Lee Gabler, David Letterman’s Famed Agent and CAA Co-Chair, Dies at 84

The veteran talent agent orchestrated the late-night host’s jump from NBC to CBS, leading to the creation of “The Late Show”

BEVERLY HILLS , CA – JUNE 08: CAA Co-chairman Lee Gabler arrives for The Help Group's 29th annual Teddy Bear Picnic at the Beverly Hilton June, 8 2006 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Matthew Simmons/Getty Images)

Lee Gabler, the famed agent that orchestrated David Letterman’s move from NBC to CBS and rose to become the co-chair of Creative Artists Agency, has died from a brain injury, Sony Pictures announced Thursday. He died Monday at age 84.

In 1993, Letterman, having built a passionate fanbase with his work on NBC’s “Late Night,” was eschewed for the position of Johnny Carson’s successor on “The Tonight Show” in favor of Jay Leno. CBS, eager to revive its then-dormant late night programming, courted Letterman to make the leap to their network.

It was Gabler who orchestrated the jump, negotiating a landmark deal that saw CBS invest $100 million into creating “The Late Show With David Letterman,” including a full-scale renovation of the Ed Sullivan Theater and a $14 million/year salary for Letterman. The move transformed television, reviving CBS’ late night lineup as “The Late Show” won six Emmys during Letterman’s tenure.

Gabler’s career began in the early ’60s in the mailroom at Ashley Steiner Famous Artists in New York. Under the mentorship of agency founder, Ted Ashley, he got his agent career started in Ashley’s Variety Show department covering “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

The agency eventually evolved into ICM (International Creative Management) and by 1970, Gabler had risen through the ranks to become EVP of the agency’s Television Department.

In 1982, Gabler was hired to join CAA’s television department, where he transformed it into one of the most powerful talent departments in Hollywood as evidenced by the Letterman deal. Under Gabler’s leadership, CAA reached a record number of 52 television shows on air in one year.

In 1996, he was appointed co-chairman and managing partner of CAA. He closed out his 25+ year tenure there in 2007 to join Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants, Inc. as a consultant.

Along with “The Late Show,” a slew of legendary TV shows came to fruition under Gabler’s TV talent department leadership at ICM and CAA — including “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Tales From the Crypt,” “The West Wing,” “House,” “CSI,”
“Band of Brothers,” “Mad Men,” “24,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “ER” and the still-running reality shows “The Amazing Race” and “American Idol,” to name a few.

Gabler is survived by his wife of 35 years, Elizabeth, President of 3000 Pictures at Sony Pictures Entertainment; as well as his sister, Melina; daughters Annalise and Jennifer; and four grandchildren.

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