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The Oilman Who Helped Bring Us ‘Masterpiece Theatre’

In the 1970s, author and social commentator Tom Wolfe joked that the first letter in PBS stood for petroleum, because oil money underwrote so much public broadcast programming. Wolfe had a point. One of the network’s most acclaimed shows, Masterpiece (originally Masterpiece Theatre), got its start in 1971 thanks to a $490,000 grant from Mobil Oil.

That largess was the doing of Mobil chairman Rawleigh Warner Jr., who died on June 26 at age 92 in Hobe Sound, Fla. The public probably associated Warner’s industry more with Jett Rink, the rough-hewn wildcatter portrayed by James Dean in the 1956 movie Giant, than with the elegant, refined Brits who often appear in Masterpiece’s dramas.

That didn’t deter Warner. He apparently decided that highbrow entertainment would not only buff Mobil’s image but elevate American tastes as well. As he explained in 1971: “The aim is to offer American audiences quality television programming that provides both social and artistic value.”

Here are some facts about Warner and the intellectually uplifting program that he helped make possible:


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