Spring 2011

It's A Wonderful Life

As a legendary figure in the history of TV comedy and the director of such iconic series as The Dick Van Dyke Show and All in the Family, John Rich has touched and influenced numerous lives. But perhaps even more important are the contributions he's made to the Directors Guild of America in more than 50 years of tireless service.

Photographed by Scott Council

Few, if any, directors have seen and participated in as much Guild history as John Rich. He joined the Screen Directors Guild in 1953, serving as a board member for more than 50 years, guiding the organization toward its 1960 merger with the Radio and Television Directors Guild, and playing a pivotal role in establishing the pension and health plans. But in addition to being an iconic figure in the Guild, he is also the Zelig of sitcoms. Indeed, it seems as if the affable director had his hand in practically every classic comedy series from the early 1950s through the 1980s.

Even before graduating Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Michigan in 1948, Rich had already started his broadcast career as a radio sports announcer, earning one dollar an hour. ("My early inspiration for getting into television was the need to eat on a regular basis," he once joked.) Entering the fledgling TV industry, he followed a brief stint as a stage manager by directing a live variety show, then tackled sitcoms (I Married Joan, Our Miss Brooks), Westerns (Gunsmoke, The Rifleman), detective dramas (The Law and Mr. Jones), and even two episodes of The Twilight Zone.

He hit his stride directing 41 episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966), but it was his award-winning pilot for All in the Family (1971) and a four-year stretch directing and producing that groundbreaking series (as well as working on spinoffs Maude, The Jeffersons, and Good Times) that proved his career pinnacle. For his work on those series, he won two DGA Awards and three Emmys.

But no matter how busy his career was, Rich always found time for the DGA. For his dedicated service, he received two of its highest honors—the Robert B. Aldrich Award in 1993 and Honorary Life Membership in 2003. A masterful storyteller (evident in his memoir, ), Rich shares here some rollicking anecdotes about his successful series and keen insights into his beloved Guild.

JEFFREY RESSNER: OK, let's go back to 1953 when you joined the Screen Directors Guild. What was your first impression?

JOHN RICH: I was directing I Married Joan and I had to become a member of the Guild to [shoot on] film, because I had been in live television. My first meeting was a knockout. Talk about jaw dropping—there I was, in the same room as Frank Capra, George Stevens, Rouben Mamoulian, and John Ford. I felt completely humbled sitting among this pantheon of great directors. But, in a way, at that time the Screen Directors Guild was essentially a mom and pop operation. It was small and consisted basically of motion picture directors until the mid-'50s when some television people like me began to creep in. That night we had been introduced as the new young members to a smattering of applause, and I was determined not to say anything.

Q: What happened at the meeting?

A: As I recall, they were taking nominations for the Screen Directors Council so names were being shouted out from the floor and written on a blackboard. It was all very primitive and quite a laborious process. There were maybe 24 names called out, and 16 were to be voted onto the Council by a show of hands. While they were counting up the votes they read the treasurer's report, and then asked for any questions from the audience. No one said a word. Since I came from radio where dead air was not allowed, I figured what the hell. I raised my hand and said I had recently read in Variety that 51 percent of all work in town was being done on television, but none of those incredibly gifted nominees were guilty of ever directing TV. Well, it was a shocking comment, and there was an audible gasp in the room. I was essentially a young squirt, around 27 years old, a wise guy, really. The next day I got a call from [Executive Secretary] Joe Youngerman and was told I'd been appointed as an alternate to the board. I couldn't believe it. In fact, for the first couple of years I said very little and listened very carefully. As time progressed and the older members died off, I'd have an increasingly obnoxious voice, I guess, and people started to listen to me a little bit more.

Q: Was there a different tone to board meetings in your early days in the Guild?

A: It was a much smaller union then, and of course the board members were all icons in their own right, so if they wanted to talk, they talked. There was a tendency in the early days for debates to go on a lot longer. I remember one time there was a thing going on where the networks were taking films and cutting them up terribly. And John Ford growled at Delmer Daves, 'I saw your show the other night, Broken Arrow. They cut it so bad there wasn't one fucking Indian left in the show.' That kind of commentary was very endearing. They really let their hair down. Ford would take out these very expensive Cuban cigars, Romeo Y Julieta Cedro De Luxe No.1s, cut them in half, but never light them; he'd just jam it into his mouth and chew on it. Capra was incredibly organized, and when he spoke, you listened. George Stevens later became a friend when I testified for him in a lawsuit against NBC for chopping A Place in the Sun. Mamoulian was very courtly and straightforward. King Vidor was very lovely, almost mild-mannered. And there were guys like Henry Hathaway who were deemed to be terrors on the set, but they couldn't have been nicer people. One thing that's stayed the same is there's almost a rule that we have a total unanimity of opinion before we make announcements. Very, very rarely did we have any split votes, both then and now.


