William Sargent

Business brain behind pay-per-view television
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The Independent Online

H. William Sargent, electronic engineer and television producer: born 1927; married (five children); died Caddo, Oklahoma 19 October 2003.

In 1962, the idea of pay-per-view television in Britain seemed as unlikely as Martians landing on Earth. During that year, ITV was still establishing itself as an advertising-financed channel and the BBC, funded by the annual licence fee, introduced the classic series Steptoe and Son, Z Cars and That Was the Week That Was.

But, in the United States, the concept of paying for an individual screened event - which took another three decades to cross the Atlantic - began with the Home Entertainment Company's closed-circuit screening in cinemas of a boxing match between Cassius Clay (the future Muhammad Ali) and George Logan. The business brain behind the idea was William Sargent.

At the age of six, Sargent had burnt down his family home while trying to repair a radio, and he went on to become an electronics expert with a business installing public-address systems. He moved from his native Oklahoma to Los Angeles in 1959 and eventually held 400 patents on a multitude of gadgets, tape heads, distribution amplifiers and electronic camera components. "In the field of electronics, there's nothing man's mind can conceive that technology can't make work," he said.

In 1964 he invented "Electronovision" to transfer a videotape recording of Richard Burton's Broadway performance of Hamlet (directed for the stage by John Gielgud) to film. When it was screened in cinemas, the film took an extraordinary $3m at the box office. This established Sargent as a producer and, in the same year, he pioneered the filming of rock concerts with The T.A.M.I. Show, a documentary for the cinema featuring acts such as James Brown, the Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, the Supremes and the Beach Boys. Again, the videotape was transferred to film.

Then, he and his Electronovision company made Harlow (1965), starring Carol Lynley, one of two biopics made that year about the Hollywood "blonde bombshell" Jean Harlow.

Returning to the idea of filming plays in the theatres where they were performed, Sargent produced for Warner Brothers a screen version of the British stage musical Stop the World - I Want to Get Off (1966). He deployed his improved video-to-film process, Theatrovision, for Give 'em Hell, Harry! (1975), the actor James Whitmore's one-man stage show about Harry S. Truman. In 1979 he produced Richard Pryor Live in Concert.

Less successfully, he failed in a 1976 attempt to reunite the Beatles and in getting Elvis Presley to star as Rudolph Valentino in a play at Radio City Music Hall, New York. He also built a recording studio in Salt Lake City where part of the music soundtrack for the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) was recorded.

Anthony Hayward