Bill Sargent | | The Guardian

The Guardian: obituary

As an entertainment impresario, Bill Sargent, who has died in his native Oklahoma at 76, was the exact larger-than-life promoter, creating huge hits and pushing big flops, earning millions then losing the lot, but always brimming with new schemes, some of them successful, others disastrous.

Many of his ideas were of a technical nature, and he registered 400 patents of electric and electronic gadgetry – earning himself a reputation among technicians for being more an inventor than a showman. He was also a shrewd pioneer of such innovations as pay-per-view television, and his film Richard Pryor: Live In Concert (1979), which he cannily labelled “uncensored,” was the highest money-maker of its kind ever. It remains the standard today.

Sargent started his career as an electronics mechanic, an interest which had begun as a small boy. At six, he was helping his radio-repairman father in his workshop in the small town of Caddo, when he accidentally burned it down – together with the family home. By nine, he had become a licensed ham radio operator, and was a high school maths prodigy before his teens. 

He soon achieved a six-figure income installing public address systems in schools and hotels and, in 1959, moved to Hollywood to use his prodigious talents as a promoter. In 1962, he introduced pay-per-view television in Los Angeles with his own firm, Home Entertainment Co, by presenting a closed-circuit boxing match between Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) and George Logan. Two years later, he made a videotape of Richard Burton in Hamlet on Broadway, and showed it in 1,000 cinemas. It made $3m, of which one-third was profit.

That year Sargent also thought of filming rock concerts to attract youngsters, and formed the Teenage Music International, or Tami Show, featuring the Rolling Stones, the Supremes, the Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye and Chuck Berry. The show was a financial success and excerpts are still occasionally seen on MTV.

In 1965, he produced a successful movie about the legendary star Jean Harlow, and then released a film version of the hit musical, Stop The World I Want To Get Off. Money from these successes went to building a modern electronics laboratory in Missouri, but Sargent’s clumsiness with fire struck again. He absentmindedly put a hot welding torch on a 50-gallon drum of thinner; the explosion blew him 170 feet and the flames razed his lab.

Overcoming this disaster, he raised enough money to build a new recording studio, but chose the unlikely site of Salt Lake City, capital of the Mormon Church. Not surprisingly, musicians preferred to play elsewhere, although Sargent did record part of the score for the hit film, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). But the studio was another financial failure.

Then he secured the film rights to Samuel Gallu’s one-man play, Give ‘Em Hell, Harry, with the actor James Whitmore playing President Truman; it was shown in 1,565 US cinemas over three days in 1975 using Sargent’s improved video-to-film process, Theatrovision. It grossed $15m. Sargent was in the money again, Whitmore was nominated for an Oscar, and the impresario became Showman of the Year in an award from the ShowWest annual cinema owners’ meeting in Las Vegas.

He is survived by his wife Helen of over 35 years and their one daughter, and his four other children.

Among Sargent’s failures was a proposed Beatles reunion in 1976; a play starring Elvis Presley as Rudolph Valentino, which was never produced; and a closed-circuit television “death match” between a great white shark and a man, which found no sponsors. He also sought unsuccessfully to replace free televising of the 1978 Super Bowl football game with his own pay-per-view screening in cinemas.

· Horace William ‘Bill’ Sargent, showman and inventor, born April 17 1927; died October 19 2003

The Guardian: Obituary of Bill Sargent

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