Fred De Cordova

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Frederick Timmins De Cordova, film producer and director: born New York 27 October 1910; married 1963 Janet Thomas; died Woodland Hills, California 15 September 2001.

The winner of four Emmy Awards, the producer-director Fred De Cordova had worked extensively in the theatre and in films before television made him famous as the longtime producer of The Tonight Show when it was hosted by Johnny Carson. He also produced television specials for such stars as Bing Crosby, Noël Coward, Claudette Colbert and Lauren Bacall. Outside the United States, he will be best remembered as the director of a series of briskly efficient comedies and costume epics of the 1940s and 1950s, including Bedtime for Bonzo, famous for starring Ronald Reagan and a chimpanzee, Deanna Durbin's final movie For the Love of Mary, and several colourful escapist adventures starring Yvonne De Carlo.

Born Frederick Timmins De Cordova in 1910 in New York City and educated at Northwestern University, he studied at Harvard Law School but on graduating in 1931 he immediately found work as an office boy and "gofer" in the theatrical offices of Lee and J.J. Shubert, the powerful producers, graduating to stage manager.

In 1938 he joined Alfred Bloomingdale Productions, where he worked as dialogue director on several shows, notably the 1943 editiion of Ziegfeld Follies, which had an illustrious line-up of credits – it starred Milton Berle, Ilona Massey and Eric Blore, was directed by John Murray Anderson, had songs by Ray Henderson and Jack Yellen, costumes by Miles White and choreography by Robert Alton. The following year De Cordova was offered a Hollywood contract as a dialogue director at Warner Bros.

After working in that capacity on Janie (1944), Between Two Worlds (1944) and the Errol Flynn western San Antonio (1945), he made an inauspicious début as a director on Too Young to Know (1945), a minor drama about a wife (Joan Leslie) torn between her marriage and her career. His next film, Her Kind of Man (1946), was the sort of Prohibition-era crime drama for which the studio had become noted, but De Cordova's uncertain handling prompted the studio to assign him to lighter fare such as Love and Learn (1947), That Way With Women (1947), Always Together (1947) and his best film for the studio, a lively adaptation of a Broadway hit, Wallflower (1948). He then moved to Universal, where he found a niche directing their medium-budget comedies and adventures, maintaining a brisk pace for undemanding fare such as the Sonja Henie musical The Countess of Monte Cristo (1948) – like Durbin, Henie was coming to the end of her screen career – and the De Carlo films The Gal Who Took the West (1949), Buccaneer's Girl (1950) and The Desert Hawk (1950, in which De Carlo played Scheherazade).

Of Bedtime for Bonzo (1951), he said,

I thought it then, and I still think it is a good movie. But until Ronald Reagan became Governor of California, it was just another picture. Now it's all anybody talks about.

The director's other comedies included a follow-up (though not a sequel), Bonzo Goes to College (1952), plus Katie Did It (1951) and Here Come the Nelsons (1952). Later De Cordova said, "I realised I was never going to be another William Wyler", and after filming the Audie Murphy western Column South (1953) he signed a contract with CBS-TV, and became producer and occasional director of The Burns and Allen Show (1954-55). He also worked on December Bride, The George Gobel Show and Mr Adams and Eve before a four-year period producing and directing The Jack Benny Show (1960-63). He and Benny became good friends, and Benny's daughter was later to write, "Fred De Cordova was, next to George Burns, my father's closest friend and confidant."

De Cordova later compared Benny to some of the guests he handled on The Tonight Show:

Many people I've worked with carry a large entourage, and make sure the entourage precedes them to alert everyone who is coming next. On the Johnny Carson show the guest stars are frequently preceded by their hairdresser, make-up man, publicist, piano player and assorted hangers-on, who announce whosits will be here in 15 minutes. Jack just walked in.

In 1963 De Cordova married the actress and model Janet Thomas, and in 1965 he returned to movie-making with two films, the Bob Hope comedy I'll Take Sweden and the Elvis Presley musical Frankie and Johnny, neither distinguished.

Returning to television, he directed the hit comedy series My Three Sons, starring Fred MacMurray (1966-70), then had the greatest success of his career as producer of The Tonight Show. He spent 22 years with the show, winning Emmy Awards on four consecutive occasions, 1976-79.

In 1988 he wrote an autobiography, Johnny Came Lately, the title reflecting the fact that Carson came late into his career, when the producer was already 60 years old. The book detailed the partnership between the two men, and how closely they worked on the show, discussing guests and how each night would play out. "He cares," said De Cordova of Carson. "He does not phone it in. He works very hard and he wants everyone else to work as hard as he does."

He added, "Carson makes me happy to go to work, and my wife makes me happy to go home."

Tom Vallance