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Lee Gabler Dead: CAA Agent Was 84

Lee Gabler Dead: CAA Agent Was 84

Lee Gabler, the powerful Hollywood agent who orchestrated landmark television deals during a four-decade career that included 25 years as a stalwart at CAA and a long relationship with David Letterman, has died. He was 84.

Gabler died Monday in Los Angeles from a brain injury, his wife of 35 years, Elizabeth Gabler, president of 3000 Pictures at Sony Pictures Entertainment, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Gabler, who started out at the Ashley Steiner Famous Artists agency in New York before coming to prominence at ICM, negotiated agreements for some of the most popular shows in TV history.

They included The West Wing, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, ER, Mad Men, Everybody Loves Raymond, The Amazing Race, Moonlighting, American Idol, House, Beverly Hills, 90210, Northern Exposure, 24, Sex and the City, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Melrose Place, The White Shadow, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Band of Brothers, Tales From the Crypt and Alf.

Under his leadership, CAA once had a record 52 TV shows on the air in one year.

Along the way, Gabler also advised Aaron Spelling, Jerry Bruckheimer and John Wells; Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners; Paul Junger Witt, Tony Thomas and Susan Harris’ Witt/Thomas/Harris Productions; and Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment.

After NBC spurned Letterman and chose Jay Leno to take over for Johnny Carson on NBC’s The Tonight Show, Gabler engineered the high-profile deal that brought the Late Night host to CBS and the rejuvenated Ed Sullivan Theater in 1993.

Gabler not only doubled his client’s salary but also won him 100 percent ownership of Late Show With David Letterman, which ran for 22 years and gave CBS a desperately needed late-night presence.

Gabler was born on May 3, 1940, in New Jersey to Milt and Estelle Gabler. His father produced records for the likes of Bill Haley, Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, Louis Jordan, Peggy Lee, Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald, earned a Grammy nomination in 1962 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.

Gabler was raised in the Bronx and Westchester County, graduating from Mamaroneck High School and SUNY Buffalo.

He began his career in the early 1960s in the mailroom of New York-based Ashley Steiner Famous Artists — a predecessor to ICM — and, mentored by agency founder Ted Ashley, was promoted to agent in 1964. One of his first assignments was working in the variety show department covering CBS’ The Ed Sullivan Show.

He was upped to vice president of television packaging in 1968 before relocating two years later to the Los Angeles office, where he became an executive vice president and head of worldwide television.

As ICM was created through a series of mergers, Gabler represented producer Bruce Paltrow and such blue-ribbon outfits as MTM Enterprises and the company led by James L. Brooks, Ed. Weinberger and Stan Daniels. He also helped establish the financing that allowed Brooks’ Terms of Endearment (1983), winner of five Oscars, including best picture, to be green-lighted.

In 1983, CAA lured Gabler away from ICM to fortify its television arm, and he was put in charge of the division in ’89.

Gabler became managing partner and a CAA co-chairman alongside Jack Rapke and Rick Nicita in 1995 as the agency looked to stabilize itself in the wake of co-founders Ron Meyer and Michael Ovitz leaving for MCA and Disney, respectively.

After Steve Lafferty took over day-to-day operations of the TV operation in 2005, Gabler exited in May 2007 to serve as a consultant for Worldwide Pants, Letterman’s production company. He remained on the job through the host’s last Late Show in May 2015.

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With his wife, Gabler founded the Gabler Promise Scholars Writing Program at UC Santa Barbara to support students from historically under-resourced communities and the Gabler Writing Partners Program at NYU’s Gallatin School.

He also served on boards of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, the Television Academy and the USO, traveling to Afghanistan and Iraq on two Christmas visits to boost the morale of troops.

In addition to his wife — she also led the shuttered Fox 3000 label and was behind such notable films as Life of Pi, The Devil Wears Prada and Where the Crawdads Sing — survivors include his daughters, Annalise and Jennifer, a former agent and now a manager; four grandchildren; and his sister, Melina. His daughter Melissa died in 2020.

Funeral services will be private, with a celebration of life being planned for this summer.

In his memory, his family suggests supporting UCLA Neurosurgery. This can be done here or payable to The UCLA Foundation with the memo of “IMO Lee Gabler, Fund #61088C” and mailed to The UCLA Foundation; P.O. Box 7145; Pasadena, CA 91109-7145.

Gabler, his family said, “helped to establish and support the careers of a myriad of agents, graciously offering his wisdom and knowledge to guide them and the collective industry toward success. His motto always was, ‘A good deal is where everybody walks away happy.’”

Borys Kit contributed to this report.

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