Fred Coe was a stage, television, and film producer and director whose work is closely associated with the Golden Age of Television. Born on 23 December 1914 in the Delta town of Alligator, Frederick Hayden Hughs Coe was the only son of Thursa Annette Harrell, a nurse, and Frederick Hayden Hughs Coe, a railroad worker. Coe attended high school at Peabody Demonstration School in Nashville, Tennessee, before moving on to Peabody College for Teachers.
While in Nashville, Coe developed his directing and producing talents by creating the Hillsboro Players and working with the Nashville Community Playhouse. In 1938 Coe enrolled in the graduate program at the Yale School of Drama. He left academia in 1940 to manage and direct the Town Theatre in Columbia, South Carolina, turning this community theater into an experimental outpost for new works.
Coe began his television career in 1945 in New York City, quickly moving from floor manager to director to producer-director for NBC Television Theater. In 1948 he became the producer-director of NBC’s Philco Television Playhouse (later the Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse). This Peabody Award–winning dramatic anthology was known for its high-quality adaptations of plays, short stories, and novels as well as for its original plays written specifically for television. Among the new playwrights whose work Coe showcased were Paddy Chayefsky, Tad Mosel, Horton Foote, and Vincent Donehue. During his tenure as a television producer, Coe fought for the writer’s freedom to create real human drama. He asked for extended character sketches that placed one or two people in engrossing, real-life situations. Coe explained his approach: he did not have money to pay big stars, so he would make stars out of the writers. Coe also knew that good scripts would attract good performers, and those attracted to Coe’s work included Steve McQueen, Joanne Woodward, Eva Marie Saint, Grace Kelly, Jack Klugman, and Walter Matthau. Coe received the 1953 Sylvania Award for producing and directing the most popular anthology of the time, Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty, starring Rod Steiger.
Between 1952 and 1955 Coe was the executive producer for Mr. Peepers, a live television series starring Wally Cox that was honored with the Peabody Award in 1953. In 1954 he took the helm of the Producer’s Showcase, winning an Emmy as Best Producer of a Live Series. This ninety-minute anthology aired the Broadway production of Peter Pan, an adaptation of Robert Sherwood’s Petrified Forest, and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, among other productions. Coe then left NBC for CBS, where he produced three seasons of Playhouse 90, including productions of Days of Wine and Roses (1958), The Plot to Kill Stalin (1958), and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1959).
In the late 1960s and 1970s Coe began to expand his influence, creating specials for all three major television networks. He produced the Emmy Awards on CBS in 1962 and directed All the Way Home (NBC, 1971), which won the Peabody Award. Coe also produced Of Men and Women (ABC, 1972) and produced and directed The Adams Chronicles (PBS, 1976), earning his fourth Peabody Award. In 1979 Coe won the highest television honor, the Emmy, for his production of NBC’s The Miracle Worker.
Coe also produced versions of his television plays on Broadway, among them Two for the Seesaw (1958), All the Way Home (1960), and A Thousand Clowns (1962). His 1959 production of The Miracle Worker won a Tony Award, and he was responsible for award-winning productions of Fiddler on the Roof (1964) and Wait until Dark (1966).
Coe found success in the film world with productions of The Left-Handed Gun (1958), The Miracle Worker (1962), and A Thousand Clowns (1965). For 1966’s This Property Is Condemned, Coe not only served as the producer but also shared screenplay credit with Francis Ford Coppola and Edith Sommer. Coe’s success earned him the position of television adviser for John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign.
Coe was married twice and fathered four children. He died in Los Angeles on 29 April 1979, and in 1986 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
- William Hawes, The American Television Drama: The Experimental Years (1986)
- Gorham Kindem, ed., The Live Television Generation of Hollywood Film Directors: Interviews with Seven Directors (1974)
- Jon Krampner, The Man in the Shadows: Fred Coe and the Golden Age of Television (1997)
- Frank Sturcken, Live Television: The Golden Age of 1946–1958 in New York (1990)
- Ray Waddle, Vanderbilt Magazine (2006)
- Max Wilk, The Golden Age of Television: Notes from the Survivors (1977)