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James Thomas Aubrey, Jr. (December 14, 1918—September 3, 1994) was an American television and film executive. President of the CBS Television Network during the early 1960s, he put on the air some of television's most enduring series, including Gilligan's Island and The Beverly Hillbillies. Under Aubrey, CBS dominated American television in the way General Motors and General Electric dominated their industries. The New York Times Magazine in 1964 called Aubrey "a master of programming whose divinations led to successes that are breathtaking."
However, Aubrey's abrasive personality and oversized ego—"Picture Machiavelli and Karl Rove at a University of Colorado football recruiting party" wrote Variety in 2004—led to his firing from CBS when charges surfaced he was favoring producers who had given him bribes and was plotting to take over the network's parent company to remove his bosses. "The circumstances rivaled the best of C.B.S. adventure or mystery shows," declared The New York Times in its front-page story on his firing, which came on "the sunniest Sunday in February" 1965. After five years as an independent producer, Aubrey was hired by financier Kirk Kerkorian to preside over Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's near-total shutdown in the 1970s, during which he slashed the budget and alienated producers and directors. Aubrey resigned from MGM declaring his job was done and then vanished into almost total obscurity for last two decades of his life.
Hollywood executive Sherry Lansing, a close friend of Aubrey's for two decades, told The Los Angeles Times in 1986 "Jim is different. He does his own dirty work. Jim is one of those people who are willing to say, 'I didn't like your movie.' Directness is disarming to people who are used to sugar-coating. It's tough for people who need approval to see somebody who doesn't. Myths and legends begin to surround that kind of person."
Born in La Salle, Illinois, Aubrey was the eldest of four sons of James Thomas Aubrey, Sr., an advertising executive with the Chicago firm of Aubrey, Moore, and Wallace, and his wife, the former Mildred Stever. He grew up in the tony Chicago suburb of Lake Forest and attended Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. He attended Princeton University and was a star on the football team, playing left end. He graduated in 1941 with honors in English and entered the United States Army Air Force. He rose to the rank of major during World War II. While in the Air Force, he taught actor James Stewart how to fly.
After the war he went to Los Angeles, California, where he initially sold advertising for the Street and Smith and Condé Nast magazine companies. His first broadcasting job was as a salesman at the Columbia Broadcasting System's radio station in Los Angeles, KNX-AM, and within two years rose to be the network's West Coast television programming chief. In that capacity he put Have Gun, Will Travel on the air. Aubrey was promoted to manager of all television network programs, based in California, until he went to ABC in 1956.
On December 16, 1956, American Broadcasting Company president Oliver Treyz announced Aubrey would immediately become the network's head of programming and talent. (Treyz also said Aubrey would be proposed as a corporate vice-president at the next annual meeting.) ABC, the weakest of the three networks, was then a perennial also-ran with a weak roster of affiliates and programs, something comparable to Fox circa 1988. Aubrey told the Los Angeles Times in 1986 "I went because [ABC chairman] Leonard Goldenson in effect said, 'Look, I don't know that much about TV, I'm a lawyer.' And he let me have autonomy."
As vice president in charge of programs (a title he gained before March 1957), he brought to the air what he recalled as "wild, sexy, lively stuff, things that had never been done before", shows such as Maverick, a western with James Garner, and 77 Sunset Strip, a detective show with Efrem Zimbalist Jr. Aubrey also scheduled The Donna Reed Show, a domestic comedy, and The Real McCoys, a rural comedy with Walter Brennan. Despite his success at ABC, Aubrey saw a limited future at the network and asked to return to CBS, doing so on April 28, 1958, initially as assistant to CBS, Inc. president Frank Stanton. (Thomas W. Moore would take his old ABC job.) Aubrey was made vice president for creative services in April 1959, replacing Louis G. Cowan, who was promoted to network president.
Aubrey was promoted to executive vice president on June 1, 1959, a newly created position that was the number two post at the network. His responsibilities, network president Cowan told The New York Times would be "general supervision of all CBS Television Network departments." On December 8, 1959, Cowan resigned, having been damaged from his connection to the quiz show scandals. (He created the show The $64,000 Question and owned the company which produced it for the network, though Cowan denied he knew anything about the rigging of the program.) Cowan's letter of resignation to Stanton declared "you have made it impossible for me to continue." Aubrey was named president the same day and elected to the board of directors on December 9.
