Loss of an Emmy icon and good friend: Hank Rieger

“I don’t care. We’re doing this!” Hank Rieger harrumphed back in 1989 when many TV academy leaders refused to cooperate with me while I wrote the first — and to this day only — book on the Emmy Awards. They were terrified of what I might write, didn’t want to let me snoop through the archives.

Hank was no longer ATAS president. Technically, he didn’t have the power to overrule them, but he did so anyway because, hell, he was really still the academy’s de facto leader. Everybody deferred to his judgment because he had once rescued the academy after it split into two national academies – one in New York, one in L.A. —  guided the L.A. half to survival and stuck around for years to help it redefine itself as cable TV and the Internet threatened the old broadcast establishment.

Hank had once been a print journalist like me, so he knew how important it was to run an open house, tell the whole story – good and bad – so he threw open the academy’s doors to me and said, “Go at it, kid. No restrictions.”

The academy had much to hide, frankly.

Its split from the New Yorkers back in the late 1970s had gotten ugly, for example, and some of its leaders behaved like jerks as they launched petty personal attacks against their adversaries out east. Hank took me through the archives box by box, carefully showing me pages of old issues of Variety and the Hollywood Reporter that detailed horror stories of “the divorce,” as it used to be called, plus pages recording some of the academy’s great achievements. His cooperation, insight and perspective along the way helped me to write a better book.

Meantime, by the way, I was also writing a book about the Grammys and those leaders blocked me from their archives and refused even to talk to me on the record. Worse, when that book came out, they got me kicked off MTV, VH1, E! and CNN while I was trying to promote it and they bullied TV Guide, Reader’s Digest and other publications to drop me as a Grammy writer.

One day, after my Emmy book was published, I was out in front of the TV academy, standing by the massive Emmy statue in the plaza when the then-president of ATAS walked up to me and said, “I’d like to talk to you about your book, OK?”

“Sure,” I said.

“You know what we call that book around here?” he said. “We call it ‘Hank’s Book’ because he railroaded it through this place when a lot of us thought it was a bad idea to cooperate. We wanted to counter the threat by doing our own, official book. But I’m really glad we worked with yours. It’s a good book – even the bad parts – I learned a lot and I don’t think the whole story would be told if we had done it ourselves. Organizations have a way of covering their own asses. Hank knew that and he wanted to save us from ourselves.”

That’s probably the best compliment anybody could give to Hank. The words acknowledge him as serious journalist, serious academy and TV leader, a wise man with good sense. I have much to thank him for and, now that he’s gone – he died this week at age 95 – I will miss him much. He was a TV academy giant and a great friend to us all. Especially to Emmy.

Below is Hank’s official academy obit:

Henry “Hank” Rieger, a Los Angeles icon in the fields of news and public relations and former President of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (1973-75, 1977-1980), died Wednesday of old age in Oceanside, California. He was 95.

For more than 20 years during the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, Rieger served as bureau chief for United Press International (UPI) in various cities, including Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Francisco and New York. In 1953 he took a leave of absence from UPI to serve as press attaché for the U.S. Consul General in Singapore. He also briefly headed up press and publicity for the Southern California Gas Company.

In 1965, he began a 15-year run as West Coast Director of Press and Publicity for the NBC Television Network promoting such popular TV programs as “Bonanza,” “I Spy,” “Star Trek,” “Laugh In,” “Sanford and Son” and “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson.” He traveled overseas with Bob Hope when the famed comic entertained US troops.

After leaving NBC in 1979 to operate his own PR firm, he became the West Coast PR representative for the then fledgling ESPN, a relationship he maintained until his death. He served the Television Academy for 40 years, first as President of the Hollywood Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS), then as President of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (Television Academy) and as editor and publisher of Emmy Magazine, the publication he created for the organization. In 1994 he was honored with the Television Academy’s Syd Cassyd Award in recognition of his long and distinguished service.

“Hank Rieger worked tirelessly for many years on behalf of the television academy,” said Television Academy Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Bruce Rosenblum. “He believed in The Academy’s ability to have a positive impact on the entire entertainment industry, and we are deeply grateful for all he contributed.”

In the late 1960s and ’70s, Rieger served as Vice President of the Special Olympics in California. He was part of the Organizing Committee to bring the 1984 Summer Olympics to Los Angeles.

Rieger was born on September 20, 1918, in Kansas City, MO but grew up in Phoenix. He attended the University of Arizona and the University of Southern California, where he later became an adjunct faculty member in the School of Journalism.

In World War II, he served in the Army and was assigned to intelligence and counter-intelligence in the Pacific. Beginning as a Private, Rieger left the military as a Major.

His wife of 65 years, Deborah A. (Hays) Rieger, died last year. He is survived by his sister, Ruth (John) Lepick of Long Beach, CA.; his niece Julie (David) Burns of San Francisco; and his cousins JoAnn St. Claire of Westlake Village, CA.; Ann Marie Carr of Tempe, AZ; and Mary (Ted) Weeks, of Crystal Bay, NV.

Rieger was a member of the Glendale Lodge of the Masons, of the Al Malaikah Shriners, Los Angeles, and of the Scottish Rite in the 32 Degree.

For more information about the life of Hank Reiger, go to TelevisionAcademy.com. In accordance with his wishes, his ashes will be scattered at sea. A memorial is planned. In lieu of flowers the family requests donations in his name to the Television Academy Foundation,  or to the USC Annenberg School of Communication, 3502 Watt Way, Suite 304, Los Angeles, CA 90089-0281 or give to U.S.C.

Above: Hank Rieger, left, with other past ATAS president Tom Sarnoff.

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