“Look: you’ll make a great producer, but you’ll never make it as a director.” Television icon Sheldon Leonard was never one to mince words, and he gave it to the aspiring young director with both barrels that day in the early 1960s. The young man took it on the chin, but inwardly knew that Leonard was very much mistaken. He’d already resolved that he wanted to be a director, not a producer, and would spend the better part of the next three decades proving himself as one of the most versatile and talented directors in television. He was the rudder, the binding glue on such legendary sitcoms as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Soap, The Cosby Show, and The Golden Girls. He has four Emmy awards to his credit, two DGA Awards, and a host of nominations and other accolades. His name should be familiar to anyone who existed anywhere near a television set in the 1970s and 80s; a warm, fuzzy blanket of a name, tucked away at the end of the credits, always guaranteeing a tight, smart, irresistibly entertaining 30 minutes.
The man is Jay Sandrich. Sandrich, 83, is the legendary director responsible for steering shows that have become the cornerstones of the golden age of TV sitcoms. During an era when network executives still deferred to the creative independence of writers and producers (yes, such a time actually existed and its called the 1970s), Sandrich was the perfect director for the times: his fierce integrity to the show, a highly collaborative work ethic with his creative team, and loyal dedication to his actors helped result in ratings gold. Time and time again.
2015 marks a number of milestones in Sandrich’s illustrious career: it marks the 45th anniversary of The Mary Tyler Moore Show pilot, the 30th anniversary of The Golden Girls pilot, and the 30th anniversary of the first season of The Cosby Show. And while the self-effacing Jay Sandrich may express surprise that these shows are relevant in the pop cultural lexicon, for those of us who grew up with them they are an integral part of the fabric of our lives–and therefore will always be relevant.
Sandrich, whose father Mark was a successful director during Hollywood’s Golden Age with a string of Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers hits, may have been born into the business, so to speak, but was lukewarm towards it. “I was only 13 when my father passed,” says Sandrich, from his home in Marina Del Rey, Calif., “and at the time I was more interested in sports than anything else.”
While serving his two years of compulsory service in the army, Sandrich directed educational films. When it was time for ROTC, Sandrich had a good idea that he wanted to go into television. “I didn’t think about [directing] at all until I was in college.”
I Love Lucy
At 25 years old, Sandrich got a gig as a 2nd assistant director on what was the most popular show on television: I Love Lucy. “I had absolutely no idea what I was doing,” Sandrich confesses with a rich chuckle, musing over the fast and furious four camera set. I Love Lucy was shot as though it were live, and with a master camera and side cameras for close-ups. It was like performing on a trapeze without a net. “Back then, there weren’t any monitors or anything like that. … Jack Aldworth was the assistant director, and he really taught me the ropes.” Sandrich’s timing on the beloved show was not exactly auspicious: Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were at the end of their marriage, and the tensions on set were high. “I was aware of their domestic problems, yes, but I just did my job. Vivian Vance was always lovely, though; always a delight. I stayed on for about 2 or 3 years, on into their one hour shows, when [in 1963] Sheldon Leonard asked me if I would be interested in a gig as an assistant director.” Sandrich took the job.
The show was Make Room for Daddy, starring Danny Thomas, which is perhaps remembered most for spurring its more famous spinoff, The Andy Griffith Show. Not long after, “I got a call from Leonard Stern, asking me if I wanted to produce his show Get Smart. So I did.”
It would be the fork in the road. Sandrich realized his love didn’t lie in the producer’s suit, but rather in the director’s chair. “I liked to be on the set, with the actors,” said Sandrich. “I knew I wouldn’t be happy as a producer.”
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Enter MTM Productions and Grant Tinker.
“There was never anyone else like [Grant] Tinker,” says Sandrich, and he’s absolutely correct. Along with his then-wife Mary Tyler Moore, Tinker created MTM Productions and the company’s list of credits is dizzying: The Mary Tyler Moore Show being the first in a cavalcade of network hits, producing shows such as The Bob Newhart Show, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, WKRP in Cincinatti, and many more.
