Thomas McDermott: 2016 Franklin J. Schaffner Achievement Award Recipient

DGAM News Jan 2016

December 15, 2015

Associate Director/Stage Manager/Production Associate (AD/SM/PA) Council West Chair Tom McDermott will become the 26th recipient of the Franklin J. Schaffner Achievement Award, which will be presented at the DGA Awards ceremony next month. The Schaffner Award is given to an Associate Director or Stage Manager in recognition of their service to the industry and DGA.

The son of two actors — Tom McDermott and Mary Hayden — McDermott is a second-generation entertainment industry professional. “I was probably born because of television,” he recalls with a laugh. “My dad got a three year contract on the show Captain Video in the 1950s and since they were both working a lot, they decided to have more kids and I was the last one. So I grew up in the business.”

Although the industry was in his blood and he got his start in theater, McDermott embarked upon a number of jobs before returning firmly to the fold. “I was a child of the ‘60s so I did all kinds of stuff. I went to a commune. I worked in hospitals, and finally I ended up in San Francisco in 1978 where and started doing theater again full time. Then a friend of mine named Margaret Kerns got a job as a Stage Manager at KQED, the local PBS station. She told me ‘You could do this.’ So I started doing that. When she got a job at KGO, the network station that was a DGA signatory, I started working there.”

After joining the Guild in 1984 as a Stage Manager, McDermott’s big breakthrough occurred after he moved back to his hometown of New York and began working at the local station WWOR. “I felt lucky to be there at a time when that station was filling a schedule with primarily original programming, so I learned to do everything from news and sports to variety and talk shows.” Through his work at the AD/SM/PA Council east he was recommended to train with NBC Stage Manager Freddie Lights. “Freddy was the first African-American Stage manager at NBC and he used to do the weekend edition of the Today Show. He trained me and I filled in for him while he was battling cancer. Then they were looking for a new Stage Manager at NBC Sports and the Director at the time, John Libretto, recommended me for the job. So I used to go right from the Today Show to the halftime shows for all the sports broadcasts. Then sportscaster Greg Gumbel requested me for the 1996 Olympics and my reputation grew from that.”

Through the years, McDermott’s career in television has spanned the gamut of genres from news, sports, variety and politics to daytime, dramatic and comedy series. He has worked on numerous high-profile programs and specials including: Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, The Today Show, Late Show with David Letterman, Super Bowls XXX and XXXII, the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, the 1997 World Series and five NBA Finals. In 2002, he became a full time Stage Manager for the long-running No. 1 daytime drama, The Young and the Restless. He was also part of the directing team that earned a 2011 Daytime Emmy Award in directing, and several Emmy and DGA nominations.

One of his most amazing memories comes during his stint at WWOR during the 1992 presidential elections. They were doing town meetings with Bill Clinton, Ross Perot and then President George H.W. Bush. There was a huge pool of stage managers, but I was asked to be the guy for the President. That was cool. The Secret Service had to vet me, and when they locked down the entire studio for a security check, I was the only guy allowed to go back and forth. But he’s also proud of the work he’s currently doing on The Young and the Restless. “We’re doing 100 pages a day at Y&R! It’s the toughest work I’ve ever seen in the business and I’m proud to have been able to crank that out for so many years and still be liked. A good Stage Manager is a liaison between the Director, actors, the writers the producers and everybody and I’m proud to have been able to do that.”

He’s also proud of fact that in spite of his tremendous work schedule, he still finds time to stay true to his roots in the theater as a member of the Pacific Resident Theater in Venice, CA, and has directed a number of plays by such greats as George Bernard Shaw, David Mamet and Harold Pinter.

On top of the hard work and talent, required to excel at a job, McDermott acknowledges that part of his success stems from his active involvement with the Guild, including his current long-term gig at the Young and the Restless. “I had just moved back to the West Coast and the DGA was doing a panel discussion for new members about what we do and they asked me to handle the sports portion. While on that panel I met Don Jacob who was the head Stage Manager for The Young and the Restless, and he was looking to take every Friday off before he retired so he brought me in. I learned a lot from Don. He had been on that show for more than 20 years and passed a lot of knowledge on to me.”

For McDermott, participation in his Guild is something he was brought up with. “My parents were active council members of three unions, SAG, AFTRA and EQUITY. They were always talking about unions. It wasn’t just about dollars and cents, but what you could do as a union member to push for causes like diversity in the industry. As a Guild member, I’ve always tried to use my position to push for the people who feel unrepresented.” He recalls an incident when another Guild member also did that. “I remember being very inspired by Gil Cates when we voted for the strike and the film people were about to walk out. He said ‘Wait a minute, we need to talk about the tape people.’ I was impressed by how much he cared about us. I believe in unions very strongly. I think they’re part of what’s right about America. That’s why I’ve tried to be part of the Council in one way or another for 30 years.”

The current chair of the DGA’s AD/SM/PA Council West, McDermott was first elected to the Council in 1986. Over the years he has almost continuously served on either the Western or Eastern AD/SM/PA Councils in various elected positions including: Chair, 1st Vice Chair, and 2nd Vice Chair. He also served on the DGA Negotiations Committee during the 2002 negotiations cycle. He’s proud of the fact that his Guild membership has honored the traditions he inherited from his parents.

He also tries to pass those traditions on to new members. “I often tell them to treat every job as if it were your last, give the same respect to a local news show in New Jersey as you would if it were the Academy Awards, and use your membership to get yourself ahead. I have gotten half of my work from going to Guild meetings. In this business, it’s who you know. So the more active you are, the better. You never know what’s around that corner.”

Although his achievements in his profession and his service to the Guild more than qualify him to be the latest recipient of the Schaffner Award, McDermott finds himself honored to have his name added to impressive list that precedes him.

“I’ve known Schaffner winners, and worked with quite a few of them including Joe Dicso, Scott Berger, and Don Jacob. This award has gone from being about career achievement to a combination of that and service to the Guild. So I feel honored to be with these people who were successful enough not to have to worry about it, but still continued to serve.”

Tom McDermott portrait by Howard Wise

Past recipients of the DGA Franklin J. Schaffner Achievement Award
  • Julie E. Gelfand (2015)
  • Vincent DeDario (2014)
  • Dency Nelson (2013)
  • Dennis W. Mazzocco (2012)
  • Maria Jimenez Henley (2010)
  • Scott Berger (2009)
  • Barbara J. Roche (2008)
  • Terry Benson (2007)
  • Donald E. Jacob (2006)
  • Stanley Faer (2005)
  • Peery Forbis (2004)
  • Esperanza “Candy” Martinez (2003)
  • Anita Cooper-Avrick (2002)
  • Robert N. Van Ry (2001)
  • Scott L. Rindenow (2000)
  • Robert Caminiti (1999)
  • C.J. Rapp-Pittman (1998)
  • Joseph L. Dicso (1997)
  • Don Lewis Barnhart (1996)
  • Larry Carl (1995)
  • James E. Wall (1994)
  • James “Woody” Woodworth (1993)
  • Marilyn Jacobs-Furey (1992)
  • Chester O’Brien (1991)
  • Mortimer O’Brien (1991)