President of CBS
During his five years running the CBS Network, Aubrey made it tremendously successful, substantially increasing ratings and doubling the company's profits. In the 1963-1964 season, all twelve of the top day-time programs and fourteen of the top fifteen prime-time shows were on CBS—the lone exception in the evening was NBC's Bonanza, ranked number two. His formula was characterized as "broads, bosoms, and fun," resulting in such shows as The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan's Island, despised by the critics—and CBS chairman William S. Paley—but extremely popular with viewers. Aubrey said in 1986:
- I'd gone to CBS, and I'd become convinced Beverly Hillbillies was going to work. Bill Paley wasn't convinced. Bill has this great sense of propriety. Putting aside the Sarnoffs and all the other great names of broadcasting, Paley stood—stands—head and shoulders above everyone else. He had this blasting genius of instinctively looking at a show and knowing if it should be on the air. He could also be ruthless and distant. . . But Bill was intuitive about both the business and creative sides of TV. And he genuinely disliked Beverly Hillbillies. I put it on the schedule anyway.
CBS's dominance was so great that when the fall schedules were announced, ABC and NBC would wait until CBS announced its plans, effectively making Aubrey programmer for all three networks. CBS had great success with rural-themed programs such as the Hillbillies, The Andy Griffith Show, Mr. Ed, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction. Yet another CBS hit Paley hated was The Munsters.
"The hucksters' huckster," David Halberstam labeled him, "whose greatest legacy to television was a program called The Beverly Hillbillies, a series so demented and tasteless that it boggles the mind, depicting as it did, in the words of Murray Kempton, 'a confrontation of the characters of John Steinbeck with the environment of Spyros Skouras.'" While Aubrey had a great feel for what would be successful with viewers, he had nothing but contempt for them. "The American public is something I fly over," he said.
In 1962, a United States Senate committee investigating juvenile delinquency held hearings on sex on television and called executives from the three networks. The chairman, Senator Thomas J. Dodd (D-Connecticut), blasted "an unmistakable pattern" and informed the executives "you all seem to use the same terminology—to think alike—and to jam this stuff down the people's throat." Dodd accused Aubrey of putting "prurient sex" in the CBS program Route 66 and confronted him with the "bosoms, broads, and fun" quotation from a memorandum by a CBS executive. Aubrey denied saying the phrase.
When Spyros Skouras, the chairman of Twentieth Century Fox, was forced out in July 1962, Aubrey was widely mentioned to be his successor, but he openly denied he had any intention of leaving CBS.
Aubrey was a controlling man and a workaholic, working twelve-hour days, six days a week. He was endlessly reading scripts, watching episodes, and ordering changes such as dictating scenes be reshot or changes made in the furniture and dressing of a set. His actions at CBS created much resentment and meant when his superiors moved to fire him, he had no base of support to rely upon.
Murray Kempton said Aubrey "was the fourth president of CBS as Caligula was the fourth of the twelve Caesars" and his treachery led the producer John Houseman to dub him "The Smiling Cobra." Houseman in public was less direct. In December 1962, CBS announced it was spending $250,000 an episode on Houseman's hour-long drama on American history for the next season, The Great Adventure. However on July 25, 1963, CBS announced Houseman had resigned. The producer told The New York Times "The kind of show they want is not what I wanted to produce" but attributed his departure to a simple difference of opinion, the Times reporter stating Houseman "expressed no crticism of C.B.S."
In Only You, Dick Daring!, his humorous but yet damning account of the five and a half months he spent trying to make a show with CBS for the 1963-1964 television season, writer Merle Miller wrote of how Aubrey would simply walk out of meetings without offering any substantive comments on Miller's program. Miller was assured by other CBS executives that Aubrey's silence meant things were fine, but Miller later learned of efforts by Aubrey to force him out. (A pilot for the show, know as Calhoun and County Agent, to star Jackie Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, was shot and put on the fall schedule, but the series was cancelled before it ever aired.) Miller quoted an independent producer: "Aubrey's the most important man in television, in the history of television, maybe in the history of entertainment. He out-Mayers Louis B. Mayer ten times over."
