Studio head and producer Herbert Solow (pronounced "Solo") was an unsung creative force behind several of television's most beloved series throughout the 1960s and 1970s. From his humble beginnings in the William Morris Agency mailroom, Solow quickly rose through the ranks of network television and later became the head of programming at Lucille Ball's Desilu Studios. His first program was the enduring cultural phenomenon "Star Trek" (NBC, 1966-69), developed with series creator Gene Rodenberry. In addition to the iconic sci-fi show, Solow oversaw such Sixties staples as "Mission: Impossible (CBS, 1966-1973) and "Mannix" (CBS, 1967-1975) before moving on to MGM Studios, where he shepherded programs like "The Courtship of Eddie's Father," (ABC, 1969-1972) and "Then Came Bronson" (NBC, 1969-1970). As the head of MGM's film division he also had a hand in such significant films as David Lean's "Ryan's Daughter" (1970), the Clint Eastwood wartime adventure "Kelly's Heroes" (1970), and the rock documentary "Elvis: That's Just the Way It Is" (1970). Under his own producer's shingle, Solow created television films like the horror-fantasy "Killdozer" (ABC, 1974) and the -fi series "Man from Atlantis," (CBS, 1977-78). Other feature film efforts as a producer included the grim drama "Brimstone & Treacle" (1982) before Solow eventually retired from show business and later co-wrote the professional memoir Inside Star Trek: The Real Story. Though far from a household name, Solow was a fanboy favorite and one of the more influential and successful personalities in Hollywood during the peak of his career.
Born Herbert Franklin Solow on Dec. 14, 1930 in New York City, he was one of two sons born to Francis Louise and Morris Davis Solow, who was employed as a salesman. Initially raised in the New York borough of the Bronx, he and his family soon relocated to nearby Mt. Vernon. Tragedy struck the young boy early on, when Solow's mother, after a protracted stay at an area hospital, died from cancer - a fact that was kept hidden from him for several years. Suddenly the son of a widowed father whose work kept him busy, Solow was largely left to his own devices as a teen, taking a keen interest in radio programs, theater and sports. Soon after graduating from Mt. Vernon's A.B. Davis High School and briefly entertaining an offer to play professional baseball, Solow entered the renowned Ivy League institution of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. During his time there, he worked at the school radio station while pursuing his majors in American literature and drama. Immediately upon graduating in 1953, the ambitious Solow - looking to enter the entertainment industry, but presented with few clear-cut avenues - took on the soon to be regarded cliché position of a mailroom clerk at New York's William Morris Agency. Within three years, the intelligent and hard-working Solow was promoted - first, to secretary, then associate agent at William Morris until he left for greener pastures in 1956.
Following a revered former supervisor from William Morris, Solow moved to California National Productions, a subsidiary of NBC, to work as a program executive, focusing primarily on international sales at their New York offices. So impressed were the higher-ups with his work that in 1960, Solow was promoted to the position of program director for NBC's film division, a position that brought the young executive to Los Angeles. When government anti-trust regulations resulted in the NBC film division being dissolved shortly thereafter, Solow went to work for CBS, where he was brought on as the Director of Daytime Programs, West Coast. His tenure at CBS was even briefer, however, when a top-down management shuffle resulted in Solow being quickly replaced. As chance would have it, an opening at NBC in West Coast daytime programming became available at the same time and so, within a year of his departure, Solow found himself once again working for the Peacock Network in virtually the same position he had momentarily occupied at CBS. After several successful years in daytime programming, Solow took a leap of faith and left his job at NBC when Lucille Ball personally offered him a position as the Program Director for Desilu Studios. With this, Solow began one of the more momentous chapters of his career.
