Remembering Canadian factual TV pioneer Ralph C. Ellis

The award-winning Canadian independent producer and distributor, and founder of Ellis Entertainment, has died at the age of 91.
May 16, 2016

Ralph C. Ellis, a Canadian independent television production pioneer, has passed away at the age of 91.

The founder of Ellis Entertainment began his career with the National Film Board as a field rep in Halifax, and then in Toronto, Ottawa and New York. In 1955, he partnered with Paul Talbot and Saul Turell to open Fremantle of Canada, and then in 1964, set up a shop with partners Jerry Kedey and Dan Gibson, known as KEG Productions. Soon after, he established his own distribution business, Ralph C. Ellis Enterprises.

KEG would eventually morph into Ellis Vision after producing such ground-breaking documentary series for television as Audabon Wildlife Theatre, which originally ran on the CBC from 1968-1974, and was syndicated into the U.S. market through Twentieth Century Fox; and Profiles of Nature, which aired in over 100 countries over a span of 20 years, and aired on Discovery Channel in its early days, making Ellis’ company the first Canadian indie to score an output deal with Discovery, back in 1986.

The company also made its mark in drama, partnering with William Davidson on Adventures in Rainbow Country for the CBC in 1969, and Matt & Jenny with Global Television in 1979.

Ellis, with son Stephen, also co-founded Outdoor Life Network Canada with Rogers and CTV in 1996. The Ellis duo sold its interest in OLN in 1998, a year after Ralph Ellis became a member of the Order of Canada.

Stephen Ellis had been overseeing the distribution side of the business since 1986 and was made president of KEG in the late 1990s. In an interview with realscreen commemorating Ellis Enterprises’ 35th anniversary in 1999, Ralph Ellis described the company structure: “I leave all the technical details of the business to Stephen and his staff… My talent is having an instinctual sense about a show or project. It’s always been an exciting challenge to make sure that we release only the best.”

In 2011 he retired from the family business as chairman emeritus, and in 2015, was appointed chairman emeritus of Stephen Ellis’ new company, Stellis Media, established to re-release some 600 titles of family entertainment in the genres of natural history, kids, history and science.

“I attribute his longevity to an early focus and orientation on international distribution, which became the engine pulling the production train; that and an extraordinary sense of humor that allowed him to see the lighter side of everything,” said Stephen Ellis in a statement.

“Ralph always loved what he was doing,” he added, “and when he stopped coming to the office daily in 2002, it was 23 years after standard retirement age. We called it ‘Freedom 78.’”

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