It was both poignant and ironic that I had just left the FOX lot in Century City when I saw this alert flash onto my phone at a traffic light. Per DEADLINE’s Erik Pedersen:
Jonathan Dolgen, a respected longtime entertainment industry executive known for his tough dealmaking and attention to budgets while chairman of Viacom and earlier as President of Columbia Pictures’ film unit and head of television at Twentieth Century Fox, died Monday of natural causes at UCLA Medical Center. He was 78.
From personal experience, I can assure you that at one time many of those who worked for him, which included many of my colleagues, that this was a day they wished had happened decades earlier.
Dolgen once ruled the very building that I met a wonderful current executive in today, and in hindsight it was eerie that the iconic red carpet and throwback offices that had been its decor since the 1930s had only recently been remodeled to look like an AirBNB rental, with hardwood floors now covering the hallways that Dolgen and others would roam.
My own dealings with Dolgen were at times intimidating and even terrifying, but they weren’t as bad as those who literally spent the night hunched over spreadsheets and tweaking presentations that would soon face his meticulous scrutiny, fearing his ferocious wrath should his piercing light blue eyes that gave him an albino-like look catch them in what he perceived to be an error. I lost track of the number of hours I spent listening to one particular colleague, a brilliant recent graduate who was otherwise one of the most lively and upbeat people I had ever met, pour her heart out about how she could not sleep as I helped provide her the data for her analyses.
As THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER’s Mike Barnes accurately recalled in his story about Dolgen’s passing:
A burly 6-foot-2 with penetrating blue eyes, the intimidating Dolgen was known to enjoy the gamesmanship of negotiations and for his incendiary disposition. (He liked to swing a baseball bat in his office, referred to as the “Heart of Darkness” by many who dealt with him.)
“Mr. Dolgen has a reputation for having an abrasive personality and an incandescent temper, even by the standards of Hollywood, where screaming is sometimes regarded as a normal level of discourse,” Bernard Weinraub wrote in The New York Times soon after the executive joined Viacom.
Abrasive? On one memorable afternoon we saw a fire truck wend it way through the narrow pathway to the trailers that served as my division’s offices with its lights blazing as it stopped in front of where our business affairs team was housed. A few minutes later, we saw the head of the department, a studio veteran of considerable tenure, being wheeled out with an oxygen mask clearly visible over his face.
“He had just had a meeting with Dolgen”, explained my boss.
The likes of an executive like Dolgen being allowed to behave in the manner that he did in today’s business world is minimal, given how times have changed and the willingness of employees to accept that kind of behavior has all but disappeared. But as Barnes and Pedersen continued, he also produced exceptional results:
(A) former Wall Street lawyer, Dolgen also held top positions at Columbia Pictures, Fox and Sony Pictures before becoming the first top executive recruited by Redstone for the newly merged entertainment conglomerate forged by Viacom’s $8.2 billion purchase of Paramount Communications.
In 1985, Dolgen moved to Twentieth Century Fox, where he became President of Television, as well as as well as its SVP Telecommunications. Soon after Fox launched its TV network, Dolgen became president of Fox Inc. and chair of 20th Century Fox TV.
He returned to Sony Pictures in 1990 and a year later was named President of Columbia Pictures Movie Division, which included both Columbia and Tristar. Tasked with tightening the company’s purse strings, Dolgen was known to cut common perks – from sending corporate jets for talent to fruit baskets for execs – ultimately cutting the marking budget by a third.
“I had known Dolgen off and on over the years when I was a motion picture exhibitor, even before I gained control of Viacom,” Redstone recalled in his 2001 book, Passion to Win. “He was with Columbia Pictures, and I remember sitting with him in one particular meeting that became rather heated and thinking, ‘Boy, there is one smart guy.'”
(T)he financial whiz left three major studios in better shape than he found them. Successful films released under his watch included Gladiator (1992), Groundhog Day (1993), Forrest Gump (1994), Braveheart (1995), Mission: Impossible (1996), Titanic (1997), The Truman Show (1998) and The Italian Job (2003).
I shared both a home borough and a passion for consuming newspapers and TV with Dolgen, who took a liking to me after he challenged me to help him in the executive pro football pointspread pool. He repeatedly had asked my boss to do that; he was obsessed with doing better than one particular fellow executive, but my boss barely knew that a football wasn’t round. I helped Dolgen finish ahead of his rival. I received my first studio contract not long after that–one my boss had to repeatedly assure me wasn’t directly tied to my football knowledge, but one that Dolgen personally signed off on, at a salary I hadn’t even dreamed of asking for.
I also got to see the side of Dolgen that his family made sure the trades knew about; given his reputation, these stories weren’t as retold:
He received the Motion Picture Pioneer of the Year Award in 2002, and other accolades included the Simon Wiesenthal Humanitarian Award and the UCLA Neurosurgery Courage Award.
As a philanthropist, Dolgen donated to many foundations and organizations such as Pitzer College and most significantly to UCLA Neurosurgery and Cornell University, the latter of which he believed gave him the start to his career. In 2008, Cornell rededicated a longstanding building on its Ithaca campus as Dolgen Hall.
Many in media of a more recent era might know the surname from his daughter Lauren, a highly accomplished executive who rose to prominence at MTV. Whenever you’d meet her, she’d immediately race to his defense any time someone would dare to say something disparaging about him. And Dolgen and his loving wife Susan frequently opened their beautiful home to other executives and clients for parties during the LA Screenings. Jon would hold court and tell priceless stories with the wit and timing of a top comedian. To hear him describe the ridiculous demands and cost overruns of HEAVEN’S GATE was a window into Hollywood at its worst, and he was unafraid to name names and remind anyone within range of his voice (which, when agitated, was roughly a thirty-mile radius) how he inevitably saved the day.
I also saw a humbled side of him when I would see him leave one-on-ones with Barry Diller, who he reported to during his FOX tenure. Diller’s own temper and tenacity were far more storied, and often eclipsted even Dolgen’s. At a retreat I saw Jon walking dazedly around the lobby one morning and, while I didn’t know him that well, I was concerned. He took a deep puff of his cigarette and in a rare moment of concession admitted, “I finally got the boss I deserved”.
Say what you will about the executive, and I’ll be among the first to remind anyone who has nothing good to say that in the business world, sometimes results DO matter. As a father, husband, and citizen, he produced even more exemplary and telling results than he did for his employers. Anyone who thinks his soul headed south yesterday would be sadly mistaken.
So now he’s got a new boss for eternity. And I’m sure it’s the one he deserved.
RIP, Mr. Dolgen.
Until next time…