Until recently, Ball had overseen Desilu with her former husband and "I Love Lucy" (CBS, 1951-57) co-star Desi Arnaz and now looked to the highly recommended Solow to help manage the day-to-day operations at the studio. Located on the lot formerly occupied by the legendary RKO Studios, Desilu was experiencing more than its share of financial difficulties after losing most of its popular television series and failing to find success with its film division. Working under veteran CBS programmer Oscar Katz, Solow was tasked with acquiring shows for the struggling studio and keeping Ms. Ball appraised of their progress. Although presented by her publicists as the commander-in-chief of the studio, it had, in fact, been Arnaz's business acumen and keen eye for talent that had led to the studio's earlier triumphs. Now it fell to Solow to, as Ball so succinctly phrased it, "get me shows." Quickly deemed to be the best man for the job, Solow was eventually appointed Vice President of Desilu and Executive in Charge of Production in 1964. While making a name for himself in his quest for new programming, Solow came into contact with an up-and-coming young writer-director who had an idea for a show he described as "'Wagon Train' to the stars." The aspiring TV mogul's name was Gene Rodenberry, and while several of his ideas left Solow cold, there was something that intrigued him enough to take a gamble. Little could Solow have realized that he and Rodenberry were about to make television history.
After a protracted period of development and an initial failed pitch to CBS - in which Solow did not participate - they were at last given the greenlight to produce a two-hour pilot for what would become "Star Trek" (NBC, 1966-69). Built around the ongoing adventures of an interplanetary federation - the naval structure of the organization was one of the key elements that appealed to Solow early on - the pilot episode starred handsome leading man Jeffrey Hunter as starship captain Christopher Pike. Also brought on board was actor Leonard Nimoy in the role of Mr. Spock, the half-human/half-Vulcan science officer. Famously, Solow nixed Rodenberry's initial vision of Spock sporting a satanic tail and red skin, although the famous pointed ears remained. Unfortunately, this first effort was rejected by the network, although they had been impressed enough by the production values of the first endeavor to give both men another chance and ordered a nearly unprecedented second pilot. Taking the network's notes into consideration, the Desilu team put together a new single-hour pilot, which could then do double-duty as a regular series episode. Casting, however, soon became a problem. Even though told he could keep nearly everyone except Nimoy - "the guy with the pointy ears" - Solow instead did the reverse, replacing nearly everyone from the first episode, with the exception of Nimoy. Although Hunter had been invited back to reprise his role, the film star's change of heart about taking on a weekly series necessitated finding another lead to play the starship captain. That actor was William Shatner, who took on the newly created role of Captain James T. Kirk.
In spite of Solow's disregard of the request to eliminate Spock, upon viewing the new pilot, NBC ordered "Star Trek" to series with the admonishment that any episodes prominently featuring the Vulcan be kept to a bare minimum. Interestingly, within a few weeks of the premiere, a discrepancy in the amount of fan mail received by Shatner and that addressed to Nimoy revealed something no one could have predicted - the fans loved Spock. Continually under budget and behind schedule, Solow's team nonetheless worked tirelessly to deliver thought-provoking adventures that relied less on laser battles and more on inventive tales crafted by top-notch science fiction writers - Harlan Ellison and Theodore Sturgeon, among them. Opening with the stirring theme music of composer Alexander Courage and bookended by the narrative device of Kirk's Captain's log, each week the multi-cultural crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise - a television first - explored strange new worlds and civilizations on a five-year mission that would ultimately continue for generations. The ratings, however, were not so stellar for "Star Trek" from the beginning and after a near cancellation - a letter writing campaign by the small, but loyal fan base to save the show later became the stuff of legend - the adventures of Kirk, Spock and the Enterprise crew were brought to an end after three seasons. Although it would later be revived as a series of feature films, television spin-offs, novels, games and fan conventions, for all intents and purposes, the cancelation brought Solow's association with "Star Trek" to a close.
