Kent McCray, a producer and production manager who collaborated with the late Michael Landon on the NBC dramas Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, Highway to Heaven and Father Murphy, has died. He was 89.
McCray died Sunday June 3rd in Los Angeles of natural causes, four days before his 90th birthday, publicist Jeff Sanderson announced.
While serving as a production manager on Bonanza (he worked on the legendary NBC drama from 1962 until its conclusion in 1973), McCray became friends with Landon, who played Joe Cartwright on the show.
In 1974, McCray was named associate producer of the two-hour pilot for Little House on the Prairie, based on the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder about a family living on a Minnesota farm in the 1870s. Landon executive produced and starred as Charles Ingalls alongside Karen Grassle (as his wife) and Melissa Gilbert (one of their daughters), then 9 years old.
After the pilot was picked up, McCray produced Little House on the Prairie for its entire nine-season run.
McCray teamed with Landon to produce Father Murphy, starring Merlin Olsen. That show aired two seasons, from 1981-83. He also became a partner in Michael Landon Productions in 1983 and produced Highway to Heaven, which ran from 1984-89 and starred Landon as an angel.
“Because of my personal and working relationship with Michael, I had the freedom to run a production as I saw fit,” the producer wrote in his 2017 memoir, Kent McCray: The Man Behind the Most Beloved Television Shows. “I have always believed that to get the best show, you must have the very best crew and then allow them to do their job without intruding on their expertise.
“There’s nothing more wonderful than looking forward to going to work every day. Because of the mutual respect and love Michael and I felt for each other and our crew family, that dream came true for me.”
In 1991, following the death of Landon (he died of pancreatic cancer at age 54), McCray produced the NBC tribute special Michael Landon: Memories With Laughter and Love.
“I am so blessed to have spent my formative years both personally and professionally under the tutelage of Kent McCray,” Gilbert said in a statement. “Kent was a masterful producer. His job was enormous and difficult, and he carried it out with effortless grace.
“Kent created an environment that allowed all of us who worked with him to grow, thrive and stretch beyond ourselves. He never viewed us as cast or crew, he saw us family. He was fiercely loyal and deeply caring. He was also incredibly funny. His legacy will live on in me and all of us who were lucky enough to have known him.”
Kent Baldwin McCray was born on June 7, 1928, in Hartford, Connecticut. His father, Thomas, was an executive at NBC Radio, and his mother, Dorothy, was a singer and musician.
He attended prep school at the Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire and then earned a full scholarship to study theater arts under Dr. Elemer Nagy at the University of Hartford (formally the Hartt School of Music).
In 1948, McCray spent a summer managing the Central City Opera Association in Colorado, then began his career at NBC in Los Angeles three years later as a production coordinator on the All-Star Revue and The Colgate Comedy Hour. He also worked on such programs as The Red Skelton Show, This Is Your Life and Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life.
McCray in 1953 was named unit manager on The Buick-Berle Show, starring Milton Berle, and began his association with Bob Hope, which included management of The Bob Hope Show and eventually the comedian’s iconic USO Christmas specials.
Under McCray’s logistical leadership, Hope and his all-star casts traveled to Alaska, Korea, Japan and Europe to entertain the troops.
While working on Bonanza, McCray also served as production manager/producer on NBC’s The High Chaparral.
McCray also produced Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie specials; several telefilms, including the Emmy-winning The Miracle Worker; and the 1984 feature Sam’s Son, starring Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson.
In 1995, McCray became a regent at the University of Hartford, endowed the Kent McCray Television Studio and dedicated The Kent McCray Theatre in the memory of his parents.
Survivors include his wife, casting director Susan McCray, whom he married in 1984; his children Deborah, Scott, Kristen and Carolyn; his grandchildren Jon, Kirsten, Tim, Connor, William, Erienne, Alyssa and Spencer; and eight great-grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to The University of Hartford/Hartt Theatre Division at University of Hartford, Office of Institutional Advancement, 200 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford, CT 06117.
Leslie Landon Matthews, Michael Landon’s daughter