Robert Butler - Inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award in Television Direction

Awards 2014

December 23, 2014

On December 4th, DGA President Paris Barclay announced that in honor of their groundbreaking careers, the Guild will present legendary directors James Burrows and Robert Butler with the inaugural DGA Lifetime Achievement Award in Television Direction. This new award was created by the Board of Directors this year, and will join the Guild’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Motion Picture Direction in being the two highest honors bestowed by the DGA. The Award will be presented at the 67th Annual DGA Awards on Saturday, February 7, 2015.

 “For those out there who’ve wondered what kind of impact a television director can have on the medium: Jim Burrows and Bob Butler provide the answers. That’s why we’re beyond thrilled to establish a new award, and to inaugurate it with two men who have had an incomparable influence over decades of precedent-setting television directing. They’ve shaped the history of television in ways too numerous to calculate, including directing the pilots for some of the most iconic television shows ever. Jim, who will soon helm his thousandth television episode, remains one of the most in-demand pilot directors in the business, having long since established his deft comedic touch on shows like Taxi, Cheers, Friends, Will & Grace, and The Big Bang Theory. Bob set the tone and broke the rules on pilots for Hogan’s Heroes, Star Trek, Batman, Hill Street Blues, and Moonlighting. Between the two of them, there are very few people in America who haven’t laughed, cried and/or cheered while watching their work. They have truly changed the face of television.”

- DGA President Paris Barclay

Robert Butler

Few directors have altered the trajectory of one-hour drama series as much as Robert Butler. From devising the look and feel of pivotal programs for decades to influencing and mentoring many of today’s top working directors, his overall impact is immeasurable.

With three episodes of Hennessey in 1960, Butler began a 50-year career directing popular shows such as The Twilight Zone, The Defenders, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gunsmoke, The Untouchables, I Spy and The Fugitive, as well as directing the pilots for such seminal television series as Hogan’s Heroes, his first, shot in black and white, the initial Star Trek, Batman, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Remington Steele, which he co-created, Hill Street Blues and Moonlighting among others.

“I loved the storytelling but I also appreciated the leadership,” said Butler when asked what he loved about directing. “I enjoyed being the storyteller/traiboss, but I also had great respect for the audiences, and for the people with whom I worked so closely. If any of them had a better idea than mine, I appropriated it and ran like a bandit! I loved the captaincy, as it is very definitely a pivotal part of the job. In the trenches everybody contributes, whether they’re a director or a dolly grip. A hairdresser can bring in an actress with a hairdo that just knocks you out and tells you who that character is. Those people with their storytelling contributions can make such a difference, but the director stands alone.”

Butler won the DGA’s Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in a Dramatic Series in 1973 for The Waltons and again in 1984 for the Hill Street Blues pilot, which was credited with setting a look and style for all dramatic procedurals. His specials and long-form shows include: The Blue Knight — the first four-hour television mini-series ever aired, for which he won multiple Emmys and was nominated for a DGA Award — Dark Victory and HBO’s White Mile, a river rafting courtroom drama.

“What I always did was aim the work at the audience. My effort was to bring life, clarity and the recognition of truthful behavior so audiences could be touched and transported by these shows. So I’m terribly rewarded to be thought of as having told good tales.”

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Butler was initially a teenaged musician in the band on Hoagy Carmichael’s live variety show at NBC Radio.

“I got great experience there about performance, rehearsal, shading and interpretation. I watched Ed Cashman, a jazzy up-thrust director, and thought, ‘Hey this guy is working like fiend and having a good time.’ It was a stunning new thought to me then and probably where the directing idea hatched.”

Interrupting his years at UCLA, he enlisted in the Army Ground Forces Band, graduating later and taking a job in the early 1950s as an usher at CBS just as live television was developing. Over the next seven years, Butler became a production clerk, stage manager and associate director on many CBS shows including Climax! and Playhouse 90 which were helmed by directors such as Franklin Schaffner, John Frankenheimer and Arthur Penn, an experience he considers priceless to his own development and career.

“During that time I was witness to the best directors working on the best shows and I started really coveting the director’s job.”

Butler joined the DGA in 1959. He served 11 consecutive terms on the DGA National Board starting in 1985, including two terms as Fifth Vice President. He also served on the Western Directors Council from 1974-2005 and on the Directors Guild Foundation since 1988, a position he continues to hold today. Butler also served repeatedly on the Negotiations Committee and was a member of the Residuals Study Committee. In 2001, the DGA honored Butler with the Robert B. Aldrich Achievement Award in recognition of his decades of service to the Guild and its membership.

“There is an integrity, decency and truthfulness about the organization that attracted me and made me have great respect for the DGA and inspired me to contribute and begin paying back.”

Now that his Guild is honoring him and Burrows with its inaugural Lifetime Achievement in Television Directing Award, Butler is thrilled. “To be DGA-recognized is truly meteoric. It’s really warming and exhilarating to be understood and appraised by people who know about storytelling and think ‘This guy was pretty good. He did it pretty well all in all and maybe he deserves a nod.’ So I feel truly appreciated.”