Aubrey's outsize reputation—beaming smile, dapper dress, endless womanizing—inspired characters in Keefe Brasselle's The CanniBalS, Harold Pinter's The Inheritors, and Jacqueline Susann's The Love Machine; Aubrey is network executive Robin Stone in Susann's novel. The New York Times Magazine would describe him as "6-foot 2-inch with an incandescent smile" with "unrevealing polar blue eyes."
Aubrey's success went to his head and he became even more arrogant. He was abusive to the network's affiliates, advertisers, and talent. The treatment of Jack Benny was typical.
Aubrey first rescheduled Benny's series without consulting the star. Benny, a good friend of Paley's who had been with CBS since 1948, objected to his new lead-in for the 1963-1964 season, Petticoat Junction. (His lead-in had been comedian Red Skelton.) Then in the summer of 1963, Aubrey told Benny his show would not be renewed at the end of the forthcoming season, Aubrey having deciding Benny out of step with current tastes and no longer relevant. Benny took his show to NBC, his home before 1948, where it was soon cancelled, proving Aubrey's point if not his tactics.
The star of CBS's Life With Lucy also had problems with the network president. "Lucille Ball couldn't say his name without calling him a S.O.B.," Stanton said.
Big successes at CBS
Aubrey, who on May 9, 1963 warned the network's affiliates the high cost of rights for professional sports could price them off television, nevertheless in January 1964 agreed to pay $28.2 million to air the games of the National Football League for two years, seventeen games each season. "We know how much these games mean to the viewing audience, our affiliated stations, and the nation's advertisers," Aubrey told The New York Times. In April, he agreed to extend the deal for another year for a total of $31.8 million.
In the spring of 1964, The New York Times Magazine declared CBS "for the 10th year in a row . . . was the undisputed champion of the television networks." The Times quoted an analyst who said CBS was "almost comparable to what General Motors did in autos or what General Electric [did] in electrical equipment."
Aubrey fought constantly with officials of CBS News, especially its chief, Fred W. Friendly. Friendly felt Aubrey was insufficiently concerned with public affairs and in his memoir, Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control recounts budget meetings at CBS where Aubrey would talk of how much money the news was costing the company. However, Paley supported the news and protected Friendly's division from Aubrey's proposed budget cuts. In 1964, CBS Reports, a news program, was blamed in the press for the sharp drop off in the ratings of The Beverly Hillbillies—the comedy had been number one in its first two seasons, but dropped to eighteenth when CBS Reports became its lead-in for its third season. CBS responded by moving CBS Reports to Mondays.
Charges of bribes
In April 1964, charges were printed in a celebrity scandal sheet that Aubrey was taking kickbacks from producers. The Federal Communications Commission made inquiries and CBS learned that despite his $264,000 annual salary from the company, Aubrey's car and apartment were paid for by Filmways, the producer of the Hillbillies, Green Acres, Mr. Ed, and other CBS programs. (The apartment on Manhattan's Central Park South was owned by Martin Ransohoff, the head of Filmways.) While not illegal, CBS had not known of Aubrey's ties to the production company.
More troubling were the charges of favoritism in purchasing programs. Aubrey's friend Keefe Brasselle, who had bit parts in several movies in the 1940's and 1950's, had no experience as a producer. CBS executives were also concerned by allegations Brasselle had ties to the Mafia. Nevertheless, Aubrey scheduled three shows from Brasselle's Richelieu Productions for the 1964-1965 season, all without pilots, even today an almost unheard of practice. (The shows were The Baileys of Balboa, a sitcom with Paul Ford; the newspaper drama The Reporter; and The Cara Williams Show, a sitcom starring red-head Williams, billed as the next Lucille Ball.) Costs skyrocked on Brasselle's shows and all three bombed.
