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Point Of View Magazine

Producer, Businessman and CEO

Ted Hartley

... and the Rebirth of RKO Studios

by Joseph Di Sante

photos by Brett R. Henry

In May of 1964, United States Navy Lt. Commander, Ted Hartley had a life altering experience ... his F11 fighter jet crash landed on the deck of the Navy Aircraft Carrier USS Hornet in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. His aircraft exploded as it toppled over the side of the carrier, but Hartley had already been thrown from the plane. His back was broken and his military career finished. Today, Ted Hartley, now Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of RKO Pictures Inc., understands the meaning of gratitude and has tried to live his life accordingly, one grateful day at a time.

“My Grandmother always told me ‘the chicken eats his meal grain by grain,’ so I believe it’s not a good use of time worrying if I deserve all the things that happened to me. I don’t add them up, I am grateful for all the experiences and move on ... one grain at a time.”

Gifted student, Olympic athlete, fighter pilot, financial wizard, actor, producer and now leader of one of the most famous companies in the world, Hartley has managed to turn each grain into a feast as his experiences far surpass the average person’s wildest dreams. Born and raised as a farm boy in Iowa, Hartley lost his father at age five and his family did not have a lot of money. As time passed, he began longing for a bigger world. For a reason that even he cannot explain, he developed great feelings for the ocean and flying. At fourteen, he entered a contest sponsored by Warner Bros. and won flying lessons by writing fifty words on “why I like to fly” Hartley attended Shattuck Military School in Minnesota and at the unheard age of sixteen, he won an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy - and ultimately trained and served as a carrier-based fighter pilot. He also served two years as a congressional liaison for the Pentagon and had a tour as a Presidential White House Aide. The crash on the Hornet ended his career and, after full recovery, Hartley attended Harvard Business School, which led to a career on Wall Street.

Successful on Wall Street, Hartley quickly became a Vice President for First Western Financial Corporation. Sent to Nevada to investigate a potentially large business investment, he found he did not “appreciate” the terms of a deal the client was proposing. “It sounded good but it was insurance fraud, pure and simple, and when I reported that back to my boss, he told me I was in the wrong business and fired me,” he remembers. Allowed to keep the company convertible car and given a large cash settlement, he decided it was time to fulfill one of his boyhood dreams. “I had always read a lot of plays as a boy and secretly wanted to be an actor. The timing was perfect. I had my convertible and a nice amount of cash, so I headed for Hollywood.”

It was not long before he won a plum role, cast as the Reverend Jerry Bedford in the hit television series Peyton Place. “My first day was a disaster. Ryan 0’ Neil, a great practical joker, made a comment about me being a new guy with makeup on my hands and I went up ... and I stayed up. A simple wedding ceremony turned into a nightmare.”

After successful movie roles opposite Cary Grant, Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood, he finally landed his own series in the late 1970’s on ABC. Chopper One, Spelling and Goldberg’s series about helicopter cops, failed badly - but as he had done with everything else in his life, he gradually turned the defeat into victory. “I was defeated. Here I had landed a series; I was the lead and felt responsible for the failure. My agent, Alan Ladd Jr., told me the best thing to do when a series fails was to take a year off. That I couldn’t do, so I went to Aspen and became the volunteer Managing Artistic Director of the theater there.” He was hands-on in every aspect of managing the theater. He chose the shows, brought his actor and director friends in from LA and the theater thrived during the winter months. However, even with a winning slate of shows, success can be elusive during the off months when Aspen goes to sleep - so it was back to investment banking full-time. He was finally back on the flight path that would eventually land him at RKO.

Ted Hartley describes himself as a business man first, then a producer and then, of course, an actor. In 1987 he became involved with Pavilion Communications Inc., a company designed to acquire smaller entertainment companies. In the day to day workings of a company like Pavilion, Hartley became aware that there might be chance for him to forge a deal for RKO. In 1948, Howard Hughes took over RKO and for seven years held controlling interest. Under Hughes, the production pace slowed and eventually Hughes sold his interest to General Teleradio. The company that had released Citizen Kane and It’s A Wonderful Life - where more than forty films a year were produced with some of the legendary stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age - became RKO General and the focus shifted to television and radio programming.

Under new ownership by the 1980s, RKO General became RKO Pictures Inc. and, once again, became a major player in film production. By 1990, Ted Hartley, the astute business man, knew that the majority stockholders, former US Secretary of the Treasury, William F. Simon and Ray Chambers, didn’t really want to be in the movie business. So, Hartley paid a visit to Simon aboard his yacht and presented his business plan to the former Secretary. He told Simon that he wanted to buy fifty one percent of the company and that he, along with his wife, actress Dina Merrill, would take the reins of the company and bring it back to its former greatness. Simon agreed, and Hartley and Merrill merged Pavilion Communications with RKO Pictures Corporation. By 1991, the deal was completed and RKO Pictures Inc. was reborn.

