Robert E. Thompson, TV Producer, Screenwriter

Robert E. Thompson, a screenwriter, producer and longtime Palisades resident who helped shape television as we know it today, died of pneumonia on February 11 at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica. He was 79. Known to many as Red, Thompson was born and grew up in Los Angeles. After serving with distinction in the Pacific and in Europe during World War II, he graduated from Yale University, where he began his career writing plays and short stories, including two O’Henry award-winning stories. While pursuing graduate studies at Stanford, he worked as a journalist for such publications as the San Francisco Examiner, Time-Life and the Wall Street Journal. In the mid-1950s he returned to Los Angeles and entered the newly emerging field of live television, writing for “Studio One” and “Matinee Theatre.” Over the next 35 years, he went on to write and produce such seminal shows as “Have Gun Will Travel,” “Rawhide,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” “Mission Impossible” (for which he received an Emmy nomination), and “Harry O.” In the 1970s, as theatrical movies became more and more driven by the blockbuster mentality and television became the place for content and character-driven stories, Thompson emerged as a leading figure in the new genre known as TV movies. Through them he explored issues of social and political injustice, often from a woman’s point of view. The Emmy-nominated “A Case of Rape” broke all ratings records for two-hour movies in 1974 (and is still in the TV movie Top 10 today). Even more impressive, “A Case of Rape” was instrumental in changing California state law, making it illegal for lawyers to question rape victims about their previous sexual history-a once-routine practice discouraged many women from reporting rapes. In “The $5.20 an Hour Dream” (1980) Thompson attacked the issue of unequal pay for women; among the kudos garnered by that movie was a Feminist Achievement Award from the National Organization for Women. In addition, Thompson was one of the creators of the docudrama miniseries form, to which he contributed such works as “Francis Gary Powers: The True Story of the U-2 Spy Incident” and “The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald.” His many literary adaptations included a miniseries version of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” In 1969, Thompson received an Oscar nomination for his adaptation of Horace McCoy’s Depression-era novella “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” This darkly poetic theatrical feature, directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin and Gig Young, is one of the landmark films of its era. In addition to his wife of 54 years, Joanna, a poet whose work has appeared in literary journals, including “The American Scholar,” Thompson is survived by his daughter Stacia, currently a television documentary producer working in New York, and his grandson, Jordan Thompson-DeSon, who is attending USC. A son, Kevin, died in 1962. Robert E. Thompson was a strong supporter of the political rights of writers. Donations in his name can be made to the PEN American Center, 568 Broadway Suite 401, New York, NY 10012, which defends free expression around the world (212-334-1660, or visit pen@pen.org) and to the library of Columbia College Hollywood, an institution which trains aspiring writers and filmmakers (818-401-1031)