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Longtime Viacom, Fox & Sony Executive Known For Tough Dealmaking Was 78

UPDATED with memorial service details: 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.

Born the son of a trade union organizer on April 27, 1945, in Queens, Dolgen served in the Army Reserves before becoming a Wall Street lawyer. He was recruited to the Columbia Pictures legal team as Assistant General Counsel in 1976. He was upped to SVP Worldwide Business Affairs three years later and promoted again in 1980 to EVP, now responsible for making the major deals and negotiating contracts.

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Columbia in 1981 formed a pay-TV and home video unit, before it had big revenue from either area, and numbers-cruncher Dolgen was elevated to president of the nascent division. While there, he negotiated deals that would change the cable TV industry, including the first studio deal of its kind with HBO.

In a 1994 New York Times feature, Dolgen said his father told him, figuratively speaking: “You can walk out of any negotiation as long as you leave your hat. You can always come back and get that hat. It’s true.”

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.

Dolgen was elected Chairman of Viacom Entertainment in 1994, the same year it acquired 50.1% of Paramount Communications. Suddenly, he was Sumner Redstone’s Man in Hollywood at a time when Paramount’s market share was shrinking.

“You come to work in the morning and you work 12 hours, and then you’re off 12 hours,” he said in the Times profile. “And then you come to work again, and you push, and keep pushing, and learn, and keep learning. And you begin to accomplish what you want. … The trick is tenacity.”

For a decade, Dolgen led the company in film, TV, amusement parks, Simon & Schuster and music publishing, with Sherry Lansing at his side as president. They were a key part of the team responsible for Best Picture Oscar winners Titanic, Braveheart and Forrest Gump and were instrumental in the creation of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Frasier, the latter of which won a record five consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series from 1994-98.

The New York Times piece also quoted the likes of David Geffen and Michael Ovitz on Dolgen. “[He] “understands how the dollars are made and where the fat is and the meat is in all these businesses,” Geffen said. “He is one of the most effective guys in town.” Added Ovitz, then-CAA chairman and soon to become President of the Walt Disney Company, “He has an extraordinarily quick mind and an encyclopedic knowledge of every aspect of the business.”

In 2004, after a career as a studio executive brokering some of Hollywood’s biggest and most innovative deals, Dolgen formed Wood River Ventures LLC as an advisory and investing media firm.

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.

Considered to be a “walking encyclopedia and a human Google search,” his curiosity, mind and memory were sharp from childhood to his death, his family said.

Dolgen is survived by wife of 57 years and high school sweetheart, Susan; daughters Tamar and Lauren; his brother, David Dolgen; son-in-law Sergio Bicas; and three grandchildren.

A public memorial service is set for 12:30 p.m. Thursday, October 12, at Mount Sinai Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills. A shivah will follow at the Dolgen family home: 16079 Royal Oak Road in Encino.

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