Although The Mary Tyler Moore show is famous for its seemingly effortless chemistry, Sandrich asserts that, although the set was an enjoyable one, all that “effortlessness’ took a hell of a lot of effort. “[Ed Asner] was difficult at first. He took his time; he really wasn’t used to comedy. Mary Tyler Moore was so easy and wonderful to work with, just wonderful … and of course Betty [White]. I’d already known her, she’s such a good friend; just the best.” He pauses. “You see, trust was everything on that set.” And then a hint of sadness surfaces in Sandrich’s voice. “It’s a completely different world now. The networks today? They have no idea what they’re doing.”
Today, The Mary Tyler Moore Show is thought of as being an inspiration to 1970s women’s lib: centered around a strong, independent woman who pursues a power career over traditional marriage, it was the first of its kind and, in many ways, remains the only one of its kind. “But at the time, that’s not the way we thought of it,” explains Sandrich. “We didn’t set out to make it about feminism, we were just making the show as good as it could be.”
This accidental tide-water changing would happen three more times in Sandrich’s career, in quick succession.
Soap was the first network sitcom to prominently feature openly gay character, and Billy Crystal’s Jodie Dallas has become something of a milestone in LGBT history. The show, a sterling soap opera satire created by Susan Harris, whom Sandrich calls “the absolute best—you can’t get better than Susan Harris” spearheaded an inventive approach to the 30 hour sitcom. “What really made Soap work was that we didn’t have to do the same style every week. We could do broad comedy one week, then we could do drama, etc.”
It’s little wonder why Soap carries such a special place in Sandrich’s heart.
The Cosby Show
Surprisingly enough, The Cosby Show, one of the most beloved sitcoms of all time, proved a much harder sell for him. And it all came down to three little words: New York City. In some ways, you can almost see Sandrich as the West Coast’s answer to Woody Allen. Allen’s famous ambivalence towards all things California is the stuff of legend, and Sandrich could probably go mano a mano with the Manhattanite. Let’s put it this way: Sandrich’s adorable little puppy is named Cali. As in: California. Television history was almost dealt a severe blow thanks to the Big Apple: when the Cosby Show first came to Sandrich’s attention, it was a red-light for one very simple reason. It would mean shooting (and therefore, living) in New York. “Absolutely not,” says Sandrich without a moment’s hesitation. “Never.”
Thankfully Sandrich’s lovely wife Linda, who is a native New Yorker, coaxed him into reason. “’Think of it this way,’ she told me, ‘we can jet off to the Caribbean from New York whenever we want!’ Well, jetting off to the Caribbean didn’t sound so bad!”
Sandrich is also very much aware of the cultural significance of network TV’s first successful African American sitcom. “It was wonderful to be able to present a black family an American family. Before The Cosby Show, the black community had always been represented as, you know, low-income. But here was an upper middle class family that looked and sounded just like every other family in America—it just happened to be black. I’m so proud to have been a part of that.”
The Golden Girls
As is the case with all of Sandrich’s shows, casting for The Golden Girls was key. “I don’t want to make it sound like I was the only one involved in the casting process,” says Sandrich in his typically self-effacing manner, “but I do take a serious interest in it. With The Golden Girls, Betty White had originally been asked to read for the part of Blanche.” Betty White’s Emmy award-winning performance on The Mary Tyler Moore Show as the notorious flirt Sue Ann Nivens made her a natural for Blanche, the overly amorous Southern Belle. But Sandrich had a hunch to cast against type. “I said to Betty, would you mind reading for the other part? For Rose?” It was immediately obvious that the switch was the right decision.
It was also obvious that the show about four uproarious aging, single women was going to be a hit. “I knew just from reading the script how good it was going to be,” says Sandrich. “And can you believe it, that show got a lot of resistance? Especially in the South, some Catholic groups tried to keep it from being aired. Well, after all, we were talking about AIDS, and gays, and divorce, and all kinds of things that weren’t openly talked about then.”
So what does one say about a career like that? A writer could wax poetic and stretch to make some sort of grand conclusion, but at the end of the day it’s Sandrich, ever humble and always direct, who puts it best with a sigh, “Well … they were good times. They were all good times.”
And really, it couldn’t be put much better than that. They were good times.
Thank you, Jay, for being a friend to all of us and sharing memories that will never be forgotten.
Jay Sandrich’s work can be found on numerous media. The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Cosby Show are available on Hulu, The Golden Girls can be watched on TV Land, and Soap can be purchased on Amazon.
Here’s a personal favorite …