Fred de Cordova

Frederick Timmins de Cordova (October 27, 1910 – September 15, 2001) was an American stage, motion picture and television director and producer. He is best known for his work on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

Fred de Cordova
Fred de Cordova
Frederick Timmins de Cordova

(1910-10-27)October 27, 1910
DiedSeptember 15, 2001(2001-09-15) (aged 90)
OccupationDirector, producer

Early life

De Cordova was born in New York City, New York, the son of Margaret (née Timmins) and George de Cordova, who worked in the theatre business.[1] George de Cordova was from a Jamaican Sephardic Jewish family related to Julian de Cordova, founder of the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park and Waco, Texas, founder Jacob de Cordova. In his 1988 autobiography, de Cordova described his parents as con artists who, during his early years, lived well and skipped town without paying their bills. He received an undergraduate degree in liberal arts in 1931 from Northwestern University.[2][3]


His first theater credit was as a performer in "Elmer the Great" (1928). After his graduation from Harvard Law School in 1933, he gained employment in the Shubert Theater organization and directed stage shows for the next ten years.[4] He was variously a performer, stage manager, stage director, and finally dialogue director, the last in "Ziegfeld Follies of 1943".[5]

He was a dialogue director in five films, including To Have and Have Not (1944). His first film directing job was Too Young To Know (1945) for Warner Brothers. He directed 23 movies. One of the better known was Bedtime for Bonzo (1951) starring future President Ronald Reagan and a chimpanzee. He also directed Rock Hudson, Errol Flynn, Tony Curtis, Audie Murphy, Yvonne de Carlo, Bob Hope and Humphrey Bogart. Much of his career was at Universal Studios, where he was known for turning out entertaining pictures quickly, even with difficult actors, and on a low budget.[6] His last film was Frankie and Johnny (1966) with Elvis Presley.[7]

He turned to directing television when there was less need for low-budget movies to serve as the second half of a double feature.[3] His skills were perfect for TV. In 1950 his TV career began with directing The Jack Benny Program, on which he was played several times by actor Ross Elliott. Other programs he directed include The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, The Bob Cummings Show, The George Gobel Program, December Bride, Leave It to Beaver, My Three Sons (108 episodes), and The Smothers Brothers Show. He directed and/or produced more than 500 TV series or segments. He produced The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson starting in 1970.[8] using the name Fred de Cordova.[7][9] He became producer of the show in 1970 and executive producer in 1984. He described his job as "..chief traffic cop, talent scout, No. 1 fan and critic all rolled into one" in a 1981 interview.[4] de Cordova was described as ".. a large, looming, beaming man with horn-rimmed glasses, an Acapulcan tan, and an engulfing handshake that is a contract in itself, complete with small print and an option for renewal on both sides."[10] He was executive producer when the final Carson Tonight Show signed off on May 22, 1992. He won five Emmys for his work on the show.

During tapings of the Tonight Show, de Cordova would sit in a chair just beyond the guests' couch so that he could cue Carson directly and speak with him during commercial breaks. By the 1980s Carson would occasionally speak to de Cordova during the show, although usually the moment would pass so quickly that there would be no time to give de Cordova a microphone or catch him on camera.

These awkward exchanges became an object of parody. An episode of SCTV aired in 1981 featured a sketch of "The Freddie de Cordova Show".[11] The segment was almost an exact copy of the Tonight Show, except the host's desk was empty; de Cordova conducted all of his interviews from his usual perch off-camera. On the real program in 1988, as a takeoff on the installation of lights in Wrigley Field, Carson ceremonially installed a light on the edge of the set so that de Cordova could finally be seen.

In June 1991, Carson's son Ricky was killed in an automobile accident; a month later, Carson paid tribute at the end of a show to his son. De Cordova was concerned that the show was going long and gave Carson the "wrap it up sign." Carson was so infuriated, from that point forward de Cordova was no longer permitted to be in the studio during the taping of the show, although he remained the show's executive producer.[12]

During guest appearances on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, comedian Will Ferrell played the role of a deluded Robert Goulet, who believed himself to be a guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Ferrell's fictional Goulet made references to de Cordova, insisting that de Cordova owed him money (or, conversely, that Goulet owed de Cordova money).[13][14]

In 1995 and 1998, respectively, de Cordova appeared as himself on The Larry Sanders Show in the fourth-season episode, "Eight", and in the sixth-season episode, "As My Career Lay Dying".

