Douglas Cramer, producer of TV hits and art aficionado, dies at 89

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Douglas Cramer, producer of TV hits and art aficionado, dies at 89
Douglas S. Cramer produced "Dynasty" in partnership with Aaron Spelling.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Douglas S. Cramer, who produced some of the most successful television shows of the 20th century, many — including “The Love Boat” and “Dynasty” — in partnership with Aaron Spelling, and who used his substantial wealth to become a leading art collector, died on Friday at his home on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. He was 89.

His husband, Hubert Bush, said the cause was kidney failure.

Cramer had a long career in television, producing or helping to develop shows including “Peyton Place” in the 1960s, “The Odd Couple” in the 1970s and “Hotel” in the 1980s. In the 1990s he produced a string of television movies based on novels by Danielle Steel.

Today, television producing credits are handed out for a variety of reasons, and those given them often have little direct involvement in the show. But in Cramer’s day the producer was often more like a film director, shaping the cast and look of a series.

“I was very hands-on,” Cramer said in an oral history recorded in 2009 for the Television Academy Foundation. “There was nothing I wasn’t involved with. I worried about every performer, every extra, every piece of clothing.”

Cramer joined forces with Spelling, the most prolific American television producer of the era, in the mid-1970s. “The Love Boat,” which they produced jointly, ran for 250 episodes beginning in 1977 and had a vast, eclectic list of guest stars that reflected Cramer’s connections and interests — Andy Warhol turned up in a 1985 episode, playing himself.

If that series was a cultural reference point, “Dynasty” was the type of show that helps define a decade. A prime-time soap opera about a rich oil family, the Carrington clan — Blake (John Forsythe), Krystle (Linda Evans), Alexis (Joan Collins) and others — the show ran from 1981 to 1989. It gave a campy gloss to the decade while also occasionally managing to be groundbreaking: It had a prominent gay character and a prominent Black character, both still rare at the time.

“We walk a fine line, just this side of camp,” Cramer told New York magazine in 1985. “Careful calculations are made. We sense that while it might be wonderful for Krystle and Alexis to have a catfight in a koi pond, it would be inappropriate for Joan to smack Linda with a koi.”

That series and others, Spelling, who died in 2006, told The New York Times in 1993, benefited from the distinctive Cramer touch.

“Douglas is a very creative man,” he said. “He has immaculate taste in art direction and wardrobe.”

He also had immaculate taste in art. He amassed a collection that included both known names and up-and-coming talents, and he made significant gifts to museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, whose director, Glenn D. Lowry cited Cramer’s donation of “a superb group of paintings and sculptures by Ellsworth Kelly, among others.”

Steve Martin, a fellow art aficionado, recalled gatherings at a ranch Cramer owned in Santa Ynez, California.

“He would host a yearly ‘hoedown,’ with hay rides, buffets, inviting Hollywood’s and the art world’s glitterati,” Martin said by email. “One year, the hoedown centered around the opening of his gigantic, multilevel private museum, stuffed with Lichtenstein, Baselitz (as I recall), Ruscha (as I recall), and dozens of other important artists. All the high-level art mingled with guys and gals dressed in gingham and cowboy hats.”

Douglas Schoolfield Cramer Jr. was born on Aug. 22, 1931, in Louisville, Kentucky. His father was a salesman, and his mother, Pauline (Compton) Cramer, was an interior designer who, after the family moved to Cincinnati when Doug was a boy, started writing a newspaper column, “Polly’s Pointers,” full of home decorating and other tips. She and his grandmother, who owned an antiques shop and would take him on buying trips, “opened my eyes to looking at what was around me,” Cramer said in the oral history, “which I think had a lot of impact on me as a producer.”

Those buying trips with Grandma also spawned his interest in collecting, something he began doing as a child.

“I started to collect saltshakers for some bizarre reason,” he told The Courier-Journal of Louisville in 2003. “From saltshakers it went to postcards. I had an enormous collection of postcards of art and posters.”

He also developed an early fascination with the theater and New York City. After six months at Northwestern University in Illinois, he left college at 18 and went to live in New York, securing a job as a production assistant at Radio City Music Hall.

The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 led him to conclude that “I’d rather be at the University of Cincinnati than fighting in Korea,” as he put it in the oral history; he eventually earned an English degree there.

He returned to New York as a graduate student at Columbia University, obtaining a master’s degree and also making a start on a career as a playwright; his drama “Call of Duty” was staged at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village in 1956. The play had a decent run, but his main takeaway from the experience, he said, was the realization that “I really hadn’t lived enough to have anything to write about.”

Though the Korean War was over, he was eventually drafted into the Army, spending six months working in communications. He managed a summer playhouse in Cincinnati for several seasons, at the same time teaching at what is now Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

In the late 1950s and early ’60s, sponsors were particularly influential in television, and Procter & Gamble, headquartered in Cincinnati, was one of the biggest players. Hoping to work his way into the television business, he went to work there as a supervisor on two of its daytime shows, “As the World Turns” and “The Guiding Light.”

After several years there he moved to New York, where in the early 1960s he took a job at ABC. As director of programing planning there, he helped develop “Peyton Place” into a hit series and also was involved in bringing “Batman” to the small screen in 1966.

At ABC and throughout his career, Cramer crossed paths with future Hollywood titans. One was Barry Diller, who would later lead Paramount and 20th Century Fox.

“I met Doug Cramer in the parking lot of the Bel Air Hotel as I was leaving my job interview with his boss at ABC,” Diller said by email. “He gave me the ticket to retrieve his car, thinking I was the parking attendant, and I’ve greatly admired him ever since.”

From ABC Cramer moved to 20th Century Fox, and then to Paramount. There, as executive vice president in charge of production, he had overall authority over series including “Love American Style,” “The Brady Bunch” and “The Odd Couple.” He soon formed his own production company, and in 1974 he produced “QB VII,” based on the Leon Uris novel, a star-studded production often identified as network television’s first mini-series. It won six Emmy Awards.

After his run with Spelling, Cramer formed a different kind of partnership with Steel, beginning in 1990 with a TV movie version of her “Kaleidoscope.”

“The time that I spent working with Doug Cramer on 21 TV movies and mini-series based on my books,” Steel said by email, “are among the happiest memories of my career, with fantastic results.”

Cramer’s marriage to the gossip columnist Joyce Haber ended in divorce in the 1970s. A daughter, Courtney, died in 2004, and a son, Douglas III, died in 2015. Cramer began his relationship with Bush in 1991, and they married in 2006. A brother, Peyton, also survives him.

Bush said that one of Cramer’s proudest accomplishments was that quirky casting on “The Love Boat.” In addition to working Warhol into an episode, he would sometimes engineer theme episodes, including one that featured designers like Bob Mackie and Halston. It was a chance, Bush said, to give Middle America, which loved the show, a look at people they might not otherwise see.

“Doug made that accessible to America,” Bush said. “I think that was important.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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