Al Masini was the ultimate first-class act – a true gentleman who deeply cared for his show creations. Ironically he was almost unknown outside of the business but held in high regard, respected and beloved by everyone inside it.
In fact you might never have known – unless you slowed the ending credits- just how many shows he brought into the world and remained broadcasting over the years! We’ll never forgot Entertainment Tonight and Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous but from Operation Prime Time to Solid Gold to Star Search the list was long lasting – and almost endless.
Al was the power behind the scenes. He never craved the spotlight preferring that was left for others. All he wanted was perfection for the programs he created, produced and kept on the air. That gave him the satisfaction he sought.
It was a truly remarkable success story- one of the biggest and best in the television industry. His record of program hits was unbroken and never duplicated. He was the genius who launched first-run syndication programming and the first off-network day and date programs. Al was the maverick who made a beautiful marriage for the independent stations he represented and the original programs they needed to compete against the networks – plus he’d sell the commercials for both!
The secret to his success was simply a remarkable dedication and commitment to his program concepts. Once the format was boiled down to a short self-explanatory title he’d only insist it was rigidly adhered to and not veered off in a different direction. To this day I can hear him say what he always mandated : “Stay Focused”
Say the words “ Entertainment Tonight” and “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” and you’d immediately know in the tight two-line TV Guide mention exactly what the shows would be about. I’ve referenced those two because not only are they in the history books as two of television’s longest running success stories but also it’s where I got to know the man and his mastermind brilliance. ET is still on the air and celebrates its 31st anniversary this year while Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous ran an unbelievable 14-seasons in over 30 countries worldwide and still profitable when he retired, his company was sold and I moved onto help launch the Food Network
I think of Al as the ultimate guide and guru to modern-day magazine reality television programming. Not only was he its father but also a creative genius and an extraordinary editor with the ultimate understanding of how to package 80’s pop-culture for television. With my 25-years of celebrity print journalism we were destined to meet! The strange thing is that it didn’t happen sooner even though our offices were just caddy corner from each other for seven years on opposite sides of the same Manhattan street!
Having met and embarking together on two decades of TV you could not have asked for a better partner or work colleague. He was my mentor and older brother. We shook hands on our deals and never broke our promises. They simply don’t make them like that anymore.
Ours was a near 20-year long working relationship that led to an amazing 30-year friendship – and only one disagreement and one dispute between us all that time. For the record they were quickly resolved! It was too important for both of us to let them upset the goal and mission of continuing to make highly profitable great quality informative entertaining television.
People conjure up extraordinary images of producers- flashy, cigar smoking, hard drinking, over-weight, and loud-mouthed, dictatorial high-rolling spenders. Al was none of those- and infact totally the opposite. He didn’t smoke. He rarely drank more than a glass of good wine. He worked out in the gym to stay fit. He didn’t raise his voice. He only gambled on producing new shows! His one vice was ice-cream !
The only thing flashy about Al was his colorful ties – those bright almost blinding rainbows will never be forgotten! Plus he worked from behind the world’s largest office desk. It dwarfed everybody who sat across from him. Perhaps it was a psychological ploy but I don’t think so. I believe, like everything else about Al it was purely practical.
It had to be huge because he always wanted the latest information on everything to do with his shows in files at his fingertips. And because he had so many shows, so many advertising salesmen, so many production people, so many budgets and repped so many television stations there were files galore. – and back in those early days few computers- if any!
In fact I remember Al and I jumping with joy when we discovered the first Rapifax machine that could send a page of ET script from NY to LA in six minutes. Until that moment we’d been ferrying young students on round-trip overnight flights between the two cities with pouches of materials. Thank goodness that Fed-Ex came along as well later!
I didn’t know Al – or had even heard of him- when he created ET and sold the idea to Paramount to execute it for him. However I did know Jack Haley Jr. who was charged by the studio to whip a pilot into shape to present it to stations.
Before that I’d worked on a project to bring the STAR weekly where I’d been showbiz editor for 10-years to television- but Rupert Murdoch shelved it after recoiling at the massive budgets. Weekly appearances with Regis Philbin to promote STAR stories had convinced me our kind of journalism would be a TV hit. I also wrote the first 11 cover and major showbiz stories for the brand new People Magazine so I felt all would translate over to television comfortably. My 18-months on CNN’s live People Tonight introductory show as the New York showbiz correspondent taught me everything I wanted to know about how a bare-bones budget could still produce good TV.
Haley called me with Al’s idea and asked if I could field produce the segments from my experience and relationships with showbiz stars around the world. I love challenges- and this was the ultimate one. From Roger Moore on location in his then new James Bond role to a live satellite interview with Suzanne Sommers on the day she was fired from Three’s Company we wound up with a presentation reel and a pilot.
Little did I know then but Al was the puppet–master approving what could be shot and what wouldn’t. He was at every meeting, remained silent and I was never really introduced to him. Only afterwards would he determine the final show decisions privately with the studio heads. Then he took the ultimate gamble to get the show on the air at non-network independent stations across the country giving away more than $20-million of satellite dishes so they could receive the show once he “put it up on the bird”. ( He did make the investment back in the first year but that’s just one example of his determination and belief in backing up his own ideas)
I was invited to stay on with ET as its roving correspondent based from New York traveling anywhere I wanted to go around the globe for exclusive showbiz stories, film locations and international festivals. Our office and edit bays were set up in the basement of a Manhattan skyscraper- 19 floors below where Al Masini commandeered his TeleRep empire.
