Tube the big screen’s toughest training ground

Before he started giving the world “Lethal Weapons,” Richard Donner built a reputation as a TV director with a varied resume and a knack for bringing out the best in a wildly eclectic list of performers.

Consider that Donner worked with Steve McQueen (the late 1950s/early ’60s CBS Western “Wanted: Dead or Alive”), Loretta Young (“The Loretta Young Show”), Telly Savalas (“Kojak”), Bob Denver (“Gilligan’s Island”), David Janssen (“The Fugitive”), Peter Falk (“Columbo”), Don Adams (“Get Smart”) and William Shatner (the classic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” episode of the original “The Twilight Zone”).

Donner also directed installments of the late ’50s/early ’60s ABC police drama “Naked City” and the 1960s hit “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” plus “The Wild, Wild West,” “Have Gun, Will Travel,” “Route 66,” “Wagon Train,” “The Rifleman” and a half-dozen segs of “The Twilight Zone.”

Donner takes a measure of pride in his modest TV roots. Indeed, he believes he did some of his best work for the small screen.

“For me, TV is the greatest learning platform a producer or director can use,” says Donner, who has kept his hand in TV as an executive producer on the HBO series “Tales From the Crypt” and this summer’s “Perversions of Science.”

“Television teaches you a lot of things. You have tremendous economic limitations, and you’ve got to work within a tight framework. You can’t screw around with it. If you’ve got X dollars and five days to finish a ‘Twilight Zone,’ that’s what you’ve got. You choose your actors, you live within the budget, and you know your career lives and dies with making it a little bit better than it looks on paper.”

By comparison, Donner says, features tend to invite abuses of the structure and budget.

“In features, people have no idea how to avoid indulging themselves to extremes,” Donner says. “It’s like once studios get a little pregnant, they don’t know how to control it. The people don’t use their authority in executive positions to keep it sane. People in TV get fired if they try to do what people in theatricals do routinely.”

Donner says he has “many extremely fond memories” of his TV days.

“I got to work with some great people,” he says. “Getting to work with the young McQueen, that was special. You knew this guy was going somewhere and was going to be a major, major actor.

“That’s why I enjoy keeping my hand in it now with ‘Tales’ and ‘Perversions.’ I get to watch great young actors and directors learning their trade. It also keeps me humble.”

Donner also directed what he describes as “hundreds” of commercials in the 1960s and into the ’70s. He did spots for Bromo Seltzer, Volkswagen and Ford (including one of the Dinah Shore ads in which she urged viewers to “see the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet”).

“Commercials provided another marvelous learning platform,” Donner says. “They allowed me to try new things within the framework that were new and inventive. As an ad director, you can kind of learn with their money. And getting your point across in 30 seconds is a marvelously challenging experience.”

Not that working in TV is a consistently joyous workshop of experimentation. Donner stresses that he would have three or four days to accomplish in features what he got only a day to do in TV. Working in TV can be “rushed and restricting in many areas.”

Donner, who besides “Tales From the Crypt” and “Perversions of Science” is working on a series of world-premiere movies for HBO with partner Joel Silver. The first, “Double Tao” starring Stephen Rea and Heather Locklear, arrives in September.

But Donner declares he would never want to get back into network television.

“Cable is the only place where you can be creative,” he says. “At the network level, there are too many restrictions, too many idiots out there who are into censorship (who are) able to control shows. The religious right has overextended its bounds to the point where it’s totally ridiculous.

“I mean, this rating system business is just a mess. I have no idea what it’s supposed to be trying to accomplish.”

So Donner is happy doing the majority of his work in theatricals.

“There’s just no comparison,” he maintains. “The movies are still the movies. TV is a great learning tool, but it’s still TV.”

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