Skip to main content

Stan Jacobson planning a shot for a CBC variety special, Mr. Smith Goes to The Movies, in 1980.

Stan Jacobson produced dozens of Canadian and American television shows over five decades, including several seasons of The Wayne and Shuster Show. He also produced live spectacles, such as the opening ceremony of the 1988 Calgary Olympics and the opening of the SkyDome, in Toronto, in June, 1989. But it was a CBC television special on Johnny Cash, which Mr. Jacobson produced, wrote and directed, that changed both men's lives.

Country-music historian Mark Stielper says that the program was responsible for reviving the singer's flagging career. "Cash was a cadaver and out of favour at the time, nearly out of choices and hope, when Stan, a fan and admirer, presented him with manna from heaven," Mr. Stielper said from his home near Ellicott City, Md. "The resulting triumph changed everything."

So euphoric was Mr. Cash that the morning after that (Feb. 21, 1968) taping in Toronto, he and June Carter contacted city hall to make arrangements to marry, because Mr. Jacobson had made this the right time. The couple didn't have all the paperwork to get married in Canada that day, but they did get engaged live on stage in London, Ont. Their wedding took place just more than a week later, in Franklin, Ky.

Mr. Cash was so grateful to Mr. Jacobson for kick-starting his career that he took him to the United States with him. "Johnny Cash once said to me, 'Stan helped make me,'" Mr. Stielper said. "Cash insisted to ABC that Stan produce his weekly TV show, which made John the voice of America."

Mr. Jacobson, who died this month at the age of 85, moved with his wife to Nashville, where he produced The Johnny Cash Show from 1969 until 1971. The series elevated Mr. Cash to a new plateau of fame, where he stayed for the rest of his life. At one point, U.S. President Richard Nixon invited Mr. Cash to sing at the White House and bring 10 guests. Two of them were Stan and Frances Jacobson.

When the Jacobsons were introduced to the President, Mr. Nixon asked: "Do people really love Johnny Cash as much as they appear to on TV?" Mr. Jacobson replied: "Absolutely Mr. President, even more so."

After The Johnny Cash Show ended its run, Mr. Jacobson and his wife moved to Los Angeles. They did not enjoy L.A., though, and soon returned to Toronto.

Stanley David Jacobson was born in Saint John on June 23, 1930. His father, Joseph, owned a shoe store in Saint John. When Stan was a young boy, the family moved to Montreal, the hometown of his mother, Sadie Beecher. After high school, Stan went to Sir George Williams, now part of Concordia University, then moved to Toronto.

He worked in the rag trade on Spadina Avenue for a while, and tried other things ranging from real estate to selling aluminum windows, but then became involved in live theatre, producing plays at the Red Barn Theatre at Jackson's Point, on Lake Simcoe, north of Toronto. One hit was Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, the first time that play was produced outside New York and while it was still running on Broadway. He also produced plays at Toronto's Centre Theatre.

Soon afterward, he started working at the CBC as a writer for several variety programs, including Country Hoedown. In 1961, while he was a freelance writer for the show, he produced a serious live stage play, The Connection, an avant-garde production about a drug dealer. It was a critical success.

Mr. Jacobson went on to write and produce other programs, including a long stint at Music Hop, a popular music and dance program that was his idea. It was hosted by the young Alex Trebek. He also worked on The Wayne and Shuster Show, and when the regular producer died in a plane crash, Mr. Jacobson took over as producer and director. One of his innovations was cutting back on musical numbers to concentrate on comedy.

The two comedians, Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster, were never easy to work with and Mr. Jacobson admitted they made him nervous.

"They're so damn competent it's frightening. Also they're so gentlemanly even if they didn't like me they would never say it, but they would gradually make it known," he told an interviewer. But Mr. Wayne and Mr. Shuster did like him.

"He studies direction," Mr. Wayne told the Toronto Star in May of 1966. "Most producers concentrate on the business end of the business. Jacobson's in it for the art. And he's good."

He produced more than comedy and variety; he wrote and directed an innovative documentary on the Battle of Britain in 1966 for the CBC series Telescope.

"What he did was interview pilots from both sides. I don't think that had ever been done before," said his friend and former colleague Gary Ferrier, who worked as a writer for Wayne and Shuster and The Johnny Cash Show. "I remember an interesting exchange. One of the British pilots asked a Luftwaffe pilot if he knew London. And he responded 'Only from the air.'"

For many years, Mr. Jacobson just about commuted to Los Angeles, working on specials such as The Andy Williams Christmas Show. He also worked on a sitcom that he created for ABC, Viva Valdez, about a Mexican-American family living in California. Like many things in the hit-and-miss world of show business, it was a miss. Only a dozen episodes ever made it to air.

Mr. Jacobson also did several programs for CTV, including one called Circus. Mr. Ferrier said they had to bring live animals into the studio. "I don't know how he did it, but he made it look like a real circus. It was popular and ran for three seasons, I think. As a person and a producer he was an original and a nice man to know."

A CBC publicist described Mr. Jacobson as: "intense, articulate and enthusiastic." He had a great sense of humour and was an incredibly curious man who always wanted to know the answer to everything. If there was a debate about a fact at a dinner party, he was the one to quickly seek out Google to settle things.

Mr. Jacobson wrote his own death notice shortly before he died. It was modest and short, outlining the highlights of his career of more than 50 years. He said his proudest theatrical achievement was the stage production of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?. He also mentioned his pet: "He will be sorely missed by his very best friend, his cat Ralphie."

Mr. Jacobson died in North York, Ont. on Dec. 1. He leaves his wife, Frances (née Wisleski); sister-in-law, Grace Lindover; nephews, Jamie and David Lindover; grandnephews, Sean and Cory Lindover; and grandniece, Kate Lindover.

To submit an I Remember:

Send us a memory of someone we have recently profiled on the Obituaries page. Please include I Remember in the subject field.

Interact with The Globe