Modell was born to a Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York. His father George was a wine sales manager who went bankrupt after the stock market crash of 1929 and later died when Modell was 14. At the age of 15, Modell left high school to help support his family.
His first job was cleaning the hulls of ships in a Brooklyn shipyard. In 1943, when he was 18, he joined the US Army Air Corps. After World War II, he enrolled in a New York City television school under the G.I. Bill. In 1947, he founded his own production company with a fellow student and in 1949, they produced one of the first daytime shows in the country, Market Melodies, dedicated to cooking and decorating. Modell sold the idea of his show to the Grand Union grocery store chain and Modell installed televisions, at his expense, in the aisles of the chain’s stores where the show soon became very popular. At the time, very few households had televisions so the store format was wildly successful. In 1954, using the lucrative Grand Union account as leverage, he was hired as a senior account executive at the advertising company L.H. Hartman Co. in New York City, eventually becoming a partner. Formed after the Prohibition era, the L.H. Hartman was primarily involved in liquor advertising. In 1958, Modell bought an upstate New York champagne maker, Gold Seal Vineyards Inc. In 1960, L.H. Hartman was dissolved, and Modell again used his Grand Union account to land a job as senior vice president at the advertising firm Kastor, Hilton, Chesley, Clifford & Atherton...
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