Obituary: Merv Adelson
Property developer turned TV mogul whose company, Lorimar, made 'Dallas', 'Falcon Crest' and 'The Waltons
Published 20/09/2015 | 02:30
Merv Adelson, who has died aged 85, built a fortune through his connections in mob-era Las Vegas and went on to found Lorimar, the company behind such hit television series as The Waltons, Knots Landing and Dallas.
Lorimar, which Adelson co-founded with Lee Rich in 1969, became America's most successful independent production company, more or less inventing the prime-time soap opera, its other hits including Falcon Crest. Although Rich was its main creative force, Adelson was said to have been responsible for the "resurrection" of Bobby Ewing, an ingenious plot twist which enabled the producers to wipe an entire season of Dallas as having been "just a dream".
Tanned, silver-haired and with a penchant for what one profile writer described as "seriously unbuttoned shirts", Adelson became one of Hollywood's best-known playboys, frequently photographed squiring starlets to premieres and parties.
In 1986 he married (his third wife) Barbara Walters, America's most famous female journalist, at a star-studded ceremony in Bel-Air. Shortly afterwards Lorimar, hoping to expand its film production side, bought the MGM lot, which allowed Adelson to move into Louis B Mayer's old office.
By this time Lorimar had made several films, winning acclaim for such productions as Sybil (1976) and Being There (1979). But most made losses and although Lorimar continued making television series, there were fewer successes and its early shows were beginning to go off the air.
By the end of 1987, the company was forced to report a $90m loss. Two years later it was sold to Warner Communications for $1.2bn.
With his net worth approaching $300m, Adelson joined the board of Warner (which had become Time Warner) and set to work enjoying semi-retirement. By the early 1990s he and Barbara Walters were divorced and he was living with his fourth wife, Thea, a lawyer 33 years his junior, and flitting by private jet between homes in Malibu, Bel-Air and a 40-acre ranch outside Aspen, Colorado.
He donated millions of dollars to charitable causes and, as an ardent supporter of Israel, became a go-between between the country's leader Benjamin Netanyahu and President Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
At the same time, however, Adelson had established a venture-capital fund which invested heavily in internet start-ups. When the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, he suffered huge losses. He might have survived, except that he had borrowed heavily to support his lifestyle. By early 2003, his marriage to Thea was crumbling and his debts were approaching $112m. In September of that year he filed for bankruptcy.
By 2013 Adelson was living in a one-bedroom flat near the pier in Santa Monica. The same year, after a career in which he had continually denied rumours of links to organised crime, he gave an interview to Vanity Fair in which he admitted that, for some years before he started Lorimar, he had had close friendships with leading underworld figures in Las Vegas.
Mervyn Lee Adelson was born in Los Angeles on October 23, 1929 to parents of Russian Jewish origin. His father, Nathan, ran a chain of grocery stores, and by the time he was 12, young Merv was delivering groceries to the likes of Gary Cooper and Bette Davis in Beverly Hills.
In the late 1940s, as the gambling mecca of Las Vegas was rising from the desert, Merv began visiting the new town with his father. It was during one of these trips that he noticed that residents had few outlets in which to buy groceries, so in 1951, he borrowed $10,000 from his father to start Las Vegas's first 24-hour supermarket. By the age of 24 he was a millionaire.
Joining another property developer, Irwin Molasky, Adelson ventured into residential development, building hundreds of houses in the late 1950s. At the same time he got to know Allard Roen, the managing director of the Desert Inn, and Roen's boss, Morris "Moe" Dalitz, later dubbed the "Godfather of Las Vegas", a former bootlegger whose associates included Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel.
The four men became involved in several new projects, including a hospital, country club and the La Costa Resort in Carlsbad, California, which opened in 1965 and became a playground for celebrities and politicians. Many of these ventures were financed by loans from the Teamsters union's Central States pension fund, which was mob-run and notoriously corrupt in the 1960s and 1970s when the loans were made.
Adelson became part of Dalitz's Las Vegas entourage, recalling in his interview with Vanity Fair that he had enjoyed the "bow-downs" he got when they walked anywhere together. Though he claimed that Dalitz had been his "closest friend", Adelson insisted: "I never asked him about [anything illegal]. I didn't want to know the answer. There was a line that I never wanted to cross, and I didn't."
Nevertheless, 1963 saw the publication of The Green Felt Jungle, a book about the Mafia's role in Las Vegas, in which Adelson and Molasky were characterised as mob frontmen whose role was to give Dalitz an entree into legitimate businesses.
When Adelson's wife tried to book an appointment at the hairdressers, she was told: "Adelson? You mean like the Mafia Adelson?" Adelson was horrified by the publicity and it convinced him of the need to try something new. Lorimar was the result. His friendship with Roen and Dalitz came back to haunt him in 1975, however, when an investigation in the March issue of Penthouse claimed that the La Costa Resort "has been controlled by the Moe Dalitz mob", naming Adelson and Molasky among its main partners.
The pair sued for libel. The case dragged on for 10 years and was eventually settled out of court with no published retraction from Penthouse, although the magazine did send Adelson and Molasky an apology, saying that it had never intended to imply that they were involved in organised crime.
Adelson, who died on September 8, was married four times: first, to Lori Kaufman; secondly, to Gail Kenaston; thirdly, to Barbara Walters, and, fourthly, to Thea Nesis. All marriages were dissolved. He is survived by a daughter and two sons from his first marriage and two daughters from his fourth.