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An Artist’s Executive

Larry Hagman made an indelible mark on the pantheon
of television history for his portrayal of the
iconic J.R. Ewing, but he may also have unknowingly contributed to the success of CBS Television
Studios President David Stapf,
who in 1986 was working as a young
publicist on Dallas.

“Larry Hagman was a total class
act,” recalls the 52-year-od Stapf. “He
treated me, this relatively low-level
publicist, as the equal to anybody else
on the crew. There was a fairness and
a decency. Those kinds of things, you
don’t realize it at the time, but it sort of
forms who you become.”

Stapf has carried that lesson throughout
his professional career, always trying
to be honest and fair, even when
it has meant telling people things they
didn’t want to hear. “I think all of those
attributes served me well as I got into
more leadership positions, because I
was never going to bullshit anybody,”
he says. “It doesn’t serve anyone well,
particularly the show, which is always
what needs to come first.”

In his current role, Stapf oversees
program development and production
for CBS Studios shows such as Hawaii
, The Good Wife and the NCIS
and CSI franchises. It’s a position he
never expected to hold, though.

A native of Calabasas, Calif., Stapf
studied English in college and taught
8-year-olds at a school for gifted children
for three years after graduation.
It was a job he loved, but the salary
couldn’t support living in Los Angeles.
So Stapf quit and followed his wife into
TV, first as a publicist at Norman Lear’s
Embassy Television before moving to
Lorimar Television a year later.

While at Lorimar, Stapf became
close with a group that included Leslie
Moonves, Nancy Tellem, Nina Tassler and Kelly Kahl; the latter three eventually
followed Moonves to CBS after
he was tapped to head the network in
1995. It was always Stapf’s goal to join
his boss and mentor as well, which happened
in 1999 when Moonves brought
him on board as senior VP, current
programming, for CBS Entertainment.
Stapf, with his publicity background,
wasn’t sure he was qualified for the job.

“There’s a very supportive, nurturing
environment we work in, so you never
really feel like you’re alone or making
these great decisions all by yourself,” he
says. “There’s a great team mentality that
goes all the way back to Lorimar. So as
daunting as it may sound on paper, I
knew I was going to be supported. And
all the things I didn’t know, I at least knew where to go get the answers.”

Moonves never doubted Stapf’s ability
to step up to new tasks, both when
he fi rst brought him to CBS, and when
he tapped him to head the studio in
2004. “He was always immensely capable,”
says the CBS Corp. president/
CEO. “If you said ‘David, I need an
800-lb. elephant on my lawn at 6
o’clock tomorrow morning,’ he’d get it
there. He just gets things done, and he
does it with class and with dignity.”

Stapf has grown into his role, and
names the interaction with so many
uniquely talented people as the part of
his job he enjoys most. “In a way I feel
like the luckiest talk-show host in the
world, in that every day I get to interview
different, really interesting, smart,
talented people because of the job I
have,” he says. It was as a publicist that
Stapf learned the importance of listening
to talent, and it has earned him a
reputation as an executive that understands
and respects artists.

“He has shown a terrific ability
through his personality and his talent
to get the best out of creative people,”
Moonves says. “And in his job right
now, that is one of the keys to it—finding
the right producers and writers and
actors and providing an environment
where they can work.”

When not fostering talent, Stapf enjoys
taking ski trips to California’s Mammoth
Mountain with his family and, naturally,
watching lots of TV. Besides CBS shows,
he loves Entourage, Modern Family, Top
and cheering on his favorite team,
the Green Bay Packers. “I watch a lot of
television, and I think I probably would
if I was still a teacher,” he says.

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