Martin Scorsese's 1982 film, The King of Comedy, about a delusional fan (Robert De Niro) who kidnaps a late-night talk-show host (Jerry Lewis), cast de Cordova as the show's producer.

Personal life

de Cordova married former actress Janet Thomas in 1963, and they remained married for the rest of his life. He died of natural causes at the Motion Picture and Television Fund Hospital in Woodland Hills, California on September 15, 2001[15] and is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.

Acting Filmography

Year Title Role Notes
1962The Jack Benny Program(uncredited) Stage managerTV
1968My Three Sons First DirectorTV
1982The King of ComedyBert Thomas
1997Mad About You Hugh MossTV
1998The Larry Sanders ShowHimselfTV


  1. "Frederick De Cordova Biography (1910-2001)". Retrieved 2013-01-14.
  2. "Winter 2001 Class notes". Archived from the original on 2012-02-04. Retrieved 2013-01-14.
  3. Bergan, Ronald (2001-09-15). "Frederick De Cordova: Film director famed for embarrassing Ronald Reagan with a chimp". The Guardian. Retrieved 2006-07-28.
  4. Martin, Douglas (2001-09-18). "Fred De Cordova, TV Producer, Dies at 90". The New York Times. pp. C1.
  5. "Frederick De Cordova". Internet Broadway Database. Retrieved 2006-07-28.
  6. Erickson, Hal. "Frederick de Cordova". Biography. The New York Times. Retrieved 2006-07-28.
  7. "Biography for Frederick De Cordova". IMDb. Retrieved 2006-07-28.
  8. "The Johnny Carson Show website (says he started in 1970)".
  9. "Biography for Johnny Carson (I)(says de Cordova started in 1962)". IMDb. Retrieved 2006-07-28.
  10. Tynan, Kenneth (1978-02-20). "Fifteen Years of the Salto Mortale". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2006-07-28.
  11. "SCTV Guide - Episodes - Series 3". Retrieved 2013-01-14.
  12. Tyrnauer, Matt (March 2011). "Once Upon a Time in Beverly Hills". Vanity Fair. Retrieved 17 November 2012. Author Bill Zehme, who is at work on a book titled Carson the Magnificent, says, "It was when Johnny returned to the air after his son Ricky died. I've studied that tape like the Zapruder film, where Carson did this tribute at the end of the show, talking about his son, a nature photographer, who had died when he was shooting on a mountain and his car rolled over him and took him down the mountain. So Carson goes through a normal show with no mention until the very end. He's clearly going a little bit long with the tribute, but there are all these majestic nature shots, and Carson is talking about his son—heart-wrenching. Carson was never so naked on the air. And then his eyes start darting over to where Freddie is, and you can see a little register of annoyance. I learned later that Fred was over there actually giving him the 'Wrap it up' sign [to indicate that the show was running over]. That was July 1991, so what happened next was Johnny exploded in the after-show meeting in his office. He took Freddie off the floor, and he was never allowed back on. That was the deathblow.
  13. "Clip of Late Night with Conan O'Brien". Retrieved 2013-01-14.
  14. "Clip of Late Night with Conan O'Brien". Retrieved 2013-01-14.
  15. "Fred De Cordova, former 'Tonight Show' producer". 2001-09-18. Retrieved 2010-02-16.

Further reading

  • Bernstein, F., "Traffic cop, talent scout, critic. Fred De Cordova keeps Carson's Tonight Show on track" People Weekly, 22:131-2. October 8, 1984
  • de Cordova, Fred, "Johnny Came Lately: An Autobiography". New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988. ISBN 0-671-55849-8 (hardcover); paperback reprint edition, Pocket Books, 1989, ISBN 0-671-67082-4.
  • Bennett, Mark, "The Big Show: A tribute to my mentor and friend, Fred de Cordova". Hawaii: The Larry Czerwonka Company, 2013. ISBN 0615856403, 978-0615856407.
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