Jamie Tarses, the TV executive and producer who was the first woman to head a Big Three network entertainment division, was remembered Monday by former colleagues and television executives as a gifted, whip-smart “force of nature” who forged a path for others in a male-dominated industry.
Tarses died Monday at the age of 56. Her passing shocked the industry as she came up the ranks and remained a respected figure among the generation of industry executives who came up in the 1990s.
Tarses is credited with helping to pave the way for other women at the top of TV. Walt Disney Television chairman Dana Walden and 20th Television president Karey Burke both hailed Tarses as a mentor. Tarses “shattered stereotypes and ideas about what a female executive could achieve, and paved the way for others, at a cost to herself,” said Burke.
She leaves a strong legacy of spotting talent ranging from the creators of “Friends” to backing Aaron’s Sorkin’s first TV effort at ABC.
“Jamie’s creative genius sparked culture-defining shows that have spanned decades,” said Walden. “She gave an early voice to some of the industry’s most prolific storytellers, and boldly led ABC at a time when the industry saw very few women in leadership roles. She will be remembered as a mentor and role model for many, myself included, and an inspiration to the entire creative community for generations to come.”
Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke called Tarses a “titan in the media industry” who pioneered female leadership.
“I knew we were in for a treat if Jamie wanted to share a creative passion,” said Salke. “She was never the producer to sit by the side but, rather, felt completely connected to the writer and the creative in every way. It was an honor for us at Amazon Studios to partner with her on ‘The Wilds’ and her passion and brilliance were felt throughout the series. We will all miss her dearly and our hearts go out to her friends and family.”
Describing her as “whip-smart” with a sense of humor, former ABC publicity chief Kevin Brockman said Tarses, who led the network from 1996 to 1999, had a great creative sense. Having brought hits like “Friends” and “Mad About You” to fruition at NBC, Tarses oversaw Aaron Sorkin’s “Sports Night,” David E. Kelley’s “The Practice,” “Dharma & Greg” and “Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place” at ABC.
“I thought her ability to look at something and to see its underlying potential was really kind of astonishing,” said Brockman. “And it made you proud to be there.”
But as the first woman to lead a network entertainment division, Tarses was saddled with a great deal of scrutiny, and besieged by reports of internal friction at the network.
“She did a good job — I think she had a lot of things stacked against her, because she was a woman at the time,” said Brockman. “There hadn’t been a lot of them. A lot of people were gunning for her to fail, which was unfortunate.”
Brockman kept in touch with Tarses over the decades, going out to lunch a couple times a year and occasionally running into her at the local farmers market, where Tarses’ husband ran a stand. “The world’s a little bit darker, sadder today,” he said.
Calling Tarses a “force of nature,” NBCU entertainment networks head of program planning strategy Jeff Bader recalls becoming head of scheduling at ABC at the same time that Tarses rose to the top of the Disney-owned network. “She had an uphill battle from the get-go. Not only did she come in as the first female network president, she did so at a very young age. But she didn’t let any of that stop her. She had impeccable creative taste and an amazing confidence that commanded your attention when she walked into a room.”
Remembrances poured in from all corners of Hollywood on Monday.
“I was incredibly fortunate to work for — and learn from — Jamie Tarses,” said FX chairman John Landgraf. “In particular, I doubt I would have been involved in so many successful comedy series across the span of my career without the benefit of her mentorship. I will always remember Jamie as a magnificent creative executive—a uniquely gifted woman whose success at such a young age was truly well-deserved.”
Other industry execs who spoke with Variety remember Tarses as an insightful producer who was passionate about making television and talented at nurturing creatives.
After stepping down from her post at ABC in 1999, Tarses’ prolific producing career included “My Boys,” “Marry Me,” and Amazon Studios’ “The Wilds.”
Among the many series she produced, ABC comedy “Happy Endings” was a show that Tarses was particularly passionate about and proud of, said WME veteran Rick Rosen.
“Jamie was truly gifted. She was as gifted an executive and producer with material as anyone I’ve worked with,” Rosen said. “She had this ability to really reach writers… and made them feel safe, and could be incredibly constructive even when they were hard conversations.”
Epix president Michael Wright worked with Tarses on three series, including “Franklin & Bash,” while he was head of programming for TBS and TNT. He recalled her “extraordinary skill and strength” as a producer.
“She was one of the finest people I’ve ever worked with: smart, fun, funny, tough but fair, and a gifted teacher,” he said. “She was generous with her knowledge, and taught me as much or more about this business than anyone. I’ll miss her wisdom, humor, and friendship. She was a special person, and I’m heartbroken over her passing.”
Beyond her creative taste or presence, said NBCU’s Bader, he will remember Tarses’ love of TV.
“Her enthusiasm for all things TV was contagious and it’s this enthusiasm and spirit that will forever come to mind whenever I think about her,” he said.