Thomas W. Sarnoff, a longtime NBC executive who went on to hold leadership roles at the Television Academy, died on June 4. He was 96.
From 1965 to 1977, Sarnoff served as staff executive vice president, West Coast, and president of NBC Entertainment Corporation. During his time there, Sarnoff negotiated production deals with all-star talent such as Bob Hope and Colonel Tom Parker for many of Elvis Presley’s television specials, as well as spearheaded the contracts for NBC’s Burbank Studios. He was also credited with the production of worldwide touring family acts in partnership with Walt Disney such as “Peter Pan” and “Disney on Parade.”
Sarnoff then founded his own company, Sarnoff International Enterprises Inc., where he produced the “Yabba Dabba Doo” live arena tour centered around beloved Hanna-Barbera characters. Sarnoff also revived the iconic Gumby character for a 1987 half-hour series and executive produced three “Bonanza” movies.
Beyond his day job, Sarnoff was a vital leader of the Television Academy and Television Academy Foundation for 50 years. His tenure began in the ’70s as a chairman of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, before it split into the Primetime Emmy-focused Television Academy and the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which oversees the Daytime, News and Sports Emmys. Sarnoff went on to serve on the executive committee for the board of governors of the Television Academy and became chairman of the Television Academy Foundation in the ’90s. He was later named chair emeritus in perpetuity. At the Foundation, Sarnoff co-founded “The Interviews: An Oral History of Television” initiative, and grew it to become the entertainment industry’s largest oral history program.
Born on Feb. 23, 1927 in New York City, Sarnoff was the youngest son of radio and television trailblazer David Sarnoff, who founded RCA and NBC. He attended Princeton University and served in World War II as a combat engineer and signal corps instructor at West Point. After the war, Sarnoff transferred to Stanford, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a master’s in business administration. After a short stint at ABC in the beginning of his career, Sarnoff joined NBC in 1952.
Throughout his life, Sarnoff also served on the boards of the American Film Institute, Hope Enterprises and Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank. He was a member of the board of trustees of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, president of the Entertainment Industry Foundation, president of the Research Foundation at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center, advisory council member of the radio-TV department of the University of Judaism and served on the California Commission for the Reform of Intermediate and Secondary Education.
Sarnoff is preceded in death by his wife of 67 years, Janyce, who died in 2021. He is survived by sons Daniel and Timothy, daughter Cynthia Sarnoff-Ross, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.