Takeover proposals and Aubrey's firing
In late 1964, Aubrey approached Stanton with a proposal. Claiming he had investors lined-up and ready to buy the company, Aubrey said once in control, they would fire Paley, install Stanton as chairman, and promote Aubrey to Stanton's post, CBS corporate president. This did not come to pass, but Aubrey's contempt for his boss William S. Paley knew no bounds, Aubrey even showing his disregard for Paley in public. "Aubrey was torpedoed at last," wrote The New York Times Magazine, "by a combination of his imperiousness, the ratings drop, and a vivid afterhours life culminating in a raucuous Miami Beach party—details of which no one ever agrees on—the weekend he was fired."
Paley ordered Stanton to fire Aubrey and he did so on February 27, 1965, though the announcement delayed until the following afternoon, a Sunday. Stanton's statement declared:
- Jim Aubrey's outstanding accomplishment during his tenure as head of the C.B.S. television network need no elaboration. His extraordinary record speaks for itself.
Aubrey's successor was announced as John A. Schneider, the general manager of WCBS-TV in New York City, who had no experience in network television. Aubrey was so despondent at losing his job Stanton feared he would kill himself. Wall Street took the news badly as well: CBS stock plunged nine points over the following week. "I don't pretend to be any saint. If anyone wants to indict me for liking pretty girls, I'm guilty," Aubrey said. Aubrey continued to be a CBS employee until April 20.
Jack Gould, television critic for The New York Times, wrote two days after Aubrey's dismissal that Aubrey
- symbolized an era in television that has been and is too much rooted in calcuated and insensitive preoccupation with making more money this year than last. . . . Automated situation comedies that wooed the young and did not drive away the old were the mainstay of his philosophy and they paid off.
Aubrey's marriage to Phyllis Thaxter, an actress signed to MGM in the 1940s, ended in divorce in 1963 (they wed in 1944) because of his work and his "liking pretty girls"—one he was frequently seen with when he went to MGM was actress Raquel Welch. They had two children, James Watson Aubrey (born January 5, 1953) and Susan Schuyler "Skye" Aubrey (born circa 1946).
Aubrey, who left CBS with $2.5 million in network stock, moved to the Sunset Strip and set up a production company. His attorney, Gregson Bautzer, in 1967 tried to buy the American Broadcasting Company for another client, Howard Hughes. Aubrey was to have run ABC after the takeover but the reclusive Hughes refused to testify in person before the Federal Communications Commission, which had to approve the purchase. Consequently, the deal collapsed.
In 1967, Aubrey signed a two-year contract to produce films for Columbia Pictures. Despite being frequently rumored as a candidate for many posts in the entertainment industry, Aubrey told Vincent Canby of The New York Times he had "no desire ever again to become involved in the corporate side of the entertainment business." His first project was an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith book.
Picked to run MGM
Aubrey resurfaced when Las Vegas businessman Kirk Kerkorian bought Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for the first time. They had been introduced by attorney Gregson Bautzer, who represented both men. Aubrey was Kerkorian's third choice after Herb Jaffe of United Artists and independent producer Mike Frankovich both declined the post.
Aubrey was named president and CEO on October 21, 1969, replacing the fired Louis F. Polk, Jr. Aubrey received a salary of $4,000 a week, but had no contract. He said in 1986 "I wanted Kirk to be able to say, `Get lost, Jim,' without obligation if it didn't work." Like most of the big studios in the 1960's, MGM was struggling and Kerkorian said his new president would bring the company back roaring back to its former glory. Instead, Aubrey presided over a bloodbath, bringing the payroll down from 6,200 employees to 1,200. Aubrey eliminated hundreds of jobs when he relocated corporate headquarters from New York City to Culver City.
Aubrey ordered the sale of MGM's historic collection of costumes and props such as the Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz and the suit Spencer Tracy wore in Inherit the Wind. (It was bought by one of the defense attorneys defending Charles Manson, who regularly wore it to court.) The studio's Culver City backlot was sold to developers. Aubrey literally threw the company's valuable archives into the trash and brought production to a standstill. Aubrey announced plans for faster and cheaper movies, none of which would have a budget above $1 million, but the studio proved you get what you pay for when many of these inexpensive films bombed with critics and audiences. (One success was the Richard Roundtree film Shaft which cost $1 million and sold $12 million worth of tickets.) Aubrey did cut the company's debt from $80 million to $22 million with his moves. Agent Sue Mengers said he was a very tough dealmaker. "I'd rather go to bed with him than negotiate with him."