John Rich directing The Dick Van Dyke Show. (Credit: John Rich)


Q: One of the most important chapters you were a part of was the merger of the Screen Directors Guild and the Radio and Television Directors Guild in 1960. How did that come about?

A: I was back East shooting a pilot on film with three cameras, and a member of the Radio and Television Directors Guild, a small New York union representing live TV directors, came to my set and asked for five years of back dues. I said, 'I'm working with film on Mitchell cameras and am covered worldwide by the Screen Directors Guild.' The RTDG had jurisdiction over any live or electronic broadcasts (tape was just then beginning to rear its head). So he went away. I came back to Hollywood where, by that time, I was secretary of the Guild. While discussing new business I related this story, and suggested we merge with the other union. Most everybody scoffed but I said, look, we're all liable to become either live directors or use the new videotape, but different unions would only lead to warfare. They had a chance of going up [in membership], while we had the chance of being diminished. Stevens and Capra understood instantly, and they both backed me.

Q: Did you know something that the others didn't?

A: When I was prompting the idea of the merger I said I had been over to Bing Crosby Productions and they've got a tape machine that you can actually record on videotape. It's in its inchoate state right now because it runs 100 inches per second. It's really too clumsy to be of any value, but I know that they will eventually get this down. That was part of the case I made to the Guild. George Sidney, who would soon become president, called me John Tape Rich, and so I was appointed as a one-man committee to look into it. And my dear friend Jack Shea worked on it from the East Coast.

Q: At that time, was there a big divide between directors working on film and those directing live and, later, on videotape?

A: That was a big thing. My argument was always that we should be known as directors of people, not machinery. I said I didn't want to be categorized as an electronic director or a film director—I was a director of stories. That carried the day, I think. A funny follow-up: Years after the merger, I was sitting next to Josef von Sternberg at a meeting and he passed me a note that said, 'Thank you for the tip on tape.' He had never heard of videotape before I mentioned it and, as a result, he made a fortune buying shares of Ampex stock. By that time, I guess, he really considered me one of the guys.

Q: So after the merger how did negotiations go with the networks?

A: When Frank Capra was still president, we had our first negotiations in New York with CBS, NBC, and ABC. They had been used to dealing with a weak union but now, suddenly, there were all these powerhouse directors running the tables. The networks tried a ploy that was very interesting. They said we would have to send our committee to each of their stations around the country—they each owned seven stations—and we would have to negotiate with each one of them. We said, 'That's nonsense, it's ridiculous. We're working directors, we can't do that.' They said, 'Well, we can't afford to have them come in. We have to bring in the staff of 21 different stations and house them and feed them and pay per diem and travel. It's much too expensive.' And Capra—god was he bright—said, 'What are you talking about? Bring them in, the Directors Guild will pay for it. It'll make an interesting headline: 'Labor pays for management.' And of course, they dropped it like a hot potato.

Q: You must have learned a lot about negotiating from watching those guys.

A: It was just wonderful to be able to learn from the masters and then apply some of their reasoning and their abilities to the task at hand. Capra's whole trick was always to shut them up with a quip. It turned the tables so quickly. My own turn came when we were making a point that the RTDG did not have casting privileges. And we said, this is ridiculous. If somebody gives you a cast you can't work with you're dead, so you want to get somebody that you know can do the role. It's all in the service of making a better product for you. And [the head negotiator for ABC] Dick Freund said, 'Well, we at ABC reserve the right to be bad.' Can you imagine a statement like that? By then I was coming into my own, so I said, 'Hold it. Let me write that down.' And I wrote on a legal pad, 'We at ABC reserve the right to be bad.' I said, 'Do you stand by this nonsensical statement?' And he said, 'Yes, I do.' I said, 'You know, by a curious coincidence, the stockholders of ABC are having a meeting tomorrow here in New York. I think I'll go to the meeting and read what their chief negotiator has said about the network product.' He said, 'You wouldn't do that, would you?' I said, 'Why not? You stand by it. Retract it, it's stupid.' He said, 'I take it back.' I had him by the gonads.

Q: What would you say was your most difficult negotiation?