It was where I would formally meet him for the first time- even though I recognized him immediately from the Los Angeles meetings he’d sat in on silently listening to progress and hiccups. Al would always be impeccably dressed in a business suit and one of his eye-blinding ties. I never talked to him about it but he or I would always be first to work and last to leave at night.
He thrived on the creative process. He wanted to know all the shoots and stories we were working on, He’d sit in on editing and recording sessions and always offer “right on target ” suggestions. He never raised his voice. He didn’t have to because you knew instantly he was right with his observations.
I never thought of Al as a workaholic despite the long hours around the clock all year long -weekends included. He loved his shows coming to life. He loved his craft. He was passionate about the work beyond any man I’ve ever met. To him it wasn’t a job or duty- it was pure pleasure. He’d roundtrip on red-eyes between NY and LA so he didn’t lose time traveling- even if it was just to re-choreograph a Solid Gold dance lineup he didn’t like.
Early morning and late night he’d play editor and producer and during the day he’d be enmeshed in the big business of TeleRep station negotiations, Television Program Enterprise advertising sales- at the height of it all with offices across the country he must have had over 2,000 people working with him and for him in various capacities.
His idea of a vacation was to come on location with our film crews to watch us work in the field and yes- he’d even help schlep the lighting gear and camera tripods with us! He loved we didn’t waste money on the frivolities and vanities normally wasted in our business. Al simply wasn’t a stretch limo kind of guy! But he was always more than fair and generous!
Al was unique because it was never about him- it was always about those who worked with him so he could see his dreams and ideas come true!
He took pride and responsibility of them all. He wouldn’t leave a millimeter of anything to chance – or change. Some might have called it nit-picking the detail but it was his obsessions to perfection that kept them all on the air.
LIFESTYLES OF THE RICH & FAMOUS
One day, that obsession cost him $8-million over a lunch before the soup even arrived – and that’s how Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous came to be. I’d grown restless at ET and fighting to get certain of my stories on air at the right length instead of two-sound bite segments on unrelated issues. I thought I could tell longer at-home stories with the stars and show their intimate lifestyles. Out of that frustration Al agreed to listen to my pitch over lunch.
I didn’t know then that millionaires and billionaires aren’t listed in the Yellow Pages but confidently said I’d find them and get them to throw open the doors of their mega mansions. Al said if I could do that then instead of calling the show “Lifestyles”, he said the show should be called, “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous”.
Even before the waiter returned to the table at P.J. Clarke’s with our soup he said, “You’ve got your $8-million- go to it.”
We shook hands on making four two-hour TV specials back in 1983- and I went off to Monte Carlo to film the Monaco Royal Family at home. Al went to work selling stations and advertising- and by the time we had the 2nd special on the air with giant 20+ share ratings he told me we had to go weekly immediately. Less than 13-weeks later we started Year 1 turning out 26 weeks of original programs- plus the 2 remaining specials!
It continued onwards for 14 mind-boggling incredible seasons- and spawned our “Runaway with the Rich and Famous” travel series and “Worlds Best” annual awards specials. Our relationship grew and we produced the Fame Fortune & Romance daily series for ABC TV’s morning timeslot pre- The View! Then followed more simultaneous weekly series: Home Videos of the Stars, The Start of Something Big with Steve Allen and even the Supermodel of the World annual pageant contest.
It’s totally unbelievable that we were producing so many hit shows firing on four cylinders all at once: My good friend and TPE colleague Sam Riddle has written elsewhere on this tribute site to Al about the stunning success of their Star Search program hosted by Ed McMahon – the genesis of what became recreated as American Idol! Somehow Al juggled that program out in Los Angeles and my West Coast production facilities while our factory of TV hits was headquartered back East.
Looking back at it all now while writing this I marvel at how we did it- always on or below budget and in most cases on a handshake. It was an absolutely extraordinary team effort by cameramen, sound guys, field producers, directors, writers and musicians. All of us were inspired beyond description by our leader- Al Masini, the man who never sought the very fame and fortune we produced.
He’d watch the ratings and smile contentedly that he’d won!
In summary there will never be another Al Masini. He was one of a kind- and the mold was broken, thrown away once he started out on his extraordinary journey through life. I was proud and honored to be his partner and friend. We remained close to the end.
I am so happy he moved to Hawaii, fell in love with the islands -far from his keeping pace with New York’s non-stop frantic frenzied big-business whirl and Hollywood’s oft insanities
Most important of all and the highlight of his life was finding true love with Charlyn. He couldn’t have wished to find a better wife and life partner. They were the co-stars of his ultimate program. I couldn’t have written that script any better than the way Al directed all of his productions.
I’m certain when we get up to the great television set high in the sky we’ll find Al waiting for us to watch his latest network of top-rated heavenly creations.
Written fondly with Love – and of course, champagne wishes! Al, you will always be remembered and will never be forgotten
~ Robin Leach