Aubrey again took a hands-on approach to MGM's products, personally ordering cuts on films. The New York Times Magazine wrote "Aubrey's heavy involvement with every creative detail of MGM's pictures far surpassed his immersal in CBS's scripts." After he made edits to the film Going Home starring Robert Mitchum, its director, Herbert Leonard, protested publicly. "He unilaterally and arbitrarily raped the picture," he told Time in 1971. Director Blake Edwards was incensed by changes Aubrey made to his film The Wild Rovers with William Holden, telling The New York Times Magazine "Cuts? He doesn't know as much as a first-year cinema student. He cut the heart right out of it." Television producer Bruce Geller, who created Mission: Impossible, had his name removed from the credits of his first film, Corky, because "It's not my picture any more." The producer of the film Chandler, Michael S. Laughlin, and its director, Paul Magwood, took out a full page ad, bordered in black, in the trade papers declaring
- Regarding what was our film Chandler, let's give credit where credit is due. We sadly acknowledge that all editing, post-production as well as additional scenes were executed by James T. Aubrey Jr. We are sorry.
Laughlin told Time "You just can't deal with Aubrey. He realizes that litigation can be a great expense, and that because of legal delays the film will have disappeared long before your case comes to court."
In 1973, Aubrey announced his resignation, declaring "The job I agreed to undertake has been accomplished." Kerkorian was named as his successor on October 31. Time Magazine declared "Under Aubrey, MGM churned out profitable, medium-budget schlock like Skyjacked (which featured his daughter Skye Aubrey) and Black Belly of the Tarantula; directors often charged him with philistine meddling, and he alienated many of them" but "as a financial auteur, Aubrey may have deserved an Oscar."
Aubrey and Sherry Lansing, who entered the movie business as a script reader at MGM under Aubrey, were struck by a car while crossing Wilshire Boulevard in the mid-1970s. Both were badly hurt and Lansing had to use crutches for a year and a half. Aubrey nursed her back to health. "He came every day. He would say, 'You're not going to limp.' My own mother and father couldn't have given me more support," she told Variety in 2004.
Aubrey became an independent producer. He produced ten films, none memorable. His greatest success was a television movie featuring the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders—"broads, bosoms, and fun" once more. In the mid-1980s, he was chairman of Entermark, a production company backed by wealthy Texans, including former Governor John Connally, which made low-budget films. To publicize this venture, he granted a rare interview to the Los Angeles Times in 1986. Reporter Paul Rosenfield found him unrepetant:
- Aubrey doesn't deny that he shoots from the hip, in a style that can unhinge the fragile egos of show business. "If I was in the tire business," reasoned Aubrey, "I wouldn't be hurt if the customer didn't buy my tires. I'd think, 'So what?' But in my business, if I don't buy the script, then the writer kicks the dog and beats his wife. So you learn to pay attention to personal relationships. But that doesn't mean you lie to people. I've been the screwer and the screwee, and I know which is better. It's better to be the screwer, and it's very difficult to do that with honesty, but it's how I prefer to be treated. I don't want power now, or authority, so I suppose my candor can't hurt me.
New York Post gossip columnist Liz Smith reported this profile of Aubrey had led to rumors he would again return to head CBS after Paley was forced out in 1986 when Lawrence Tisch acquired the network.
He died of a heart attack in Los Angeles in 1994, largely forgotten, and was buried in Los Angeles's Westwood Memorial Park . His marker there identifies him as "A Man Among Men." His daughter is writing a biography of her father, Variety reported in the summer of 2004.
- Val Adams. "Benny to Return to N.B.C. Network". The New York Times. September 26, 1963. 71. (Aubrey and Benny's dispute)
- Val Adams. "C.B.S. Ousts Aubrey as TV President: Unexplained Move Stuns Industry—Post Goes to John A. Schneider". The New York Times. March 1, 1965. 1.