From a vaudeville theater just outside New York City, Joseph Keith actually began the company in 1882. This single theater evolved into the country’s largest theater chain - 247 theaters. Hartley, of course, knows the history. “After World War I, everything changed. Vaudeville was out and, by 1920, all the theaters were converted to movie houses - which became the Keith Orpheum Theater Circuit.” In 1927, the head of RCA, David Sarnoff and Joseph P. Kennedy, president of the Film Booking Office, created RKO Pictures Inc. - with the “R” from RCA and the “KO” from Keith Orpheum.

Hartley’s commitment to the future of RKO is based on his reverence for the legendary past of the Company. “It took almost four years to sort out the ownership rights of our vast library. We have more than eleven hundred previously produced films and eight hundred unproduced screenplays and stories,” he states. It’s interesting that a man with a background as a trained fighter pilot would have the sensibilities and affection for the creative people ... because CEO Hartley is very producer friendly. “Producers are the unsung heroes of our business. Without them, there is nothing. They are the entrepreneurs and they, along with the writers, make it happen.”

Hartley has restructured RKO into four divisions. RKO’s Producers Circle is for the larger budget films that RKO will do in association with other Hollywood majors. Mighty Joe Young is the first project. Co-produced with Disney, Mighty Joe Young opened Christmas Day and was produced by Hartley.

The RKO Radio Pictures group develops and produces lower budget films for the independent film companies. They currently have a large coproduction arrangement with Miramax’s Dimension Films. The third of RKO’s arms is RKO Pictures Television. Here TV movies, mini-series, situation comedies and drama series are being developed for network and cable. Finally, there is RKO Entertainment. With this group, Hartley and company will focus on Broadway productions, themed restaurants and other entertainment concepts. He is very excited about RKO Entertainment. “The Bergmans and Quincy Jones are presently developing Citizen Kane as a Broadway musical and it is going to be a monster,” he proudly proclaims.

The RKO Palace concept is also under RKO Entertainment’s umbrella. Different from Planet Hollywood, which is star driven, The Palace will concentrate on the glamour of Golden Age Hollywood. Unlike some studios, where projects are greenlighted simply from a marketing standpoint, Hartley will only greenlight when he is satisfied that the wealth of properties RKO owns have been reinvented and not just reproduced. “The storytelling business is a good business to be in here. RKO has certainly contributed to the tribal campfire of storytelling through motion pictures - and I want that to continue.”

The art of storytelling is the heart and soul of the entertainment business and RKO was founded on the premise of good storytelling. Hartley and Merrill believe strongly in that tradition, so they have created the Hartley-Merrill Prize for Screenwriting. They feel it is essential to support talented writers in countries where the economy is slowly emerging and where, someday, a new film business may exist. Recently, Jack Valenti helped to increase the award by contributing an additional twenty-five thousand dollars to the fund. This foundation also supports the RKO Pictures Story Project, which helps promote literacy among inner city youth. Currently the pilot program for the Story Project is operating out of the Santa Monica Boys and Girls Club. Established artists and leaders from the industry give their time and expertise over a sixteen week period to help young people better understand who they are by learning how to express themselves through the written word and other kinds of media, such as photography, poetry, drawing and screenplay writing. One of the goals of the program is to help the students increase their grades by one point every eighteen weeks. “This is a knowledge based economy and if you cannot read or write,” Hartley proclaims, “you’re not going to survive.” One hundred and seventy young people have already gone through the program.

At Paramount Studios, on the corner of Melrose and Gower, there sits a huge globe on the top of the corner building. It was once the original home of RKO Studios. The globe, which sat upon a tower that no longer exists, once beamed its message of enlightenment out to the world. Paramount’s Sherry Lansing once told Hartley that she hopes “RKO never goes away.”

Well, Hartley, who is ever the optimist, claims “If you don’t believe you can do something - it won’t get done.” Ms. Lansing has nothing to fear; RKO is back and, by all indications, Ted Hartley along with Dina Merrill (who is Vice Chairperson) are getting it done. RKO’S spinning globe and tower now symbolically beam from Century City ... telling us that the future is sweet for RKO and that the company promises to flourish well into the 21st Century.

Joseph Di Sante is an actor and freelance writer/producer.

Copyright � 1999 Empire Productions and Publishing, All rights reserved

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