A: They all start out pretty hard. Both sides present large requests that are gradually whittled down, so it's hard to say one negotiation is tougher than another. There's more acting going on during these contract talks than there ever is on the screen. The studios once had a negotiator named Charlie Boren who used to have a nervous habit of breaking toothpicks. The only problem was, he had a tell—a signal that gave away his thoughts, like in poker. I'd look down at his feet, and if I saw a small mound of broken toothpicks on the floor I knew that we were in trouble and he was planning to spring something on us, but if I saw a big mound then I knew he was upset and we had him.


HONORED: Rich was touched and surprised to receive a standing ovation when he introduced a
75th anniversary program at the DGA Awards in January 2011. (Credit: Byron Gamarro/DGA)


Q: You were one of the founding members of the health and pension plans. Can you talk about how that started?

A: I still remember when Joe Youngerman told me how D.W. Griffith died so broke that the Guild had to come up with $500 to buy him a headstone for his grave in Kentucky. It reflected on the woefully inadequate IATSE pension plan we had at the time, which only gave directors credit for the exact number of hours they were on a set actually directing—not for any of the time spent preparing their projects, or the months editing, scoring, dubbing, and doing other postproduction. We needed a new plan, but the studios were against it.

At that time we had a moratorium—directors, writers, and actors agreed that the studios wouldn't sell pictures to TV until there was a residual formula. So Youngerman proposed major producer contributions to a pension fund in return for releasing the Guild's lien against studios on post-1948 films for TV showings. It was like $100 million worth of films at that time. He said there's a rising curve in the pension plan and diminishing curve in the value of these films. But right now, it's a great gift to the studios and they will give us a pension plan.


Q: And the studios went for it?

A: The very next day Capra called a meeting of the studio heads—in those days we used to negotiate with the studio chiefs, not negotiators. And all these big guys were saying, my god, that's a wonderful idea. [20th Century Fox President] Spyros Skouras was practically in tears; he said, you've saved my job. They agreed to all our terms, and the writers and actors later fell into place and got the same plan. We've gone from $1 million in initial funding to $2.5 billion, and we've paid out at least that much over the years. I'm gratified whenever a member thanks me because they know I was there at the beginning.

Q: The DGA has called a strike only once, and it lasted just a few hours on the East Coast. Why have directors never had a work stoppage while the other unions have walked out?

A: I think directors are by nature communal people. We have to interact with others, whether it's with a crew or actors or studios or whatever. Others in our business usually sit alone in a room. When they get into a group situation, they might not know what to say, they only know what they want. You have to know where you are in the context of the entire community. Guys like [National Executive Director] Jay Roth read everything and listen to everyone before they react. And Gil Cates has chaired the negotiating committee at least two or three times in a row with great success. He's been a very good leader. The Guild spends $1 million in research every time there's a negotiation coming up so even before the studios make a presentation, we know exactly what they're going to say. We know where we're going and where the other side is going. We're always well prepared.


For his achievements as a director and service to the
Guild, Rich was given Honorary Life Membership
in 2003. (Credit: DGA Archives)


Q: You've been to every DGA Awards ceremony since 1953. Which ones stand out for you?

A: I've had a few big moments. Getting the Honorary Life Membership Award was really something. But for me, the biggest one, I think, was in 1972 when I was nominated for All in the Family. In those days no comedy had ever won the super award [most outstanding television director]. Anybody who was up for comedy would get one of the secondary awards, or come in as an also-ran, but never a winner [of the big prize]. But in '71 suddenly I won everything. And that was the biggest moment of my life with the Guild.

Q: For all the acclaim All in the Family has received, most people seem to forget that the show wasn't an instant hit.

A: In fact it had been canceled, and we were told we would not be coming back for a second season. So I took my family to Hawaii, and I remember at this restaurant on Kauai, a Japanese server was hurrying us along. She said, 'Excuse me, but service will be a little rushed today because I've got to get home and see something.' I wondered what could it possibly be, and she said it was a TV show called All in the Family. I didn't cop to it right away, but I asked what made it so important for her. She said, 'That Archie Bunker, that's my husband.' When she said that, I thought, my god, if this translates to another culture in the same way, then the show is having a larger impact than I imagined. And sure enough, once reruns began the audience started to really grow and by the end of summer reruns, we got picked up.

Q: It's really one of those shows that defines its time. Is there a single episode that stands out in your mind?

A: One of those wonderful moments that you can only dream about happened while we prepared the episode with Sammy Davis Jr.'s visit to the Bunker home. We did a table read that was all fine and satisfactory, except there was no ending. As we finished the reading and the cast broke for coffee, Norman [Lear] asked, 'What's the problem, you look puzzled?' And I said, 'I'm worried because I don't think we have a finish. All we've got is somebody taking a photograph of Sammy and Archie together. It needs a little more snap.' So I sat there musing and finally started to laugh. Norman said, 'You got something?' I said, 'Yeah, just as the photo is flashed, Sammy ought to kiss Archie.' Norman said, 'No, really? You think it will work?' And I said, 'It's worth a try.' Well, it's the kind of punctuation to a scene that you pray for, because if we didn't stop them, the audience would still be laughing. It went on for about 30 to 40 seconds, and we had to dial the audio down because it was far too big a laugh for the home viewer. But it was an ideal moment, and I was so pleased that it worked.

