On the very broad shoulders of Stanley G. Robertson, stands a generation of African American producers, writers, directors, actors, technicians and executives, who are perhaps, unaware of the first black Vice-President of both a major TV network and a motion picture company, who worked tirelessly behind the scenes for over 50 years to make minority inclusion possible. He died November 16, 2011 at his home in Bel-Air, California at 85 years of age. “Even in death, I feel Stan still fighting,” said friend and colleague, Bill Cosby, who had a long-standing professional collaboration with Robertson.
Some could say it was his stature, 6’2”, with the physique of a linebacker that made people first pay attention. But what came out of the mouth of the black man who looked like an athlete, but spoke with the sophistication of a polished executive was what impressed everyone. “His wonderful, encyclopedic knowledge of film was what set Stanley Robertson apart. He appreciated the art and the history of film. He loved the medium. He understood what made a story work,” says University of Dayton Law Professor and former studio executive, Dennis Greene.
Robertson’s knowledge of story-telling began during his stint in the Music Clearance Department at NBC, after first being hired as a page for the network in 1957. His drive to learn as much as possible found him in his spare time devouring as many scripts he could get his hands on. A voracious reader, his career as an accomplished writer in the field of journalism had already reached a zenith before Robertson set his sights on working in the TV/Film industry, despite a chorus of nay-sayers who advised him of the impossibility of a black man making a career of it.
After receiving a degree from Los Angeles City College in 1949, for two years Robertson worked as a general assignment reporter for the Los Angeles Sentinel, (the largest circulated black paper in the west). He rose to become the paper’s managing editor and resigned to become an associate editor of Ebony Magazine. “I had attained a status very few black writers had, at a time when there were very few places blacks could go. But it turned into a dead-end.”
The decision he made to leave his post at Ebony Magazine and go back to school in 1954 to study telecommunications at the University of Southern California was perhaps fueled by a determination forged in childhood.
The only child of working class parents, Robertson was born in Los Angeles, California on November 20, 1925 with the handicap of limited vision. By the time he was 20, he had undergone 14 major eye operations, but none successful enough to preclude him from attending a school for the blind, which specialized in visually handicapped students. It was his good fortune to have been nurtured by an astute elementary school teacher, Marie Johnson, who encouraged him think beyond his boundaries, be curious about the world around him and express himself through writing. Later matriculating at California School for the Blind in Berkeley, Robertson remarked that as lovely as the campus and surroundings were he sensed he was “being prepared to make brooms, chairs and tune pianos.” Breaking away, he insisted on enrolling in John F. Francis Polytechnic High School, where he survived and flourished, mustering the mettle it would take to continue breaking down barriers for himself and others.
Having worked as a post office janitor, dishwasher in a drugstore, and doing menial work in a hospital lab, Robertson gained the insight and motivation to represent the inarticulate in his community and give a legitimate voice to their stories and concerns. His passion, both humanistic and political, came at a time when minorities were largely unrepresented behind the scenes and on the screen. Top brass at NBC recognized Robertson’s talents where he was promoted into the executive ranks, first as a Manager of Film Program Operations in 1965, then as a Director of Motion Pictures for Television and eventually Vice President of Motion Pictures for Television in 1971. Herb Schlosser, Vice President of Programs, at the time, stated, “He earned the title by doing the best job.” Robertson later ascended to the position of Vice President of Film Programs, where he was responsible for all programming produced on the network’s prime-time schedule.
Later, in an attempt to further mainstream minority images, Robertson launched his own production company, Jilcris Inc., sealing a deal with Universal Studios as a contract writer, producer and executive. It was at Universal where Robertson continued to create positive images of African Americans, (during an era when TV comedies were the only representation of blacks on TV.) “The unspoken attitude is still that blacks are great for singing and dancing, but not for giving orders,” Robertson remarked, having worked his way up to giving orders which were both respected and implemented. Robertson developed and produced, “Harris and Company,” the first weekly dramatic TV series to depict a black family, starring Bernie Casey as a father of five. The series was short-lived, but by then Robertson understood the value of being the forerunner and chipping away at perceptions. Later, his involvement with “America’s Favorite Dad,” Bill Cosby, would yield a fruitful collaboration. Robertson would come to run his production company at Universal. He, subsequently, went to Paramount Studios where he was instrumental in the production of the film “Men of Honor,” as well as other projects.
It was his prior accomplishments, however, that had been recognized by top brass in the motion picture industry when in 1984, Robertson was brought to Columbia Pictures by Frank Price, Chairman of the Motion Pictures and subsequently made Vice President of Production by Guy McElwaine, the President and CEO of the Studio. Price recalls the esteem in which Robertson was held, “I had previously gotten to know Stan as a highly respected executive at NBC. He was a superb, well-liked exec, who got the job done.” That job included Robertson’s dream to innovate minority programs in the hope of integrating more blacks and women into the mainstream of the filmmaking industry. His efforts resulted in the creation of the first Creative Access Program at a major studio, in which the studio focused on developing minority writers and directors. He also started a New Producers initiative as well as a management training program, which developed new minority management personnel. However, with the merger between Columbia and Tri-Star, the programs ceased to exist. This did not dampen Robertson’s convictions. “There is a sizeable black market out there, and they will pay to see themselves. Whites worldwide will pay to see them also. These movies are reaching more than blacks. Black filmmakers can make films about their lifestyles and they can be enjoyed by a broader society.”
Always aware that his presence behind the scenes was vital in shaping perceptions of minorities, as well as breaking down institutional barriers which limited the inclusion of minorities in policy making positions, he persisted. Robertson was intent on opening the doors for others and mentoring a new generation of diverse artists and executives. Rather than focus on the difficulties he faced, Robertson lasered in on what it took to survive and help others. Using the tunnel vision of his early days, he blocked out obstacles and soared ahead. His success was an art form in and of itself, forged with diplomacy, erudition, frankness and humor.
He is survived by his wife Ruby of 58 years, his daughter Jill Francesca and son, Christopher John.
There will be a Celebration of Life memorial service for Robertson on Monday, December 19, 2011 at 11:00 a.m. at the Courtyard by Marriott, 6333 Bristol Park Way, Palisades Garden Room, Culver City, CA 90230.