The five-time Emmy Award-winning writer, director and producer best known for his work on such hit TV programs as the Dick Van Dyke Show, That Girl, Sid Caesar, Bill Cosby and Kate & Allie. This profile is the third in a series featuring individuals who will be honored by the Library of American Broadcasting Foundation as Giants of Broadcasting & Electronic Arts on Oct. 15 in New York. This year’s other honorees: Don Mischer, Gracia Martore, Herb Granath, Gene Jankowski, Mel Karmazin, Jarl Mohn, the Carter family and Don West.
Like many early comedy writers, Bill Persky found himself working with some of the great classic comics of radio and TV. After a stint as a cabana boy at the famed Grossinger’s Hotel in the Catskills, he became an assistant program director at WNEW New York in the mid-1950s. His first TV sale came when he and writing partner Don Rosenblit invented a character known as “the Pigloo,” a combination of a pig and an igloo that was picked up by the Howdy Doody Show as a regular character. Savoring that first taste of success, he moved to California and wrote for a variety of innovative programs, including The Steve Allen Show, The Andy Williams Show, The Julie Andrews Show, McHale’s Navy, and The Joey Bishop Show.
Persky got his big break from Carl Reiner, who recognized the young man’s comedic talent and ear for dialogue and hired him as a writer on The Dick Van Dyke Show. “The best thing that ever happened to me in my life is Carl,” Persky told the Los Angeles Times in 2012. “With Carl, you walk away with some of his DNA. You are enthused with his values and his fearlessness.”
Writers learn from an early age to “write what you know,” and nowhere was this clearer than The Dick Van Dyke Show. Persky says every episode of the series was based on something that happened to someone working on the show. Always pushing the envelope, Persky and company wrote an episode in which Rob Petrie (Van Dyke) became convinced that his baby son Richie had been switched at birth with a baby belonging to a couple called Mr. and Mrs. Peters. When it turned out the Peters were African American, the network balked, not wanting to offend blacks or whites in the audience. Reiner and Persky pushed back and the episode was a smash hit.
“It really did feel like we were throwing a hand grenade into the audience,” Persky told The Huffington Post in 2012. “You had to start with the truth with Carl, who’s my absolute favorite person in the world. We still talk once a week, and he reads me the stuff he’s writing.”
Somewhere in those early years Persky met Danny Thomas, whom he describes as funny, warm and very giving. It was a relationship that was to lead not only to a long friendship but also a turning point in the evolution of network TV programming. After three years (and two Emmys) with The Dick Van Dyke Show, Persky and his writing partner Sam Denoff were approached by Danny’s daughter Marlo, who talked them into taking a chance on a new show that initially was titled Miss Independence.
That was the name Danny called Marlo, but Persky believed the title was far too obvious for its own good. “Calling the show that was like waving a flag,” Persky said in a Huffington Post interview. “But That Girl was how my parents always referred to my sister. She was always doing amazing things and they’d say, ‘do you know what that girl did today?’ So we called it That Girl. It was groundbreaking at the time because no one wanted to do a show about a single career woman. But Marlo — I call her the velvet steamroller — is such a passionate person. She absolutely wanted to play a woman with aspirations of living on her own. No one else could have played that role or gotten that show on the air.”
The series featured Marlo as a struggling actress in New York who had a boyfriend but was in no great hurry to tie the knot. When the series finally was canceled some network execs thought the final episode should end with their wedding, but Persky and Thomas believed that outcome would not be true to her character. “Marlo thought that the whole series would have been a lie if they’d gotten married at the end,” Persky said in the HuffPost interview. “That would have sent out a message that all girls want is to be married. She absolutely wouldn’t have it. We fought for that not to happen — and it didn’t.”
Today, That Girl is credited with helping to pave the way for The Mary Tyler Moore Show and subsequent series featuring independent single women. It also gave many baby-boomer women the courage and support they needed to declare their own independence in a changing society. “They say what a hero I am to them because I did the show,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “What’s interesting is that a lot of teenage girls are getting interested in it. Their grandmothers are buying their grandkids the DVDs — and they’re loving it.”
In the mid 1970s, the partnership between Persky and Denoff ended amicably, and Persky branched out into directing television pilots. From 1975 to 1982 he directed 22 of them, with 16 actually making it to the air as network series — including the popular Who’s The Boss? starring Tony Danza and Judith Light. He also directed five television films and the Paramount feature Serial, before experiencing an epiphany in front of the Beverly Hills Hotel.
“I had an old Mercedes that I treasured, and I also had a beard I treasured,” he told the Times. “I stopped at the five-way stop sign in front of the [hotel] and there were three other guys with Mercedes and beards and two guys with Rolls Royces and beards. I said, ‘I don’t belong here anymore.’ ” He sold the Benz, shaved the beard and fled the Hollywood scene for his beloved Manhattan.
The change in venue didn’t stop Persky, who went on to produce the award-winning CBS sitcom Kate & Allie. The show starred Susan Saint James and Jane Curtin as recently divorced friends with children who move in together and become a family unit. “I loved it,” he says of the series, which ran from 1984 to 1989. “It was like a party every week.” He ultimately produced and directed 100 episodes of the series, and won a directing Emmy in the process.
Ever the TV junkie, Persky told The Huffington Post that his favorite recent TV shows include 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation and Modern Family because “they are a throwback to the time when characters had more regard for each other and themselves. There used to be a time when a star was something you looked up to. Now you look down on stars. I grew up on the Jersey Shore, and Snooki used to be something that would have washed up in a storm and been thrown back. Now little girls in affluent parts of New York City are dressing like her. When did this happen? Is this what society has become?”
Persky still lives in New York City with his wife, advertising executive Joanna Patton. He has a very active speaking career and is a guest lecturer at NYU Film School and Yale University, and teaches comedy writing at The New York Film Academy. In addition to his recently published memoir My Life is a Situation Comedy, he is a contributing writer to USA Today, Esquire and the Los Angeles Times. He also was honored by the Writers Guild with a lifetime achievement award in 1998.
The Library of American Broadcasting will honor this year’s Giants of Broadcasting & Electronic Arts at a luncheon at New York’s Gotham Hall on Oct. 15. For tickets, congratulatory ads and other information, please contact Joyce Tudyrn at [email protected]. The luncheon is presented by the International Radio and Television Society Foundation. TVNewsCheck is publishing these profiles as an in-kind contribution to the library. You may read other profiles in the series by clicking here.