Q: What do you think accounted for the success of the series?

A: There was a universality to what was going on with Archie Bunker. In fact, he was partly my father; certainly he was Norman Lear's father. And the two of us were crazy. He wrote crazy, wouldn't quit until it was good. And I directed crazy; I wouldn't quit until it was perfect. And I had a cast that could do it. They were wonderful.


Clowning with Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore on
The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66). (Credit: John Rich)


Q: You've worked in so many different genres over the years. Do you think there's a John Rich style?

A: My style was: Do it again until it's right. I was a pain in the neck to people until they saw it. I would look for a certain kind of perfection, which I'm sure was not very prevalent in the industry. But I always went for it and said, 'No, do another take. Get it right. You're trying to say something.' I'd watch actors struggle with a moment and know that part of them wanted to do the scene a little bit differently, so we'd examine what it could be. I said, 'Forget the text, what would you really say as the character?' And we'd go off into an improv. That's part of what was so wonderful about those days—I hate that expression—as opposed to today: There was time to investigate. Shows don't rehearse anymore. It's all [done] mechanically, let's go, let's go, let's go.

Q: So even with broad comedy like Gilligan's Island and Gomer Pyle, USMC you tried to keep it real?

A: Stay with the truth. It will always get you home much better than something false. In fact, one of the reasons I stopped being a freelance comedy director was that I was working for a producer and told him I didn't think a line worked, and I didn't think it was going to get a laugh. The producer and writer said, 'It's a wonderful line, don't worry, we'll put in a laugh from the laugh track.' I said, 'That still doesn't make it funny.' But that was his approach to comedy—put in a laugh track, which I think is the ugliest thing I've ever heard. I would never do that. The live studio audience's reaction is what always kept us honest.

Q: Did you have any special directing techniques you developed over the years?

A: One trick I had when shooting on film was to make all the characters talk faster. If you analyze some of my shows, the characters respond to each other quicker than any human being really could. That's because I always pulled out three or four frames to remove all their uhs, ums, and other stammers. It seems like nothing, and editors would look at me like I was crazy for just clipping out two or three frames. But it really made a difference. For instance, one character would ask something and the other would reply instantly, rarely pausing to think. The actors were playing fast to begin with, but the mind does not work quite that quickly. Also, if you notice, we never used any music in All in the Family; the show moved so fast that there was never a need for it.

Q: How did you learn to direct?

A: I became a stage manager for the Kraft Television Theatre. After a while, I began to direct in my own mind. What would I do in this circumstance? I finished my work and then I'd watch a director trying to solve a problem, and I'd start to think, how would I do this? Frequently I was dead wrong. There's a memory that sticks with me of a director that was shooting at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. We called this guy Captain Video because he was really off the wall, and he looked through the lens and said, 'Move the boat four feet to the left.' Well, the boat was 45,000 tons of the Battleship New Jersey. You don't move it four feet. Somebody else said, 'Move the fucking camera.' It's a true story. I always used to say, you can learn more from a bad director than you can from a good director.


GOOD TIMES: Rich with Eve Arden on Our Miss Brooks (1955-56).

Rich with Jim Nabors (right) on Gomer Pyle, USMC (1967-69).

Rich with Barbara Stanwyck and Elvis Presley on Roustabout (1964).
(Credits: John Rich)


Q: Were the floor setups very different between The Dick Van Dyke Show in the early '60s and All in the Family a decade later?

A: When I was asked to do the Van Dyke Show it was three-camera film. Everybody had three cameras. But when Norman Lear approached me for All in the Family I asked where he was shooting and he said CBS Television City, which wasn't a film studio. He said it would be shot live on tape with three cameras, though tape wasn't very good at that time. I said I'd need four cameras because if I couldn't edit I'd need that extra camera in order to shoot reaction shots. There was a big hoo-ha at CBS but ultimately they granted the request. And for years, all my shows—All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons—used four cameras. After working with Norman I went back to freelancing and noticed that every show was now using four cameras—even those shot on film. It made no sense—you only needed an extra camera when you couldn't edit, but you could edit film. I guess I started it with All in the Family but every show still uses four cameras.

