Remembering Lee Gabler—Letterman Agent Who Shook Up Late Night

Late night lost one of its greatest champions last week. Lee Gabler, the former co-chair of Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and David Letterman’s longtime agent and collaborator, passed away at age 84 on June 3rd, following a brain injury.

Gabler joined CAA in 1983, and stepped up to run the agency’s TV department in 1989. It was there that he helped set in motion a seismic shift in late-night TV, negotiating Letterman’s move from NBC to CBS.

The move occurred in 1993 after NBC chose Jay Leno to succeed the retiring Johnny Carson as host of The Tonight Show. Letterman, who had hosted NBC’s 12:30 am program Late Night since 1983, had his sights on that job—and was seen by many as the rightful heir to the desk.

In a move negotiated by Gabler, Letterman left the network for a new 11:30 pm show at CBS, Late Show with David Letterman, which went head-to-head with The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Under the groundbreaking deal, which was orchestrated by Gabler, CBS agreed to double Letterman’s NBC salary, paying the host $14 million per year for at least three years. Letterman was also granted full ownership of his new show and the right to control what appeared in the 12:30 am time slot that followed his Late Show.

CBS also committed upwards of $100 million for Late Show’s budget, including a renovation of The Ed Sullivan Theater for use as its studio.

Late Show with David Letterman and The Late Late Show, which debuted in 1995 with Tom Snyder as host, established CBS as a contender in the late-night hours. With the addition of Letterman to the CBS family, the network was finally able to compete with NBC’s lineup—and break the genre open to new competitors.

In 2007, Gabler left CAA after more than 25 years with the company to take a consulting position at Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants.

“He’s a trusted adviser, and one of the smartest guys we know,” Late Show producer and Worldwide Pants president Rob Burnett said at the time.

Gabler remained with Worldwide Pants through the run of Letterman’s Late Show, which ended in May 2015.

Six months later, in November 2015, Gabler filed a lawsuit against Worldwide Pants, claiming that the company had stopped paying his consulting contract more than two months early. Neither Letterman nor Burnett were named in the suit. (Gabler ended up dropping the suit the following year.)

Of course, Gabler’s work with Letterman was only one highlight of his storied career, which began in the 1960s in the mailroom of what was then known as the Ashley-Steiner-Famous Artists talent agency. From there, Gabler began work as an agent covering The Ed Sullivan Show. In 1970, Gabler became EVP and head of worldwide television at the agency, which by that point had become ICM. He left ICM for the role in CAA’s TV department in 1982.

Gabler’s family told The Hollywood Reporter that he “helped to establish and support the careers of a myriad of agents, graciously offering his wisdom and knowledge to guide them and the collective industry toward success. His motto always was, ‘A good deal is where everybody walks away happy.’”

It seems Letterman, for one, would agree with that sentiment. In a statement following the news of Gabler’s passing, Letterman called him “a true gentleman in a world marked by shortage of same.”

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