Peter Roth started his career in show business fresh out of Tufts University with the dream of becoming another Harold Prince or Joe Papp in theater. He couldn’t have known back in 1973 that he was destined to become the Peter Roth of television executives.
“If you had a problem, you called Peter. If you needed advice, you called Peter. If you were wondering if you were doing your job well, Peter would beat you to the punch and call you, singing your praises, building you up and making you feel good,” says Julie Plec, a showrunner who worked with Roth for more than a decade at Warner Bros. TV. “He was a hands-on leader who never let the corporate side of the business prevent him from stepping right in just when he was needed the most.”
Roth exited his role as chairman of Warner Bros. Television Group at the end of 2020 after a 21-year run as the leader of Hollywood’s largest TV production studio. On Oct. 14, Roth will be saluted for his nearly half-century in the industry with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The star will be located at 6918 Hollywood Blvd., sandwiched between Veronica Lake and Richard and Robert Sherman.
Roth recalls two moments of epiphany that kick-started the journey that would lead him through executive posts at ABC, Stephen J. Cannell Prods. and Fox before he took the reins of Warner Bros. TV in March 1999. For one, after three years of pursuing his passion, “it occurred to me that working in legit theater was a very difficult way to make a living,” he says.
The other came when he found himself working (without pay at first) for the late producer Ira Barmak on a TV pilot.
“What I found was, ‘Oh this is where I should be. This is the medium that has impacted me the most and I can make the most impact here,’” Roth says.
Roth’s impact was measured on the former Time Warner’s bottom line for two decades. He led the studio through a dramatic period of growth and expansion into original content for cable and streaming, animation and short-form digital. “Two and a Half Men,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “The West Wing,” “Smallville,” “Third Watch,” “The O.C.,” “Supernatural,” “The Middle,” “Arrow” and “The Flash” are among the many shows he helped nurture. He was renowned for wooing some of the industry’s biggest stars and showrunners to plant their flags on the Warner Bros. lot — from Chuck Lorre to J.J. Abrams to Ava DuVernay — and had the experience and the diplomatic skills to help them realize their artistic vision.
“Peter Roth is the role model for how all creative executives should approach their jobs,” says Rick Rosen, WME partner and longtime friend and associate of Roth. “He’s incredibly passionate and a great salesman. He has such love for the product, such love for the talent and for working with them.”
To wit, Lorre considers Roth to be a crucial ingredient in his own success over the years.
“For 25 years, at table reads, run-throughs and shoot nights, I’d constantly glance over at Peter to see if he was laughing. If he was, I knew we were in good shape,” Lorre tells Variety. “I trusted his response. He was unafraid to be vulnerable. To let out an honest belly laugh. He was the rare TV exec who never felt the need to maintain that bullshit, stoic, I-know-something-you-don’t demeanor.”
Brett Paul, president of Warner Bros. Television, also saw first-hand how Roth would connect with talent and rely on a certain gut sense of the shows, stars and concepts that would resonate with network buyers and viewers.
“He has a really unique intuition about what shows will be successful and a way of willing them into being,” Paul said. “He loves talent. He loves getting to know them and developing an empathetic understanding of what they are going through.”
As with so many others in the industry, Roth’s busted pilot (for a live-action kids show called “Bomba the Jungle Boy”) led him to greener pastures. ABC passed on the show, but an executive in the children’s programming department, the late Bonny Dore, took a liking to the enthusiastic young man. While Roth was still nursing his wounds from failing to sell the show, Dore called to offer him a job. In an instant, Roth realized that his decision (born of privilege, to be sure) to work without pay for Barmak had already paid off. Which is why to this day he advises people to look past the negatives and find a way to gain experience no matter what it takes.
“When you see an opportunity, you do what you have to do to get the job,” he says.
Roth credits the kindness and generosity of key mentors for helping his career take off. Dore at ABC taught him the ropes of being an executive. Later, when he had been promoted into ABC’s drama department, he took many good lessons from his then-boss, Marcy Carsey. The woman who would go on to be one of TV’s most successful comedy producers in her Carsey-Werner Co. partnership with Tom Werner, led with a measure of grace and humor that impressed Roth.
“She knew how to get the best out of me,” Roth says. “She really made me understand the value of a true leader.”
Carsey recalls that it was impossible to ignore the sheer energy that Roth poured into his work. More than once she had to shoo him out of ABC’s offices after a particularly long day during pilot season. The two have maintained a “mutual admiration society” as both saw their careers take off in the 1980s and ’90s, Carsey said.
“He was so diligent and so anxious to do not just what his job was but to reach beyond it to see if he do it even better or more intelligently than it had been done,” Carsey told Variety. “I remember telling him ‘Peter, you’ve got to go home. You’ve got to live a life and bring it to work because we do stories about life and people in relationships.’ “
Roth left ABC in 1986 to become president of Stephen J. Cannell Prods. Cannell, who died in 2010, was a rare breed of showrunner who also had the business skills to run a bustling independent production company. Roth calls Cannell “one of the most generous human beings I’ve ever met.”
The creator of “The A-Team,” “Hunter,” “Riptide” and other high-octane shows taught Roth a great deal about how to effectively communicate with creative talent.
“From Cannell I learned to be honest but sensitive in giving notes,” Roth says. “He would say, ‘Be thoughtful, be reasonable and be fair — you’ll succeed not only in business but in life.”
Roth moved to the Fox lot in 1992 as head of the 20th Century Fox Television unit. The TV studio expanded dramatically on his watch and by 1996 he was promoted to entertainment president of the network arm, Fox Broadcasting Co.
Three years later, Warner Bros. came calling. Roth considers former Warner Bros. chiefs Bob Daly and Barry Meyer key mentors who led by example. “These are extraordinary human beings from whom I watched and learned and listened. That was the greatest gift of all,” Roth says.
Most recently, Roth says, he has had the privilege of working with and gaining insight from DuVernay, the filmmaker who inked a rich overall deal with Warner Bros. TV in 2018.
When DuVernay told Roth she wanted to produce the OWN drama series “Queen Sugar” with a production staff populated entirely by women and people of color, Roth was supportive but questioned whether it was possible. He quickly learned how wrong he’d been.
“She talked the talk and walked the walk,” Roth says. “She proved that this was achievable, and she guaranteed their success. It was the greatest lesson for all of us at Warner Bros.”
Today, Roth is a board member of DuVernay’s ARRAY production entity that has invested in assembling a database of female and BIPOC crew members in order to foster more diversity in this aspect of the creative community. It’s up to 7,000 names so far. “No one can use the excuse ‘I looked everywhere’ to bring diversity to my crew. Now the information is right in front of you,” he says.
Roth and his wife of 48 years, Andrea Roth, are involved in a number of other industry organizations and boards, including helping to select the first class of participants in the Peter Roth Internship Program that began this year in partnership with the Paley Center for Media.
Roth admits he was reluctant to retire because of his love for the game. Nearly nine months later, he realizes that he’s never had more time to indulge in the two major loves of his life — his family and television. These days, keeping up with the explosive growth of television content is a lot less stressful than it used to be.
“I think I’m able to be more objective,” he says. “I think my analysis [of programs] are a lot more crisp and less impacted by my own neurotic need to succeed,” Roth jokes. “I can see myself on this path that is incredibly fulfilling and I’m enjoying immensely.”