Lee Gabler | Credit: Getty Images

Legendary talent agent Lee Gabler, who helped create the iconic films and television shows of the past half century, died on June 3 of a brain injury at the age of 84. He had lived in Hope Ranch for the past several decades, where he and his family grew herbs and flowers, fruit trees, bees, and chardonnay vines.

The son of Milt Gabler, who released Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” on his Commodore label when Columbia turned her down, Lee Gabler got his start in the mailroom of Ashley-Steiner-Famous Artists in New York City. One of his first assignments was to book variety acts for The Ed Sullivan Show. The Ashley agency formed ICM (International Creative Management), sending Gabler to Los Angeles, where he was involved in what can only be called a series of hit programming and films.

Among his clients in the 1970-80s was MTM, or Mary Tyler Moore productions, which backed the film Terms of Endearment, the winner of the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director (James L. Brooks), Best Actress (Shirley MacLaine), Best Supporting Actor (Jack Nicholson), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Brooks, from Larry McMurtry’s novel).

By 1982, Gabler was recruited by CAA (Creative Artists Agency), now one of the top agencies in the business. He became head of the television division in 1989 and co-chair and managing partner in 1996. At CAA, he represented David Letterman, including during Letterman’s dramatic move from NBC to late-night at CBS, which won his client complete ownership of the show. Gabler was involved with Aaron Spelling — Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place — Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners, American Idol, Everybody Loves Raymond, The West Wing, Mad Men, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

His clients knew him to be a trusted advisor “boldly pursuing new heights for the television business, leaving a legacy of indelible contributions,” a statement from Sony Pictures described. He believed, “A good deal is where everybody walks away happy,” and in collaboration: an individual might create the idea but “a company and the individuals in it will accomplish much more if they adopt the ‘we’ concept as a basic.”

With his wife, Elizabeth Gabler, Lee established the Gabler Promise Scholars Writing Program at UC Santa Barbara in 2019. The program mentors students from under-resourced and underrepresented groups for a full year of personal, creative, academic, and civic writing development. Elizabeth Gabler graduated from UCSB with a degree in literature and heads Sony Pictures’ division 3000 Pictures. They similarly set up the Gabler Writing Partners Program at NYU/Gallatin School. Here in Santa Barbara, Lee Gabler was involved with the Hope Ranch Association. He served as its president for five years and, as a longtime board member, he was instrumental in maintaining the integrity of the Hope Ranch community.

Lee Gabler is survived by his wife, Elizabeth Gabler, and their daughter, Annalise Gabler. Funeral services will be private, but a celebration of life takes place later this summer. The family suggested a donation to UCLA Neurosurgery Research and Education in lieu of flower tributes.

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