NBC’s Robert Greenblatt Has No Regrets About His Surreal Upfront Duet with Dolly Parton

'People thought, What is he thinking?'

NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt hates sitting through upfront events as much as you do. "I think those upfronts tend to be just mind-numbing for the audience. They go on too long, and we show clip after clip and they become routine and formulaic," Greenblatt said.

So as NBC was preparing for last May's presentation at Radio City Music Hall, Greenblatt was eager to shake things up. "I thought, is there something that we can do that just feels different?"

The result was surprising and surreal: partway through the proceedings, Greenblatt introduced Dolly Parton, who performed her song "Coat of Many Colors," which was the basis for the first of several movies NBC was going to make based on her life and music. Then, she asked Greenblatt to join her on "I Will Always Love You"—and he did. While the exec held his own on the piano ("He usually sings with me," Parton said), it didn't make the spectacle any less bizarre.

"People thought, 'What is he thinking?'" said Greenblatt. Still, the duo received a standing ovation as Parton cracked to advertisers, "we're looking forward to many projects, so get that money out!"

A year later, Greenblatt said he "can't articulate" what prompted him to make the movie deal with Parton. "It was just kind of a gut instinct, even though doing a holiday family movie with Dolly Parton probably sounded as silly as doing a live musical called Sound of Music," said Greenblatt. "It seemed like a good idea. I've known her for years, and I've done other things with her"—including producing the Broadway musical based on her film 9 to 5, which Parton wrote the music and lyrics for—"so I knew that there's a certain base level of belovedness for her."

It was that same gut instinct that led to last year's upfront duet. "I wanted to do something at the upfront that was going to not only get attention, but be fun for us and for the audience," Greenblatt said. "And that was organic and seemed to be a good idea at the time, and it worked."

It did, but it also became a running punch line through the rest of the week's upfronts. "Oh yeah, like Jimmy Kimmel calling me a fool, I think he said," recalled Greenblatt.

Not exactly: during his annual ABC upfront appearance/roast last year, Kimmel said, "I was actually handed a note to read to Bob Greenblatt, if you'll indulge me: Dear Bob, we're glad that Dolly Parton will always love you, because after what you made us sit through yesterday, no one else ever will. Signed, Everyone."

In the end, Greenblatt got the last laugh. Almost than 16 million viewers (in live-plus-7 numbers) turned in for Dolly Parton's Coat of Many Colors when it aired in December, making it the most-watched broadcast movie in more than four years.

Only after those ratings came in was Greenblatt finally able to breathe a sigh of relief. "I said to people after Coat aired and did so well, 'Thank God!' Because I would have really looked like a moron if it had been a huge failure!"

Instead, NBC is preparing for round 2. The network announced yesterday its next Parton movie, Dolly Parton's Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love, will air later this year (likely during the same December timeframe), featuring the original cast.

No word on whether he and Parton will reteam for an encore Monday at Radio City Music Hall, although now that NBCUniversal is combining its cable, NBC and Telemundo upfront presentations into a single event, it's unlikely there will be enough time for a musical interlude. But just in case, can we suggest "Jolene"?