George Schaefer, the prolific producer-director who was the driving force behind more than 55 “Hallmark Hall of Fame” TV dramas, died Wednesday after a prolonged illness. He was 76.
Schaefer’s career spanned six decades and included a wide range of award-winning productions in the fields of film, TV and the theater. His last production, a Hallmark Entertainment remake of “Harvey” starring Harry Anderson and Swoosie Kurtz, is set to air on CBS this season.
Schaefer served as president of the Directors Guild of America from 1979-81 and was the first director to win the DGA’s top award four times. Schaefer stands as the most-nominated director, with 15 nods, in the 50-year history of the DGA awards.
In 1990, his years of service to the guild were honored with the DGA’s Robert B. Aldrich award. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences hosted a tribute to Schaefer in 1986 that included testimonials from Hal Holbrook, Julie Harris and Jane Wyatt.
From 1985 to 1991, Schaefer served as chair, and later associate dean, of the UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television. He was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to a six-year term (1982-88) on the board of the National Council on the Arts. His memoir, “From Live to Tape to Film,” recently was published through the DGA.
Schaefer’s canvas ranged from Off Broadway musicals to some of the earliest original dramas for HBO, including 1982’s “The Deadly Game.” But he prized his reputation as the master craftsman of Hallmark’s prestigious showcase. He later described the period, stretching from 1953 to 1976, as “the happiest, most productive years of my life.”
“The aura of excellence surrounding the ‘Hallmark Hall of Fame’ today traces back directly to the legacy of this talented man,” said Donald J. Hall, chairman of Hallmark Cards.
Schaefer was attracted to theater and showbiz at an early age. He was born Dec. 16, 1920, in Wallingford, Conn., before his family settled in Oak Park, Ill., where he formed a high school theater group called the Pastime Players. He studied at Yale Drama School after his graduation in 1941 from Lafayette College with a B.A. in English.
Schaefer was drafted into the Army in 1942, where he met British thesp Maurice Evans, who at the time was serving as a major heading the entertainment section of the Central Pacific Base Command in Honolulu, Hawaii. Schaefer directed around 50 plays for the command, including a bare-bones version of “Hamlet” that later had a long run on Broadway as “G.I. Hamlet.”
After the war, Schaefer joined the New York City Center Company on Evans’ recommendation. During four seasons with the company, Schaefer produced 16 plays, including “The Heiress” (1950) and “Idiot’s Delight” (1951). In 1953, he and Evans co-produced “Teahouse of the August Moon,” which went on to win the Pulitzer, Tony and New York Critics awards.
Also, 1953 marked the beginning of his long association with TV, in a live “Hallmark Hall of Fame” production of “Hamlet” that featured Evans. Over the next two decades, Schaefer, a five-time Emmy winner, would direct such renown thesps as Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, Dame Judith Anderson, Christopher Plummer and Trevor Howard in classics ranging from Shakespeare to Shaw to Gilbert & Sullivan.
Schaefer made his feature directing debut in 1969 with “Pendulum,” a thriller starring George Peppard. His other movie credits included “Generation,” “Doctors’ Wives” and Arthur Miller’s adaptation of “Enemy of the People” with Steve McQueen.
Schaefer is survived by his wife of 43 years, actress Mildred Trares; brothers, William and Louis; and three nieces. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be sent to the DGA’s Special Projects Committee.
A memorial service is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. on Oct. 5 at the DGA Theater.