A celebration of life memorial service will be held for Stanley G. Robertson Dec. 19 at 11 a.m. at the Courtyard by Marriott, 6333 Bristol Park Way, Palisades Garden Room, Culver City.
On Robertson’s broad shoulders stands a generation of African American producers, writers, directors, actors, technicians and executives, who are perhaps, unaware that he was the first Black vice president of both a major television network and a motion picture company and that he worked tirelessly behind the scenes for more than 50 years to make minority inclusion possible. Robertson died Nov. 16, at his home in Bel-Air. He was 85.
“Even in death, I feel Stan still fighting,” said friend and colleague, Bill Cosby, who had a long-standing professional collaboration with Robertson.
Some might say it was his stature–6’2″ with a linebacker physique–that first made people pay attention to Robertson. 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 began developing his knowledge of storytelling 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 devouring as many scripts he could get his hands on in his spare time.
A voracious reader, his career as an accomplished journalist had already reached a zenith before Robertson set his sights on working in the TV/Film industry. He did this despite a chorus of nay-sayers who advised him of the impossibility of a Black man making a career of in television.
Top brass at NBC recognized Robertson’s talents, and 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.
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.
“The unspoken attitude is still that Blacks are great for singing and dancing, but not for giving orders,” Robertson once remarked, having worked his way up to giving orders which were both respected and implemented.
At Universal, Robertson developed and produced, “Harris and Company,” the first weekly dramatic television series to depict a Black family, starring Bernie Casey as a father of five. The series was short-lived, but by then he 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.
However, it was his prior accomplishments that in 1984 resulted in Robertson being invited to Columbia Pictures and subsequently made vice president of Production by Guy McElwaine, studio president and CEO.
One of Robertson’s dreams in this job was to innovate minority programs in the hope of integrating more Blacks and women into the mainstream of the industry. His efforts resulted in the creation of the first Creative Access Program at a major studio. CAP focused on developing minority writers and directors. He also started a new producer’s 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. But 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, particularly in policy making, Robertson’s 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.