Spring 2020

Master & Mentor

Recent TV Hall of Fame inductee Jay Sandrich emerged as a pioneering sitcom director, and he was generous in paying his knowledge forward

By Susan Young

Jay Sandrich (Photo: Photofest)

Jay Sandrich's recent induction into the TV Academy's Hall of Fame is notable for many reasons, not the least of which is that he's one of the few directors honored since its inception 36 years ago.

Winner of three DGA Awards and five Emmys, Sandrich was part of the latest inductee class that included Bob Iger, Geraldine Laybourne, Seth MacFarlane and Cicely Tyson. The Hall of Fame selection committee chooses industry players "who have made outstanding contributions in the arts, sciences or management of television over a lifetime career or via singular achievements."

Peter Roth, chairman of Warner Bros. Television Group and a member of the selection committee, says: "(Jay) directed well over 1,000 half-hours of the greatest, most beloved comedies of all time and helped to elevate the multicamera form to its highest and most elegant level."

Sandrich served as a mentor to James Burrows and countless other extraordinary directors, notes Roth. Sandrich's directing credits were voluminous throughout his career, and he shepherded such classic series as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Cosby Show, Soap and The Golden Girls.

Himself a 2006 inductee, Burrows—as he took the mic on behalf of Sandrich at the ceremony in January—declared, "It's about time."

"As I said in my introduction, I consider him my mentor although he refuses to acknowledge that," Burrows says of his longtime friend. "But I know if it weren't for his incredible trailblazing and his kindness, I would not be where I am today."

Both Sandrich and Burrows are second-generation showbiz kids. Sandrich's father, Mark, directed many Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire classics, as well as Holiday Inn (1942), with Astaire and Bing Crosby. (Sandrich Sr. was serving as the president of the Directors Guild when he died of a sudden heart attack at 44.)

Burrows met Sandrich in 1974 when he came out to work for the MTM company.

"I was single, Jewish, and so was he," recalls Burrows. "We both grew up in the business. We had the same sense of humor and we liked each other, and he taught me a lot. Maybe I had talent, but he was my god. I had seen his name on every show I watched. To sit with god and watch what he did was great."

Burrows had been given a shot to direct an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. But he knew very little about multicamera TV directing and found the technical aspect especially difficult.

"I'm a theater guy, so I needed to know the technical stuff (from Sandrich) and how he worked with the actors," Burrows says. "You were watching a performance and then had to capture it all and get the jokes in three cameras."

Sandrich, Burrows says, was a king and sitcoms his wheelhouse. He knew how to get the best out of his actors, and how to work with the producers.

On the night of his 1974 TV sitcom directing debut, Burrows was in the middle of a scene and Ted Knight entered and flubbed a line. He says his head was spinning trying to figure out what line to pick up from and said, "Let's go back to Murray's line."

"All of a sudden I heard this majestic voice over the PA that said, 'Take it back to Ted's entrance,' and I thought god was talking," Burrows says. "I looked up to the booth and, unbeknownst to me, Jay was there. And I realized god was talking."

(Top) Sandrich with protégé James Burrows; (Bottom) A scene from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. (Photos: (Top) Photofest; (Bottom) Byron Gamarro)

Sandrich got his start working on the pioneering three-camera sitcom I Love Lucy as an assistant director, a position he says in interviews he got because Lucille Ball once worked with his father. He later worked with Sheldon Leonard, and he got his first break from writer/producer Leonard Stern.

Stern hired him as lead director on a short-lived, ahead-of-its-time sitcom, He & She (1967-1968), and as an associate producer on Get Smart.

In a 2013 interview with DGA Quarterly, Sandrich said it was during his time on Get Smart when he realized his future was in directing, not producing.

"What's fun for me is being on the set working with actors," he said. "Not in working on scripts, not worrying about [building] sets for next week or having a story for three weeks from now. I loved getting on the set and working with actors."

Sandrich established himself as a good working director, but it wasn't until he landed The Mary Tyler Moore Show that his career shot to star status.