- Val Adams. "C.B.S. Relents: Ignores Own Warning on Spiraling Costs". The New York Times. April 26, 1964. X17. (Three year NFL deal)
- Val Adams. "C.B.S.-TV to Pay $28.2 Million For 2-Year Pro Football Rights". The New York Times. January 25, 1964. 1. (CBS buys NFL game rights)
- Val Adams. "Head of C.B.S.-TV Quits in Dispute". The New York Times. December 9, 1959. 1. (Aubrey appointed CBS president)
- Val Adams. "New C.B.S. Series to Lose Houseman". The New York Times. July 26, 1963. 53. (Houseman leaves the new series, six months after it was announced)
- Val Adams. "Second Sponsor to Drop Winchell". The New York Times. December 17, 1956. 42. (Aubrey goes to ABC)
- Associated Press. "Networks Offer Definition of Sex." The New York Times. May 12, 1962. 51. (Congressional hearings; Aubrey confronted with 'bosoms' quotation)
- "Aubrey of C.B.S. Discounts Rumors He Will Head Fox". The New York Times. July 21, 1962. 11.
- Peter Bart. Fade Out: The Scandalous Final Days of MGM. New York: William Morrow, 1990. ISBN 0688084605.
- Vincent Canby. "Aubrey to Make Columbia Films: Ex-Head of C.B.S.-TV Signs as Producer for 2 Years." The New York Times. June 24, 1967. 18.
- Burt A. Folkart. "James Aubrey Jr., Former Head of CBS and MGM, Dies". Los Angeles Times. September 11, 1994. 1.
- Jack Gould. "A.B.C. Plans New TV Format For Its 'Arrest and Trial' Show". The New York Times. December 26, 1962. 5. (Aubrey and Houseman working together)
- Jack Gould. "TV: In the Wake of Aubrey's Dismissal by C.B.S." The New York Times. March 2, 1965. 71. (Cites obsession with money and ratings)
- A. Grossman. "The Smiling Cobra". Variety VLife. June-July 2004. 68-73, 78. (Profile of Aubrey)
- David Halberstam. The Powers That Be. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979. ISBN 0394503813 (About CBS and other media companies)
- "James T. Aubrey". Current Biography. March 1972.
- Robert Metz. CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye. Chicago: Playboy Press, 1975. ISBN 087223407X
- Martin Kasindorf. "How now, Dick Daring?". The New York Times Magazine. September 10, 1972. 54+. (Aubrey at MGM)
- "The Lion and the Cobra". Time Magazine. November 12, 1973. 110+. (Aubrey leaves MGM)
- Merle Miller. Only You, Dick Daring! Or, How to Write One Television Script and Make $50,000,000: A True-life Adventure. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1964.
- Eric Pace. "James Aubrey Jr., 75, TV and film executive". The New York Times. September 12, 1994. D10.
- "Princeton Confers 624 Degrees Today". The New York Times. June 17, 1941. 19. (Aubrey's graduation)
- "The Return of Smiling Jim". Time Magazine. October 31, 1969. 80. (Aubrey becomes MGM chief)
- Leonard Wallace Robinson. "After the Yankees What?: A TV Drama". The New York Times Magazine. November 15, 1964. 44+
- Paul Rosenfield. "Aubrey: A Lion in Winter". Los Angeles Times. April 27, 1986. Calendar Magazine, 1.
- Richard F. Shepard. "C.B.S.-TV Names No. 2 Executive". The New York Times. May 23, 1959. 49. (Aubrey becomes CBS vice president)
- Robert Slater. This . . . Is CBS: A Chronicle of Sixty Years. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1988. ISBN 0139192344
- Liz Smith. "Hot TV Rumor: Return of the 'Smiling Cobra'". San Francisco Chronicle. May 9, 1986. 81.
- Sally Bedell Smith. In All His Glory : The Life of William S. Paley, the Legendary Tycoon and His Brilliant Circle. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990. ISBN 0671617354
- "Uprising at MGM". Time Magazine. December 27, 1971. 49. (Producers and directors unhappy with Aubrey's cuts to their films)
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