TV news producer Mike Sullivan, who guided WCCO-TV’s award-winning I-Team in the 1980s and continued to win documentary awards as a senior producer for PBS’ “Frontline,” died last month at his home near Boston.
Sullivan, 67, had an instinct for budding social issues that could be addressed compellingly by television, said Ron Handberg, former general manager of WCCO, Channel 4.
“He was one of the first and extraordinary producers of long-form, documentary and investigative television reporting,” said Handberg, who hired Sullivan as a news producer and writer in 1976. “He could see issues the public hadn’t recognized and bring them to light.”
Sullivan’s WCCO teams won a handful of Emmys for community service, a dozen Peabody and DuPont-Columbia awards and other honors. He earned more honors during his 25 years with WGBH Public Television in Boston.
Former I-Team reporter Don Shelby recalled Sullivan as a witty, insightful leader with the ability “to take our ego out of it and remind us we were doing journalism and fulfilling the function [set by] the Constitution. We were uncovering that which others, some in government, wished not to have made public. … He was an incredible leader, a great mentor and friend.”
Sullivan, a voracious reader, died of a heart attack on June 23 in his favorite chair, in front of a packed floor-to-ceiling bookshelf in his home’s library in Marblehead, Mass., said Jeanette Harrison-Sullivan, his wife of 34 years. She said he had heart trouble and diabetes, which led him to resign as executive producer for special projects at WGBH in January.
“He was dedicated to the medium of journalism, to the truth and the light it could add to society,” Harrison-Sullivan said. “He was one of the most honest, loyal and highly ethical individuals I have ever met. He found people fascinating. He loathed pretension, but he delighted in people of all sorts, from our talkative postman to one of the architecture critics at the New York Times.”
Sullivan grew up in Myrtle Point, Ore., graduated with an English degree from Harvard University in 1968 and taught high school English for a few years before getting a TV news job in Portland, Ore. In 1980, after four years at WCCO, he helped develop the I-Team, anchored by reporters Shelby, Al Austin and Larry Schmidt.
The trio appeared to have plateaued in their careers, Shelby said, but Sullivan inspired them.
“He gave us back our strength,” recalled Shelby, 66. “He said it all hinges on people and story. You have to tell a story. … We built a story and populated it with human beings that the audience could understand and sympathize with or dislike.”
And when reporters were backed up on stories, Sullivan was not above “making calls to gather information,” Shelby said. “He pitched in. He was not just a coach, but a part of the team.”
Sullivan was promoted in 1981 to public affairs director. His duties included overseeing annual public interest stories on topics such as child sexual abuse, mental health, traffic deaths and others for which WCCO won three Emmys for public service, noted Nancy Mate, an assistant producer who worked with Sullivan.
In addition to his wife, Sullivan is survived by daughter Kate of New York City; son Jake of Brookline, Mass.; twin sons from his first marriage, Jason and Sean Smith; brother Dennis of Eugene, Ore., and sister Sheila of Portland, Ore.
A service was held Tuesday at Memorial Church at Harvard Yard in Cambridge, Mass.
Jim Adams • 612-673-7658