by DALE K. MYERS
Distinguished Frontline producer, James Michael “Mike” Sullivan – one of the guiding figures behind the indelible PBS television program – died suddenly of an apparent heart attack in the library of his Marblehead, Mass., home on Sunday, June 23. He was 67.
Mike spent more than two decades working for Frontline where he served as senior producer on dozens of award-winning programs including 1993’s Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?
“Mike was a brilliant tactician,” friend and Frontline reporter Gus Russo said. “When we were mapping out how we were going to run down all of the conspiracy theories, Mike suggested we start with finding out who pulled the trigger in Dallas first and then work backward from there to find out if anyone else was involved. It was a brilliant idea and saved us a lot of time following false leads. Conspiracy theorists today would do well to follow Mike’s suggestion.”
The result was one of the best shows ever produced about the assassination; one of those rare programs that offered an in-depth look from all angles at the prime suspect in Kennedy’s murder. The program made history on many fronts, including the first ever airing of audio recordings Oswald made in Minsk, new fingerprint evidence on Oswald’s rifle, and a long-sought after photo of Oswald in the company of David Ferrie, the original target of New Orleans DA Jim Garrison.
Sullivan went on to supervise the production of The Gulf War (1996), The Farmer’s Wife (1998), Pope John Paul II: The Millennial Pope (1999), and Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero (2002). As executive producer, he stood behind films like Ghosts of Rwanda (2004); Country Boys (2006); The Mormons (a 2007 co-production with American Experience); God in America (a 2010 co-production with American Experience); The Interrupters (2012); and Kind Hearted Woman (2013).
Mike took pride in his work and cared deeply about Frontline and its mission.
“He was always ready to challenge ideas, and dig into the stories he was working on, “said David Fanning, Frontline’s founder and executive producer. “We relied on him for his intellect and his passion. We will miss his presence, his memorable laugh and his genuine concern for his friends and colleagues.”
Born in Coquille, Oregon in 1946, Sullivan grew up in nearby Myrtle Point with his three siblings. After high school, he attended Harvard University where he studied English and received a bachelor’s degree in 1968. He taught English for a few years in California and Oregon while dreaming of a career in filmmaking.
He met television reporter Jeanette Harrison while living in Portland, Oregon. Harrison was a tall, striking, strong-willed woman “who immediately caught my attention by refusing to pay much heed to my excellent advice about how to produce her stories,” he wrote in 1993.
They married in 1978 and worked in Minneapolis before Sullivan landed the Frontline job in 1987.
“He found people fascinating,” his wife, Jeanette said. “He loathed pretension, but he delighted in people of all sorts. He delighted in people who excelled in their pursuits, people who were unusual, people who were passionate, and people who were selflessly committed to an ideal or an idea.”
He was a man who didn’t conceal his opinions, being quite forceful at times, and who fought for things he really believed in. And all of his many admirers recalled a man who had a great roaring laugh. Too ill to continue working, Sullivan left Frontline in early 2013, his films having won dozens of national awards including duPont-Columbia batons, Emmy Awards and Peabody Awards. Some of his work is highlighted in this video tribute put together on the occasion of his retirement.
“He really was always sort of a small-town boy at heart,” his wife Jeanette said. “Even though he had developed an intellectual and professional sophistication, he stayed true to himself.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Sullivan leaves a daughter, Kate of New York City; a son, Jake of Brookline; twin sons from his first marriage, Jason and Sean Smith; a brother, Dennis of Eugene, Ore.; and a sister, Sheila of Portland Ore.