James Burrows - 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

James Burrows

With more than 40 years directing many of the most critically-acclaimed and audience-beloved sitcoms of all time, James Burrows is considered the modern master of the sophisticated comedy. Famous for turning sitcoms into high art, with a particular knack for working with actors, he set the bar in comedy direction. Over four decades in the director’s chair, he’s seen a lot of changes.

“So many times I’ve heard that comedy was dead. But I’ve been through many cycles and somehow comedy keeps rearing its funny face,” said Burrows.

Burrows may be best known, among his many accomplishments, as the co-creator of the long-running and critically acclaimed series Cheers. He has served as a director-executive producer on many series including The Class, Back to You, Mike & Molly and Will & Grace (for which he directed all 188 episodes).

“I had a great time on Will & Grace,” he recalled. “That’s the only reason I did it. It made me laugh every week. The writing was incredible and the characters — you’d never seen anything like them before. We had a joyous time. I would have directed all of Cheers, but I got sick once and I turned it over to someone else. So I decided that it would be okay to turn it over once or twice a year.”

Known for his comic timing, adding a fourth camera to the classic multi-cam setup, and his mastery of pilots, Burrows has directed episodes of more than 100 series, among them; The Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda, Laverne & Shirley, Lou GrantThe Tony Randall Show, The Associates, The Hogan Family, Night Court, Dear John, Wings, NewsRadio, 3rd Rock from the Sun, Dharma & Greg, Caroline in the City, The Class, 2 Broke Girls, and Partners. He has directed the pilots for more than 50 television series, many of which have gained iconic status and gone on to enjoy long and successful runs on television, including Taxi, Cheers, Frasier, Friends, Will & Grace, Two and a Half Men, and The Big Bang Theory.

Asked what he enjoys the most about directing after such a long tenure Burrows admitted, “It makes me laugh. I smile every Tuesday night. I come from the theater and the show I do is theater. I just love the sound of laughter from a live audience.”

Nominated 21 times for a DGA Award and 43 times for a Primetime Emmy (as a director and executive producer), Burrows won the DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy Series four times: for Cheers (both 1983 and 1990); the pilot of Frasier (1993); and Will & Grace (2000) and the Primetime Emmy for directing five times.

“I’m incredibly flattered and touched by all those nominations and especially this award. I can finally go to the Guild dinner knowing that I’ve already won instead of having to sit there and sweat it out.”

Born in Los Angeles, Burrows, whose father Abe Burrows was a successful playwright and stage director, moved to his family’s native New York as a young child so that his father could continue his work on Broadway.

“I really didn’t want to go into directing at all because my father was such a legend there. He wrote How to Succeed in Business, Guys and Dolls, Cactus Flower, and Can-Can. I was quite intimidated by that.”

Burrows attended New York’s High School of Music & Arts and Oberlin College and was then accepted to the Yale University School of Drama’s graduate program. Upon graduating, he moved back to Los Angeles in 1965 after being offered the position of dialogue coach for actor Burl Ives on the television series O.K. Crackerby! When the series ended its run, he moved to New York to work first as a show technician and then as stage manager for a Broadway rendition of Holly Golightly, written and directed by his father and Edward Albee.

“I didn’t know I was learning from my father when I was working for him as a stage manager, or being bundled off to rehearsal when I was a kid, but I guess a lot of osmosis went into that.”

As a stage manager, Burrows experienced his first taste of directing, as one of his duties was to direct the plays’ understudies. This segued into his first off-Broadway stage directing job for The Castro Complex, followed by directing the traveling play 40 Carats which led to directing productions of Norman, Is That You?, Mr. Roberts, and The Odd Couple, among others. Burrows’ success in the theatre led to an offer to direct an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1974.

“My mentor was Jay Sandrich so I learned at the foot of the master. We’re still very good friends and he was incredibly instrumental in helping me.”

Burrows joined the DGA in 1974 and has served as a trustee of the Directors Guild Foundation since 2001.

Asked how he feels about receiving this award, Burrows said, “I am honored and touched to receive this inaugural DGA lifetime achievement award in television directing. I’m proud to accept this award in conjunction with Robert Butler, who I respect for his incredible work in television. To be lucky enough to work with great writers and actors is a blessing, but this is unbelievable.”