Q: How did you come to do The Dick Van Dyke Show?

A: I had been doing Westerns and Sheldon Leonard, who directed the pilot for the show, asked me 'How would you like to come in from the sawdust?' I said, 'What are you talking about?' He had this idea for Dick Van Dyke, and I met Carl Reiner. Carl's a friggin' genius. What a pleasure to work with him. When I first came to work there, he had 13 scripts ready. Unbelievable.

Q: And you also had a great cast.

A: Dick was unbelievably wonderful. He could do any kind of physical humor, anything. One time we had a very weak show, script-wise. It was all about him being allergic—or so he thinks—to Mary, but it's really their cat. It was a simple premise, and there was very little to go on. So I said to Dick, 'How many ways can you sneeze? He figured out a way to do about 35 different sneezes, and it was hysterical. Because every time he was anywhere near her, he would do a variation on one of those sneezes. The guy was insanely brilliant. And Mary was not so bad herself. She really came out from left field. We didn't expect much from her character, and she was originally supposed to just be an 'ear' to hear about his problems at work. But she suddenly turned on the humor and there she was. An amazing transformation.

Q: Did you like to work with the actors individually or as an ensemble?

A: There was no time for individuals. There was a moment or two when I would do that, but it was very rare. It was like we're all doing a play together. It was truly an ensemble where I would encourage people to comment on everybody. And that's one of the reasons why I kept a closed set, because you didn't want to see any interruption of the process and actors could try anything. I remember one day on All in the Family, Edith [Jean Stapleton] was having menopause symptoms. And Archie's line was, 'I've got to take her to the gynecologist.' I stopped the rehearsal and said, 'You can't say gynecologist.' And we spent about 15 minutes and I came up with 'groinocologist.' Carroll [O'Connor] would frequently come up with a phrase that was wonderful. And you could allow the actor the ability to create those moments, to dig a little deeper.

Q: In the midst of all your work in television you still had time to direct several features, including two with Elvis Presley. So I have to ask you, what was it like directing Elvis?

A: He was always very polite; he never called me anything but Mr. Rich. And we got along fairly well, I think. But I did demand certain moves in terms of acting that I don't think he was accustomed to. On Roustabout (1964) we were working with Barbara Stanwyck, and I said she's like a professional tennis player, and he'd have to up his game just to stay on the court with her. I told him to concentrate and not just throw the lines away, to think about what he was saying. And he was the better for it. One day, he came by the cutting room and asked if he could watch me. He had never done that before, I was told, but he wanted to know what I was doing, so I explained the Moviola and how I was cutting, and he was fascinated. He asked if he could come by again and I said, 'Are you kidding? You're always welcome here.' But his Memphis Mafia didn't think watching us edit was fun, so they dragged him away. It's too bad. He really could have blossomed with film work because he was fascinated by it.


FAMILY MAN: Rich (pointing) on All in the Family with (left to right) Carroll
O'Connor, Rob Reiner (obscured), Norman Lear, script supervisor, and
Jean Stapleton. (Credit: John Rich)


Q: Why do you think your career stayed centered on TV and not films?

A: Frankly, I didn't enjoy the lethargy of making films. The pace was too slow. I react better to fast-moving, instantaneous responses—or a non-response—from an audience. Even with a bad response, we could fix it in the next run, rewrite it and get it right, or at least better. I also enjoyed the idea of being in command, with everything like the cameras, the timing, the switching—it's quite a heady experience. I loved turning a show over after three days of rehearsal, and all the actors had to do then was rehearse it. I always loved being in the control booth; for the Van Dyke Show it was a radio booth with no visuals, just audio.

Q: What advice would you give young directors starting out today?

A: One day William Wyler was talking about being a director. He said, 'You must avoid all temptation to be a good fellow.' He meant, take care of the project, then you can be a good guy. And Richard Brooks said, 'We live in a democracy—until you walk onto my set.' Lovely. I think those are wonderful lines. So I'd say the best training for a director is to become an assistant—answer phones, work as a page, do anything, but keep your eyes open and learn from the mistakes of others on the set. I've always derided film schools because they teach directors how to handle microphones and cameras. You don't need that; the experts can do those things for you. Study English literature: Shakespeare and Chaucer. Learn basic three-act story structure and how characters behave. Comedy? Well, you can't really teach it; that just comes naturally. It's innate. You can learn various tricks, but you either get it or you don't.

Q: And, finally, what are the things that a director must have in order to succeed?

A: You've got to have strong feet and an ironclad bladder.

DGA Interviews

Prominent directors reflecting on their body of
work through an extended and in-depth Q&A.

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