Robert Costello, TV Producer, 93

April 26, 1921 - May 30, 2014
Robert Costello, TV Producer, April 26, 1921 - May 30, 2014

Robert E. Costello, a pioneering producer of classic ’50s television shows who later won a Peabody Award for the PBS series “The Adams Chronicles” and two Emmys for ABC’s daytime serial “Ryan’s Hope,” died of a heart attack on May 30 at his summer house in Amagansett’s Beach Hampton neighborhood. He was 93 and had been diagnosed many years before with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

In the ’60s and ’70s Mr. Costello introduced viewers to “The Patty Duke Show” and “Dark Shadows,” a vehicle for TV’s first vampires. He was most proud, however, of his work on “The Armstrong Circle Theatre,” a series of true-life “docudramas” that ran from 1950 to 1963 and gave such movie stars as James Dean, Grace Kelly, and Jack Lemmon their first taste of the small screen.

One legendary episode, “The Contender,” starred Paul Newman as a professional boxer who fears he will be brain-damaged if he keeps fighting; another, “The Engineer of Death: The Eichmann Story” (with Carroll O’Connor, a k a Archie Bunker, as Eichmann), included actual footage of Auschwitz and was rebroadcast the day after Eichmann’s trial in Israel.

Mr. Costello took a roundabout path to television. Born in Chicago on April 26, 1921, to Robert E. Costello Sr. and the former Bernice McClure, he was an only child. His father sold advertising space in farm magazines, and often took the boy with him on cross-country business trips. The family settled when he was 5 in Jackson Heights, Queens, where he attended high school.

He entered Dartmouth College in 1939 but left to join the O.S.S., the Office of Strategic Services, soon after America went to war. He was a code-cracker and ciphers man, stationed in Europe and North Africa, where he met his first wife, the former Mary Eddy, now Mary Eddy Furman. They were married in Algiers.

Many other members of his Dartmouth class of ’43 enlisted in the military before they could graduate. Along with those classmates, Mr. Costello finally received his college diploma 50 years late, marching proudly with the class of 1993.

He returned home after the war to attend the Yale School of Drama, graduating with an M.F.A., after which the Stevens Institute of Technology hired him for his first job, in its theater research unit. Mr. Costello had been something of an artist as a child — his parents once gave a railroad porter $10 to keep him busy, according to family lore, and the porter taught him to draw — and while at Stevens he illustrated a book called “Theaters and Auditoriums.”

Then came an odd but entertaining interlude: The book caught the attention of a wealthy Dutch businessman who owned a team of performing Lipizzaners. He hired Mr. Costello as the lighting and theater designer of the horses’ act, and later sent him through Switzerland supervising the animals in a one-ring circus.

Mr. Costello married his second wife, Barbara Bolton, the actress Barbara Dello Joio, in 1950. Five years later they bought the Amagansett house, said to have been the first one built on Marine Boulevard. They were divorced in the 1960s.

His TV productions in those years included “Mister Peepers,” “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” “Another World,” and many more. The demands on his time allowed him little time for hobbies, but he managed to amass a vast collection of whaling harpoons and scrimshaw, including one Civil War-era carving bearing the words “Death to the Confederacy” and the carved heads of several Southern generals.

After retiring in the ’80s, Mr. Costello became a tenured professor at New York University’s Maurice Kanbar Institute of Film and Television. With his third wife, the former Sybil Weinberger, a TV music producer and Emmy-winner in her own right, he also lived in Manhattan. They were married for 37 years.

He leaves three daughters and a son. Martha Keating of Church Creek, Md., and Julia Costello of Mokelumne Hill, Calif., are the children of his first wife; Kathleen Bar-Tur of New York City and Ned Bolton Costello of Old Lyme, Conn., are the children of his second. Both former wives survive, and “all spouses are friendly with each other,” said the family.

Mr. Costello is survived also by seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. He was cremated, and his ashes will be buried at Green River Cemetery in Springs on July 23 following a private family service there.