COE, FRED

U.S. Producer

A prolific television, theater, and film producer and director, Fred Coe is closely identified with the "golden age" of live television. His television career started in 1945, when be became production manager for NBC in New York and worked with Worthington Minor on Studio One. In 1948, Coe began production of NBC's Philco Television Playhouse, a live dramatic-anthology series broadcast on Sunday evenings, from 9:00 to 10:00. From 1951 to 1955, Philco Television Playhouse alternated with Goodyear Television Playhouse and became one of the top-rated programs of the early 1950s. Live programming of this type was used by NBC's programming chief Pat Weaver to differentiate television from motion pictures, to strengthen ties with its affiliates, and to enlarge the audience for TV sets (manufactured by NBC's parent company, RCA).

Coe was noted for using unknown writers and directors who were able to create works tailored for the new medium: the writers included Paddy Chayefsky, Tad Mosel, Horton Foote, Gore Vidal, J.P. Miller, and Robert Alan Arthur; and the directors, Delbert Mann, Arthur Penn, and Vincent Donehue. Setting anthology drama on a course that established it as the most prestigious format on live television, Coe relied at first on TV adaptations of Broadway plays and musicals, then on literary classics, biographies, and old Hollywood movies, and finally on original television drama. The Philco series opened on 3 October 1948 with a one-hour version of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's Dinner at Eight. In 1952, Coe produced the first play of the first playwright to achieve fame in television. The playwright was Paddy Chayefsky and the play, Holiday Song. In 1953, Coe produced Chayefsky's Marty with Rod Steiger in the title role. Directed by Delbert Mann, Marty became the most popular anthology drama of the period, winning many awards and even initiating a Hollywood production trend of films based on TV drama. Marty the film, produced by Harold Hecht and released through United Artists in 1955, won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor (Ernest Borgnine), Direction (Delbert Mann), and Original Screenplay (Paddy Chayefsky). Other notable Coe productions included Chayefsky's The Bachelor Party, Horton Foote's The Trip to the Bountiful, and Tad Mosel's Other People's Houses. Productions such as these earned Fred Coe and the Philco Playhouse the George Foster Peabody Award in 1954 and many other honors.

In 1954, Coe began producing Producer's Showcase, a 90-minute anthology series that aired every fourth Monday for three seasons. One aim of the series was to broadcast expensive color spectaculars to promote RCA's new color television system. The best example of this strategy was Peter Pan, a successful Broadway production of Sir James M. Barrie's fantasy which Coe brought to television almost intact. Starring Mary Martin, Peter Pan was broadcast on 7 March 1955 and was viewed by an estimated 65-75 million people, becoming the highest-rated show in TV's brief history. As a result of this memorable production and adaptations of such plays as Sherwood Anderson's The Petrified Forest (1955), which starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in their TV dramatic debuts, and Thornton Wilder's Our Town, which starred Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint, Coe was awarded an Emmy for Best Producer of a Live Series in 1955.

NBC's programming strategies radically changed after 1956 to rely on the routines of series programming produced by West Coast suppliers on film. In 1957, Coe departed the network for CBS, where he produced Playhouse 90 for three seasons. Among the best productions of the series were Days of Wine and Roses (1958), The Plot to Kill Stalin (1958), and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1959). Thereafter, Coe worked sporadically in television, producing specials for all three networks in the late 1960s and 1970s and producing and directing several episodes of The Adams Chronicles for PBS in 1976.

Anticipating the decline of live anthology drama on television, Coe brought anthology drama to Broadway by producing theatrical versions of TV plays by TV writers, among them William Gibson's Two for the Seesaw (1958) and The Miracle Worker (1959), Tad Mosel's All the Way Home (1960), and Herb Gardner's A Thousand Clowns (1962). Coe even converted two TV plays into films--The Miracle Worker (1962) and A Thousand Clowns (1966). Coe's legacy is a tradition of programming demonstrating television's unique aspects as a medium of dramatic expression.

-Tino Balio


Fred Coe
Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research

FRED COE. Born in Alligator, Mississippi, U.S.A., 23 December 1914. Attended Peabody Demonstration School, Nashville, Tennessee; attended Peabody College for Teachers, Nashville; studied at Yale Drama School, New Haven, Connecticut, 1938-40. Married: 1) Alice Griggs, 1940 (divorced), children: John and Laurence Anne; 2) Joyce Beeler, 1952; children: Sue Anne and Samuel Hughes. Ran community theater in Nashville; presented radio dramas on station WSM; production manager, NBC, New York (producing more than 500 hour-long teleplays), 1945; producer, Philco-Goodyear Theater NBC, 1948-53; executive producer for, Mr. Peepers series, 1952-53; producer Producers' Showcase, 1954-55; producer, Playwrights '56, 1956; producer and director, Playhouse 90, CBS, produced such Broadway shows as Two for the Seesaw, A Trip to Bountiful, and The Miracle Worker; co-producer and director, various Broadway shows. Recipient: Writers Guild of America Evelyn Burkey Award; Peabody Award, 1954; Emmy Award, 1955. Died in Los Angeles, California, 29 April 1979.

TELEVISION SERIES

1948-53 Philco-Goodyear Theater
1952-53 Mr. Peepers (executive producer)
1954-55 Producers' Showcase
1956 Playwrights '56
1956-61 Playhouse 90 (also director)

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIE

1979 Miracle Worker (producer)

TELEPLAYS (selection)

1949 Philco Television Playhouse "What Makes Sammy Run?"
1949 Philco Television Playhouse "The Last Tycoon" 1953 Philco Television Playhouse "Marty"
1955 Producers' Showcase "Peter Pan"

FILMS

The Left-Handed Gun (producer), 1958; Miracle Worker (producer), 1962; This Property Is Condemned (writer), 1966

STAGE

Two for the Seesaw, A Trip to Bountiful, The Miracle Worker, All the Way Home (co-producer), A Thousand Clowns (co-producer and director).

FURTHER READING

Averson, Richard, editor. Electronic Drama: Television Plays of the Sixties. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon, 1971.

"The Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame (Biographies of 17 Inductees)." Broadcasting & Cable (Washington, D.C.), 7 November 1994.

Hawes, William. The American Television Drama: The Experimental Years. University: University of Alabama Press, 1986.

Kindem, Gorham, editor. The Live Television Generation of Hollywood Film Directors: Interviews with Seven Directors. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1994.

Sturcken, Frank. Live Television: The Golden Age of 1946-1958 in New York. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1990.

Wilk, Max. The Golden Age of Television: Notes from the Survivors. New York: Dell, 1977.

Krampner, Jon. The Man in the Shadows: Fred Coe and the Golden Age of Television New Brunswick, New Jersey : Rutgers University Press, 1997

 

See also Anthology Drama; Chayefsky, Paddy; Golden Age of Television; Goodyear Playhouse; Mann, Delbert; Peter Pan; Philco Television Playhouse; Playhouse 90