and a Signal Corps instructor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. 

After his military service, Sarnoff finished his undergraduate degree at Stanford University and then began his rise through the ranks of such broadcast titans as ABC, MGM Studios, and NBC’s West Coast division. In 1969, he was named president of NBC Entertainment Corporation.

I don't think anyone ever accomplishes all they set out to do, but I am satisfied and happy with my life.

Tom Sarnoff ’43

[footnote]

Sarnoff negotiated all of the Elvis TV specials and movie for NBC. Despite his reputation, The King of Rock and Roll was always and very respectful around Tom Sarnoff '43. "No matter how many times we met, he always called me "Mr. Sarnoff" even though I told him to call me "Tom."

Sarnoff and Elvis in April, 1968.

In these roles, Sarnoff had the opportunity to meet and work with many luminaries. He negotiated contracts with Bob Hope and worked with Elvis Presley’s flamboyant, cigar-smoking manager “Colonel” Tom Parker on all of the NBC Elvis specials from 1968.

Sarnoff left NBC in 1977 to create a series of live arena touring shows. He formed Sarnoff Entertainment Corporation in 1981 and produced TVmovies into the 1990s. Still working at age 91, Sarnoff says he has plans to develop a new Gumby movie. 

After raising three children with his wife Janyce, Sarnoff is enjoying semi-retirement and his nine grandchildren. He’s also taken the time to reflect on his life and work. 

“I had a successful career, I made a lot of good friends, and, most of all, I married a wonderful woman and raised three great children. I don't think anyone ever accomplishes all they set out to do, but I am satisfied and happy with my life.” 

Taking a page from his little green friend, Sarnoff says he identifies with Gumby’s slogan: “Always leave a place better than when you found it.” 

“I can't say that that was my mission,” Sarnoff says, “but I do feel that I have made some important contributions.”

Sarnoff called Bob Hope "the smartest performer I ever met."
Categories: Alumni, Magazine

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