In 1971, Harry Friedman decided to play Beat the Clock with his professional life. He arrived in Los Angeles at age 25 with no industry contacts and gave himself six months to find a job or return to a life away from the pursuit of his dream.
True to topsy-turvy, nail-biter game-show form, Friedman's fate came down to the last 24 hours; on that final day, he talked his way into a part-time gig as a writer on Hollywood Squares.
“I absolutely would have left town,” he recalls with a laugh. “I was hours away.”
For the next 11 years, along with penning some Squares jokes so memorable they would rival the writing of the best sitcoms of the day, Friedman honed his producing style, a mix of his Midwestern sensibility and the belief in television's limitless powers to entertain. It is this style that has led him to be among the year's Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Awards honorees.
Since 1999, Friedman has been executive producer of the two highest-rated shows in syndication, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!. And while he had no thought of becoming producer of either shows, he found out his experience on Squares groomed him for the next level.
“Fortunately, I was jumping onto this speeding train,” Friedman says of Hollywood Squares. “It took me a good year of being on that staff before I realized I'm getting the best on-the-job training in the history of television,” he says. “I was working with professionals who cared about the product and the show and the viewer. I learned about managing talent and a little bit about tact and diplomacy. I learned so much on so many levels from so many people.”
His out-of-the-box thinking has kept both series grounded and yet ground-breaking. Jeopardy!'s “Clue Crew” of correspondents travels the world for fascinating questions, and Friedman's novel audio clues are genius: The category “Readings From Homer,” for example, featured questions about the Greek writer Homer read by Dan Castellaneta in the voice of Homer Simpson. The show's Brain Bus and Wheel's “Wheelmobile” conduct cross-country contestant searches. And by lifting the five-day limit rule for contestants on Jeopardy!, Friedman allowed for Ken Jennings' 74-consecutive-day run, and a 30% rise in viewership during the streak. Last fall, he engineered the textbook-smooth transition of both shows into hi-def.
“Harry Friedman brings two things to the table: genius and creativity,” says Bob Madden, president/COO of the CBS Television Distribution Group, which owns both series. “We give him a task, and the results come back spectacular.”
Says Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, “The show has had five or six producers in its run. I was one of them, and I think Harry's the most creative of all.”
Friedman's success has been no mean feat: He has kept both series on top of the ratings, year after year, through a mix of fearless ideas, respect for the structure of each show, and a profound appreciation for his staff. He is humble, self-effacing and generous, a producer in the Tartikoff mold.
“We look to honor people who display passion and creativity, who love the business and who are visionaries,” says NATPE President/CEO Rick Feldman about the innovators the organization chooses to honor. “There has really been almost no one more continually successful over a 25-year period than Harry Friedman.”
He caught the TV bug early: His father owned one of the first retail television dealerships in his Omaha, Neb., hometown, and his family had the first TV in the neighborhood—in 1950. Nobody in the house took to the power of that 13-inch Emerson more than Harry, who pictured his future in the exciting images.
“People back then were talking about how TV was robbing the younger generation of the ability to dream or be creative,” he says. “I found the opposite to be true. To me, it fueled our imagination.”
Friedman began hanging around Omaha's first TV stations, learning the business from the ground up. “I remember getting the sense that almost everyone was making it up as they went along,” he says. “No one ever used the word 'genre,' for God sakes. The lesson I got, coupled with the lesson of my parents, was 'You can do anything you want.'”
Friedman went to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, and although he tried feature writing and reporting early in his career and even dabbled in real estate, public relations and advertising after moving to Kansas City, Mo., he sensed where his fate and talents lay. He headed west and landed his just-in-time opportunity, working with the legendary team of Merrill Heatter and Bob Quigley. While writing and producing on Hollywood Squares, he helped make bigger stars of comic greats Paul Lynde, Charley Weaver and George Gobel. Among his favorite questions is one he penned for Lynde: Host Peter Marshall asked, “Paul, what does Dear Abby say a woman should never do in bed?” “Point and laugh,” Lynde answered.
Friedman's Emmy-winning career that has included developing the shows Gambit and High Rollers and helping launch Rock 'n' Roll Jeopardy! for VH1. Now he is developing two game shows for Sony, Combination Lock and a remake of Joker's Wild, both of which may premiere next fall. He would be executive producer of those and also keep the Jeopardy! and Wheel gigs.
Friedman has managed this full plate while maintaining the respect and affection of his peers and his staff.
“Our stage used to be deserted but for necessary personnel. Now people hang and talk and laugh and participate. Harry enables people to be a part of that,” says Wheel co-host Pat Sajak. “It's a pretty well-oiled machine, and Harry is the one who keeps the 3-in-1 in his pocket.”
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