It’s probably just as well that Don Mischer’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame will be planted in concrete on Dec. 11, since he has run out of space on his mantle for yet another award. The highly decorated producer-director already has 15 Emmys, a record 10 DGA awards, two NAACP Image Awards, a Peabody and a raft of others.
“My wife doesn’t want any more around the house,” he admits, “so they’re mostly at the office.”
The 74-year-old industry veteran spends as much time at Don Mischer Prods. as ever, and has little interest in either retiring or resting on his laurels, which include some 200 producing and directing credits ranging from the 2009 Obama Inaugural Celebration to the Oscars, the Emmys, the Olympics, the Kennedy Center Honors and the Super Bowl halftime shows starring the likes of Prince, the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney.
Instead, he’s focused on his latest project, “The Breakthrough Prize,” which he’s producing for Discovery and BBC Worldwide.
“We’ve shot a group of tech leaders in Palo Alto, including Mark Zuckerberg and Art Levinson, who’re trying to raise the profile of science and scientists,” he says. “Science and scientists used to be far more admired and respected in this country, but a lot of Americans are suspicious of them today. And so they’re selecting men and women who’ve done real breakthrough work in their field, and are giving out $3 million to each one — no strings attached, and there’s a total of 12, so it’s a pretty big deal.”
Mischer is also working on the next “One Night Only” special for Spike (“we’ve done it with Eddie Murphy and Don Rickles”). Plus there’s some other projects in the works, including one for 2016 that will air during Black History Month, and “a few we can’t announce yet, as the deals are still being finalized. So really I’m as busy as ever.”
Growing up in Texas, Mischer was always a huge TV fan. “As a kid I’d fantasize about being a cameraman, and I’d make TV cameras out of boxes,” he recalls.
After graduating from the U. of Texas at Austin in 1961, he got his start at local Channel 9, “and never looked back.” For Mischer, the timing was “perfect, as TV was coming of age in that era, with all the live coverage of the Kennedy assassination, and then Martin Luther King and the moon landings. It was the glue that held the nation together.”
Since that time, Mischer — almost Zelig-like — has popped up to help orchestrate many key political, cultural and showbiz events of the past few decades. “For Obama’s inaugural, we had just eight days and no budget to pull it together,” he recalls. “And Bono, Springsteen, Beyonce and everyone paid for their own flights and expenses, as they all wanted to be there for this euphoric moment in our history.”
For the 100th Anniversary of Carnegie Hall, he worked closely with host Peter Jennings, Isaac Stern, Yo-Yo Ma and conductor Zubin Mehta. “We had 2,800 singers who sang Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ and it was so emotionally sublime,” he says. “Our business is full of stress and pressure, and often disappointment, so when you ‘ring the bell,’ and it all really works like this did, the payoff is just overwhelming. I think we all strive for those special moments — to create something memorable, that’ll become part of our culture and history.”
Mischer felt the same way about Michael Jackson’s seminal performance of “Billie Jean” at the 1983 “Motown 25” event. “We nearly didn’t include it in the broadcast, as everyone — Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Lionel Richie and so on — had agreed to perform only old songs. And Michael said he’d reunite with the Jackson Five provided we let him sing one new song. But we couldn’t play favorites and almost said ‘No.’”
So what changed his mind? “We saw Michael’s rehearsal the night before, in a virtually empty theater, and we immediately knew this was another very special moment,” he says. “And we were right. ‘Motown 25’ was the first time he ever did ‘Billie Jean,’ the first time he did the moonwalk and wore the glove, and it was truly thrilling.”
As the producer of three consecutive Oscar telecasts (2011-13), Mischer has felt the pressure, despite all the other large-scale efforts watched by millions under his belt.
“What you hope for is great nominations and surprising wins and also wonderfully interesting and touching acceptance speeches. But the reality is, as a producer and director, you have absolutely no control over any of that whatsoever.”
Veteran Oscar producer Gil Cates gave Mischer “some great advice,” he says. “When I did my first one, he told me, ‘You do your best in putting the show together, but in the end you just pray that the award show gods smile on you, because if they don’t, no matter what you do, it’s gonna be tough.’ And that’s true of so much in our business. You can prepare a show down to the last little detail, but in the end you’re at the mercy of events. And that’s what makes this job so exciting.”