As busy as he was with the day-to-day of "Star Trek," it was only a part of Solow's impressive legacy during this period of time at Desilu. "Mission: Impossible" (CBS, 1966-1973) was yet another innovative take on the adventure genre. Following the exploits of the Impossible Missions Force, a hand-picked team of espionage agents, the show featured yet another memorable theme, this time by composer Lalo Schifrin, and an accomplished cast that featured actors Peter Graves, Martin Landau, Barbara Bain and later, Nimoy, in a post-Spock role. While not the cultural phenomenon that "Star Trek" would become, "Mission Impossible" lived on in reruns, series reboots and, decades later, a massively successful feature film franchise starring Tom Cruise. Another popular series that came about under Solow's watch was "Mannix" (CBS, 1967-1975), a private eye series starring Mike Connors as a rough-and-ready gumshoe who preferred old-school tactics to modern crime solving methods. As much as he enjoyed the challenges and triumphs he had come to know at Desilu, with Ball's selling of the studio to Gulf + Western in 1967 and its subsequent absorption by Paramount Pictures, Solow once again moved on. At MGM, he assumed the position of Vice President of Television Production. Within a short time, Solow was overseeing such memorable shows as the ground-breaking hospital drama "Medical Center" (CBS, 1969-1976), the beloved Bill Bixby dramedy "The Courtship of Eddie's Father," (ABC, 1969-1972) and "Then Came Bronson" (NBC, 1969-1970), a sort of existential adventure-drama starring Michael Parks.
Having proven himself on the small screen, Solow soon moved into feature film with his appointment as MGM's Vice President of Worldwide Motion Picture and Television Production, heading company studios in both Culver City, CA and Borehamwood, England. During this time and under Solow's supervision, MGM released several films with the industry's most renowned directors and Hollywood's greatest stars. Among these projects were director David Lean's epic Irish drama "Ryan's Daughter" (1970) and the quirky fable "Brewster McCloud" (1970) from future indie icon Robert Altman. That same year saw the comic "anti-Western" "Dirty Dingus Magee" (1970), starring Frank Sinatra, and the rollicking World War II action-comedy "Kelly's Heroes" (1970) with Clint Eastwood. Another undertaking was the triumphal return of the King of Rock-n-Roll to live performance covered in the documentary "Elvis: That's the Way It Is" (1970). The following year, Solow embraced his B-movie instincts with the seminal Blaxploitation movie "Shaft" (1971), starring Richard Roundtree as a Harlem private eye. He also briefly reunited with Roddenberry, hiring him to write and produce the sexploitation dark comedy, "Pretty Maids All in a Row" (1971), directed by Roger Vadim and starring Rock Hudson as a psychotic sexual predator coaching at a Southern California high school. Change was in the air once again when, following a series of shake-ups at the studio, Solow left MGM to become an independent filmmaker and formed Solow Productions.
Early Solow efforts as an independent producer and screenwriter included the telefilms "Heat Wave!" (ABC, 1974), about a small mountain village in the grip of a deadly drought, and "Killdozer" (ABC, 1974), a sci-fi horror tale penned by former "Star Trek" writer Theodore Sturgeon. The result of a "what if" conversation he had had with a friend, Solow developed and executive produced the short-lived sci-fi adventure "Man from Atlantis," (CBS, 1977-78). Starring newcomer Patrick Duffy as the eponymous web-fingered marvel, the project fared well as a series of four pilot films, but less so once it moved to its position as a weekly program. Utilizing the experience he had gained at MGM, Solow moved back into feature film production with the controversial drama "Brimstone & Treacle" (1982), starring Police front man Sting as a malevolent charmer. Other efforts included the little-seen rock music oddity "Get Crazy" (1983) and the papal comedy "Saving Grace" (1985), the latter of which marked Solow's swan song as a producer. Although semi-retired, Solow revisited his most noteworthy legacy by co-writing Inside Star Trek: The Real Story (1996) with series co-producer Robert H. Justman. A year later, Solow co-authored The Star Trek Sketchbook with his wife, Yvonne Fern. In later years, Solow and Fern settled in Lampeter, a small town in the county of Ceredigion, Wales, where he lectured part-time at Lampeter University and offered his services as a freelance script consultant via his official website.
By Bryce P. Coleman