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Jerry Perenchio, Billionaire Media Mogul Behind Univision, Dies at 86

Variety logo Variety 5/24/2017 Ted Johnson
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Media mogul A. Jerrold “Jerry” Perenchio, who amassed a fortune by building a powerhouse TV production company and later the Spanish-language network Univision, and was among California’s most prolific philanthropists and political donors, has died. He was 86.

Perenchio died of lung cancer at his Bel Air home on Monday, a family spokesperson told the Los Angeles Times.

His personal wealth, along with an early career managing high-profile stars and promoting major sporting events, belied a fierce determination to stay out of the limelight, in which he granted few interviews and rarely allowed his associates to do the same.

A partner with Norman Lear in the production of such shows as “The Jeffersons” and “One Day at a Time,” Perenchio made a fortune on megahits of the 1970s, particularly from the sale of the shows into syndication.

No media investment, however, was as lucrative for Perenchio as the one in Univision, which he sold to a consortium led by Haim Saban at a price of $13.7 billion in 2007. According to Forbes, Perenchio netted $1.1 billion on an initial $33 million investment. In 2014, the magazine estimated his net worth at $2.6 billion.

His tight control over Univision was most apparent in his interface with the media — which was close to nil. According to a 2004 Business Week profile, the No. 1 rule of a 20-point manifesto for Univision executives was “Stay clear of the press. Stay out of the spotlight. It fades your suit.” To little surprise, he declined to participate in the profile.

“I really don’t want my name in the goddamn paper,” he told a Los Angeles Times reporter in 1981. “I really don’t mean to be rude. I just don’t want to give out interviews. I just hate them. Inevitably, I ended up hurting some people or leaving some names out, or getting quoted out of context.”

Nevertheless, Perenchio was not a recluse, but an avid philanthropist and political donor and fundraiser, entertaining frequently at his Malibu and Bel-Air homes, the latter a sprawling estate that was immortalized as the house used as the model for Jed Clampett’s digs in “The Beverly Hillbillies.” In Malibu, he and his wife Margaret were for a time believed to be the city’s largest landowners, with commercial real estate holdings and a private 10-acre golf course near the coast that was concealed behind a prominent stone wall.

“Jerry is the walking embodiment of the history of Hollywood and modern Los Angeles,” Henry Cisneros, the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and former Univision president, told the Los Angeles Times in 2006. “He has been present in the worlds of many of the most prominent people.”

Born in Fresno, Perenchio was from a family of vintners. His grandfather, an immigrant, founded the Fresno Grape Exchange. But Perenchio left California’s Central Valley and went to high school in Los Angeles, where he was drawn to entertainment. As a student at UCLA, he was a band booker and, after a stint in the Air Force as a single engine jet pilot, pursued a career in showbiz and sports.

Lew Wasserman plucked him out of the mailroom when he was working at MCA, where he got a taste for working behind the scenes and letting the talent get the attention. After the government-forced breakup of MCA, he took over a boutique firm to start his own talent agency, Perenchio Artists, in 1964, which he merged three years later with another agency to become Chartwell Artists, representing actors including Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and musicians such as Glen Campbell and the Righteous Brothers.

He also had a major role in setting up some major sporting events, such as the 1971 world championship “fight of the century” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frasier at Madison Square Garden, a match-up of heavyweight champions that lived up to its billing and reaped huge returns when it was shown on closed-circuit TV. With a flair for promotion, Perenchio helped fill the crowd with celebrities. Burt Lancaster did color commentary for the closed circuit broadcast, and Frank Sinatra photographed it for Life magazine.

Two years later Perenchio was the promoter behind the Battle of the Sexes, the match up of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs on the tennis court that was a milestone in the women’s liberation movement.

That same year he partnered with Norman Lear, then enjoying the runaway success of “All in the Family” and “Sanford and Son,” produced with Bud Yorkin via their Tandem Prods. With Lear, Perenchio formed an entertainment consortium called T.A.T. Communications, which eventually grew into a production and distribution company that produced TV shows like “The Jeffersons,” “One Day at a Time,” “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” and “Diff’rent Strokes.” (T.A.T. stood for a Yiddish expression meaning “put your ass on the table.”)

In his memoir, Lear credited Perenchio and his associate Alan Horn for their business savvy that enabled the company to become a formidable distribution company. “Jerry is an Italian and he wears it like a glove, a very fine glove,” Lear wrote. “No one loves and reflects finery better than Jerry. He is a piece of finery himself.”

Lear said in a statement on Wednesday, “The world has lost a glorious, most generous man and an absolute original. There will never ever be another him.”

They were among the most successful primetime producers of the ’70s and early ’80s, and in 1981 Perenchio, Yorkin and Lear ventured into feature films when they bought Avco Embassy Pictures, renaming T.A.T. Communications as Embassy Communications. They had success with such feature films as “This Is Spinal Tap,” and the Avco film library proved valuable in the emerging home-video market, and along with the TV studio they reaped $485 million when they sold the properties to Coca Cola in 1985.

After investing in movies like “Blade Runner,” Perenchio was the financier who helped Richard and Lili Fini Zanuck’s production company when they tried to make “Driving Miss Daisy,” an uphill climb for financing that ultimately produced the best picture Oscar in 1989. When Richard Zanuck accepted the award he called Perenchio “our partner and dear friend who had such great faith in us from the very beginning and in this project from the very beginning.”

His most forward-looking career move came in 1992, when he and two foreign investors, Emilio Azcarraga Milmo and Gustavo Cisneros, bought a struggling Spanish-language network, foresaw the growing power of the Latino marketplace and turned Univision into a media powerhouse. Univision became a Fortune 500 company and the dominant Spanish-language television network in the country.

The ratings were in large part driven by Univision’s ability to mine Mexican media conglomerate Televisa, controlled by by Azcarraga and later his son, and Venezuela conglomerate Venevision, controlled by Cisneros, for hugely popular telenovelas.

Perenchio managed to largely take control of Univision, serving as its chairman and CEO and taking it public in 1996.

After the sale in 2006, Perenchio continued to invest through his company, Chartwell Partners. He and his wife were major philanthropists, particularly of education and the arts in the Fresno area, as well as the Los Angeles Opera and to the UCLA Foundation.

He also was among the GOP’s biggest donors in 2012, backing Mitt Romney and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads with more than $2 million in contributions. But he didn’t always fall in line with causes from the right. His foundation backed environmental groups and Planned Parenthood, and opposed a 1998 California ballot proposition that would have restricted school teaching to English only.

After he bought his Bel-Air home in 1986, he began buying up properties to fold into his French-inspired estate, spending millions on renovations that included an underground motorcourt for 30 cars and eventually a helipad.

Alan Horn, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, credited Perenchio for giving him a big break when he brought him in to work at Tandem Productions in the early 1970s.

“He was a mentor, a dear friend, and a singular, brilliant talent,” Horn said in a statement on Wednesday.  “More important, he was a man of total integrity, whose humility belied his extraordinary success.  I loved him.”

Perenchio is survived by his wife, and three children from his first marriage, to Robin Green, which ended in divorce.

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