"Jay's ascension was Mary Tyler Moore and Soap," says Burrows. "It was bingo bango. Same with me: All those shows and we're never heard or noticed until I got Taxi and he got Mary Tyler Moore. He was always skilled and wonderful, but until a show came along that got noticed, you don't think about the director."

Sandrich told the DGA that one of his challenges that first season was cajoling Ed Asner into accepting the show's humor.

"He takes acting very seriously and thinks so seriously about what he's doing," Sandrich said. "And sometimes you have to get an actor to pick up speed or not be quite so literal. Part of a comedy director's job is to keep them truthful but funny."

By his own admission, Asner was not the easiest person to cajole. He talked about the rocky start with Sandrich in which each tested the other. In fact, Asner tells DGA Quarterly he vowed that if the show was picked up, he would "move heaven and earth to see he's not hired again."

The show got picked up, Sandrich signed for most of the shows, and the rest is sitcom history.

"I didn't enter into that relationship with a great regard for TV directors, but he restored my faith," Asner says. "I won a lot of Emmys, and I wouldn't be regarded as the comic wise guy that I am if not for Jay Sandrich."

In the series finale of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Sandrich not only massaged the script but also told Asner not to fully deliver a trigger line—"I treasure you people"—until the show was shot.

"I told him, 'Don't read that line that way again until the show,'" Sandrich recalled in the 2013 interview. "When we did it for the writers, I told everybody, 'No emotion, because we can't do this. It's there, but you just have to trust us.'"

Asner says nerves were raw for the cast and crew, who were not quite ready to let go.

(Top) Sandrich shares a moment with actress Phylicia Rashad on The Cosby Show set; (Bottom) filming a Cosby Show episode. (Photos: Courtesy Jay Sandrich)

"He was feeling that emotion as much as we were, and he wanted to capture it," Asner says, adding that Sandrich was able to get the most out of the talented cast. "He certainly knows how to lay the groundwork for good comedy and to get it all on camera."

Switching gears, Sandrich followed up his Mary Tyler Moore success with the racy parody Soap, which was ahead of its time.

"Soap was the most difficult," Sandrich said in 2013. "We had so many sets, we'd have to put sets behind sets that the [studio] audience didn't see [except on monitors]. We had 16 permanent characters. No show had ever done that. It was the first taped show I did; I'd always done film. I wanted to go back to shows that looked more like the filmed shows, and even go dark in spaces. We were fortunate to find a wonderful lighting director, Alan Walker. Soap was the big departure for me."

Director Howard Storm reflected on working with Sandrich and talked about his technique in an interview from the DGA Visual History archives.

"Jay always liked if you were moving in on a lens," Storm recalled. "He wanted the Fisher dolly to move with it. Take half of it on a dolly, half of it on a lens. It was kind of a smooth transition. And he would do that all the time. And I watched him, and I learned."

As a working director before his big successes, Sandrich directed 11 episodes of The Bill Cosby Show, airing for two seasons in 1969-71 with Cosby as a high school coach. During the 1984-92 run of the groundbreaking sitcom The Cosby Show, Sandrich made his mark by directing almost all of the early episodes, and coming full circle directing the finale.

While working as an editor and production manager on The Cosby Show, director Henry Chan says Sandrich taught him about getting the best from a creative performer.

"I realized how much more they discover in rehearsal," Chan said in a DGA interview. "He would go through a scene and then go back, 'Why don't we try this?' Small suggestions and then all of a sudden, the scene comes alive. He really loved to go back in and reconstruct the whole thing."

Chan recounted how Sandrich would watch every take and would switch line-to-line, from different performances.

"He would run the scene from take one, play it, stop, play, play take two, take three, take four," Chan says. "He would watch all of them, and he would make a decision, which one he wants. And sometimes it's line by line."

Sandrich influenced and mentored many directors over the decades, and Burrows reflected on what his mentor would say to a new generation of TV directors.

"Jay would probably say you have to listen to a network, but don't have to be intimidated by them," Burrows says. "If networks knew everything, they would have nothing but hits. He would say what I say, especially in the world of multicamera: Don't be referred to as a traffic cop. Get in, create, invent, state what you want to writers. Don't fall prey to what they want. (Jay) would stand up, and while writers had ultimate choice&md he won a lot."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

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