Alas, not quite. Although the lymphatic cancer known as Hodgkin's, diagnosed last November, had gone into remission by summer, the 48-year-old Tartikoff's immune system was weakened by chemotherapy. Two weeks ago, feeling fatigued, he checked into UCLA Medical Center. Septic shock eventually set in, and Tartikoff slipped into a coma 48 hours before dying on Aug. 27, with his wife of 15 years, Lilly, by his side. The news "was like a knife in the back," says Family Ties executive producer Gary David Goldberg. "We'd all been used to Brandon battling back and winning."
His track record was certainly impeccable. In 1980, when he was 31, Tartikoff became the youngest person ever put in charge of network programming, and he proceeded to take NBC from worst to first in the Nielsen ratings—and, more than that, to change the face of television. "I don't give the public what they want," he told TIME. "I'm more interested in giving them what they will want." Ideas for TV shows came to him in the middle of the night (The Cosby Show) or while visiting his elderly Aunt Lil in Miami (The Golden Girls). Tartikoff's two-word concept "MTV Cops," scribbled on a piece of paper, resulted in Miami Vice in 1984. What he envisioned as "Barney Miller outdoors" became, in 1981, Hill Street Blues. That show, produced by Steven Bochco, is Tartikoff's greatest legacy, says NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol, who hired Tartikoff as an NBC comedy executive in 1977. "Brandon brought the great ensemble drama, with multiple story lines, to TV It begot L.A. Law, begot ER."
Still, comedy was closest to Tartikoff's heart. He moved David Letterman, who flopped in a morning slot in 1980, to a successful berth in late night in 1982, and two years later placed Bill Cosby in a warm sitcom setting. NBC, which had become known for stink bombs like Supertrain and Pink Lady, achieved the leadership role by late 1989 after staying on top of the Nielsens for a record 68 consecutive weeks.
Tartikoff's favorite show? Since they were like children to him, he never singled one out. But he always spoke warmly of his first big hit: the knock-'em, sock-'em, often tongue-in-cheek A-Team, starring Mr. T, which ran from 1983 to '87.
"Brandon epitomized the baby boomer who's interested in silly stuff even when he's an adult," says Charles Leerhsen, coauthor of Tartikoff's 1992 autobiography, The Last Great Ride, and an assistant managing editor at PEOPLE. Notes Fred Silverman, a former NBC president and Tartikoff's mentor and idol: "He was very well-read, very intelligent, with a lot of highbrow ideas—and shows like Punky Brewster." As happily insatiable as a preschooler in a toy store, Tartikoff couldn't resist turning up in cameo roles on NBC shows, everything from Bob Hope specials to Saved by the Bell: And he never tired of the sport of reconfiguring NBC's lineup. "He loved the game," says A-Team executive producer Stephen J. Cannell. "He'd say, 'They're going to put on a repeat of Webster? We'll put on something that will knock them on their butts.' "
Growing up in Freeport, N.Y., in what he described as "a perfectly symmetrical 1950s sitcom family"—father Jordan, a clothing manufacturer, mother Enid, a marketing executive (she died in 1994), and a younger sister, Lisa—Tartikoff was a tube watcher astute enough to mention to his folks that Jay North was miscast as Dennis the Menace. Years later, in a fiction-writing seminar at Yale, when he suggested how the plot of a D.H. Lawrence short story could be jazzed up, the professor, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Penn Warren, said, "Young man, have you ever considered a career in television?"
Advice has seldom been sounder. Several years after graduating in 1970, he was in the promotions department at WLS in Chicago. There, he pulled together five awful ape-man movies and repackaged them successfully as "Gorilla My Dreams Week." In 1974, however, he began to learn about real-life medical drama when, at 25, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. Undergoing radiation and chemotherapy, "I vomited frequently and felt sluggish all the time," he wrote in Ride, "but I never missed a day's work." Recovered, he moved on to ABC in 1976 and to NBC the following year. In 1982, after the Hodgkin's returned, he tried to keep it secret from all but a handful of top executives. Because of hair loss caused by another course of chemotherapy, he went to work wearing a wig and false eyebrows until the disease was once again declared in remission.
Reflecting on his battle with illness, Tartikoff once told Newsweek, "I'm still no poster child for humility, but I've got a better perspective on my priorities." And despite being in many ways the quintessential TV executive, Tartikoff, says Ebersol, never behaved "like a suit." At a Cheers party, Tartikoff removed his shirt and sang "Louie Louie." When Tracy Nelson, star of Father Bowling Mysteries, herself developed Hodgkin's in 1987, he rescued her career. "When I was diagnosed after I did the pilot, they were going to replace me," recalls Nelson, who is now healthy. "But Brandon said, 'No, we're going to wait for her to get well' "
Tartikoff learned the hard way that the body heals at its own pace. On New Year's Day 1991, while driving near the family's vacation home in Lake Tahoe, he accidentally made a left-hand turn into an oncoming car. He suffered a fractured pelvis, from which he soon recovered, but daughter Calla, then 8, sustained head injuries that put her in coma for six weeks. "He felt really bad about that," says Cannell, "and really responsible."
While Calla underwent therapy with a specialist at Tulane University in New Orleans, Tartikoff that same year made a career move that shocked Hollywood: He accepted a job as head of Paramount Pictures. But after running the studio for only a year and a half, green-lighting hits (Wayne's World) as well as flops (1492: The Conquest of Paradise), he resigned to spend more time with his family. They settled into a quiet neighborhood in New Orleans, where, each morning, Tartikoff would accompany Calla to therapy. In 1994 he and Lilly adopted Elizabeth, now 3, but by then he was already drifting back into TV, creating shows with local stations. "He was going to learn to relax," says novelist Fredrick Barton, who became his tennis partner. "I don't think he did."
Lilly kept busy too, launching L.A.'s Fire and Ice Ball, a lavish celebrity fund-raiser for cancer research. According to Leerhsen, during his final illness, "Brandon was saying that the research she had helped fund was so wonderful, it was actually helping him too." Earlier this year the Tartikoffs returned to Los Angeles to enroll Calla in school. Tartikoff, happy to be on his turf, was deep into developing still more TV shows and an entertainment Web site for America Online. Then, while shaving last November, he noticed a swelling on his neck, called his doctor and braced himself for another battle. "None of us faced cancer three times and beat it," says Ebersol "None of us had to go through the car accident. Yet he stayed warm, graceful and always funny. He was the gutsiest man I ever knew."
SUE MILLER in New York City, RON RIDENHOUR in New Orleans and TOM CUNNEFF and CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles