Robert Butler is an accomplished director but he doesn’t give himself any airs.
“We’re a bunch of blue-collar working stiffs,” says Butler, a former Directors Guild of America board member with more than 60 TV and film credits. “We get there early and we leave late. We all work long hours and do a lot of physical labor. We have some shiny members and a spiffy building but at the end of the day we’re still working stiffs.”
Butler’s colleagues at the DGA have a more exalted view of his talents, and have decided to give him and Tom Donovan, the guild’s former national vice president, this year’s Robert B. Aldrich Achievement Award for extraordinary service to the guild.
Both men got their starts in television, which remained their primary medium. Donovan, a New Yorker then and now, headed the East Coast branch of the Radio & Television Directors Guild before its merger in 1960 with the Screen Directors Guild.
A few months before the union, he remembers receiving a phone call from Frank Capra inviting him to 21 to discuss with George Stevens and George Sidney the possibility of the merger, but Donovan admits he was too intimidated to go.
“They were giants, and I was very young,” Donovan says, laughing at the memory. “I was dumbstruck, petrified. I pleaded that I was busy. We were doing three-camera techniques and grinding out TV shows while they were making major movies.”
Television was the upstart medium, he says, and feature directors were concerned that TV might bury them.
“They wanted all of us to be in same boat so we could negotiate together,” Donovan adds. “For our part, it was better to be aligned with them than to be in competition with them.”
Donovan worked on “Danger” and “Playhouse 90,” the series “Ryan’s Hope,” “Hidden Faces” and “Hawk,” and specials such as “The Time of Your Life,” “A Smile for Oona” and “Harriet.” Donovan was also producer-director for the series “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing,” “A World Apart” and “General Hospital.”
Butler, a native of Los Angeles, began his career as an usher at CBS, and was progressively a receptionist, production clerk, stage manager and an associate director before getting his first helming gig on “Gunsmoke” in 1955.
Butler’s directing credits include the features “Turbulence,” “Night of the Juggler” and “Up the Creek,” the TV movies “White Mile” and “Out of Time,” and the pilots for “Star Trek,” “Hogan’s Heroes,” “Lois & Clark,” “Hill Street Blues,” “Moonlighting” and “Remington Steele,” which he created. Butler’s latest pilot, “The Division,” aired in January on Lifetime.
In Butler’s 1976 telefilm “Dark Victory,” Anthony Hopkins — playing a doctor whose wife is dying of cancer — gave a taste of the edgy, haunting performances he later became known for in “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Hannibal.”
“Hopkins made a choice of hating death, of despising it, so the performance was quite percussive, even antagonistic,” Butler recalls. “He wanted to be directed, and I wanted to go with his instinct, so we collaborated like crazy..”
Both Butler and Donovan have served in various positions in the DGA’s hierarchy.
“It’s a terribly honest, straightforward, decent organization,” Butler says. “That heritage has been in the guild forever, and that ethic prevails on its committees, boards and councils. That’s why the organization is so solid and that’s why one derives such satisfaction from working with it and for it.”