A late entrance for Jay Sandrich
ASPEN In 1980, after a decade spent directing television sitcoms, Jay Sandrich tried his hand at the movies. It was a successful switch; Sandrichs cinematic debut was Seems Like Old Times, an appealing latter-day screwball comedy written by Neil Simon and starring Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase. The pace of making a movie was slow for Sandrichs taste, but he agreed to stick with it, and signed on to make the film, Sweet Deception. Early on in the project, John Belushi, a year or so away from his death by drug overdose, got involved, and Sandrich began to feel that making a movie was like trekking through a swamp in Army boots.My whole metabolism was geared toward working faster. Movies moved too slowly, he said. I wasted a whole year of my life. I wanted to go to work.I said, Im going back to television. Thats where I belong.Sandrich never made another film for the big screen. But he is breaking out of his comfort zone again. Sandrich, at 76, recently made his debut as a theater director with Theatre Aspens production of the baseball comedy, Rounding Third. The two-person play, written by Richard Dresser, opened earlier this month at the Theatre Aspen Tent in Rio Grande Park, and shows this week, Tuesday and Wednesday, July 15-16, and Saturday, July 19. It has additional dates through Aug. 22 in Theatre Aspens summer of rotating repertory.Sandrich, who lives part-time in a house he has owned for 14 years some two miles up the Castle Creek Valley, has been a frequent attendee at Theatre Aspen. On occasion, there has been some chatter about getting him to direct a production for the organization. When Paige Price took over last year as artistic director of Theatre Aspen, the talks became more concrete. Price made a pitch that Sandrich direct Rounding Third, a comedy about two very different men brought together to coach a Little League team. Sandrich balked at first, mistaking Rounding Third for Take Me Out, the Tony Award-winner that explored issues of homophobia and racism in baseball, and featured a scene in which the cast gets naked. Once the misunderstanding was cleared up, Sandrich was on board.
Coming from the top tier of network television, Sandrich naturally came to the theater with demands. Actually, his list included just one demand. Sandrich wanted to be sure that Rounding Third would be cast with first-rate actors.I told Paige that I cant do a two-person comedy without actors who are good enough to do it right, said Sandrich, sitting outside the Theatre Aspen Tent. I didnt think the actors I saw last year [at Theatre Aspen] were good enough. Its impossible to do this show and do it right without the actors who can find the comedy in it.Such demands could be read as Sandrich wanting to make his entrance into live theater a splashy one, or simply acting like the pampered Hollywood veteran. But at his age, Sandrich, who is retired from television, isnt looking to make theater his next career. And despite his background, Sandrich is a mellow sort, who tends to deflect credit and attention from himself and toward others.More likely, what is at play is the standards that have been built into Sandrich over nearly four decades in sitcoms. Sandrich not only made his name when family sitcoms were arguably at their peak, through the 1970s and into the 80s, but he was involved with some of the most indelible shows in the genre. He is credited with directing more than 100 episodes each of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Cosby Show in both cases, the bulk of the series and with virtually all of the boundary-smashing, prime-time soap opera, Soap. In some cases, as with The Golden Girls, Sandrich would be brought in to direct the initial episode which meant having a big hand in casting the show. He also dabbled in several other iconic sitcoms, directing a few episodes each season of The Odd Couple, and taking turns at The Bob Newhart Show, Laverne & Shirley, WKRP in Cincinnati and Night Court.
Those gigs associated Sandrich with some of the finest actors in sitcomdom: Bill Cosby, Mary Tyler Moore, Edward Asner, Phylicia Rashad, Tony Randall and Jack Klugman. Sandrich signed on for the theater job to have fun, to give himself a creative challenge in his retirement years. Working with actors who didnt meet his standards would not have been a fun experience, so last winter, Sandrich spent a day and a half doing casting calls in New York City, with the plan of doing the same in Los Angeles, if necessary. As it turned out, Sandrich located his cast Kevin Stapleton as Don, a beer-drinking house painter who stresses winning at all costs; and Richard Gallagher as Michael, who puts sportsmanship and fun over championships in New York.The pressure, at my time of life, is: Why am I doing this? said Sandrich. I had actors I liked; I knew theyd be inventive; I knew Id like working with them. Thats three-quarters of the job of directing: Find a good project and a good cast.Sandrich is discovering some of the essential differences between network television and regional theater. A big one was a concern that his cast might jump ship for a better gig; Theatre Aspen relieved much of that pressure by finding roles in a second production, the drama Crimes of the Heart, for both Stapleton and Gallagher. Sandrich also found that just two actors was too small a scale, so he added a filmed element, of Little League players, to the production, to open it up a little, show a little more of the outside world, he said.Perhaps the biggest difference is the relatively minuscule amount of rehearsal time he has had with Rounding Third. But Sandrich is trying to use that compressed time frame as an advantage.I dont want them to do a wonderful run-through before the audience gets here, he said of preparations for Rounding Third. I want the actors to be discovering where the laughs are.But Sandrich does see the two media, or at least his role in it, as having much in common.The director, in television and theater, is an intermediary between the writer and the actors.Sometimes theres an insight the writer does not have, because theyre not working with the actors, he said. The words may be beautiful on page, but with the actors, they may not work. I always felt it was up to the director to go to the writers and say not This doesnt work, but This doesnt work, because … . I was always trying to solve problems.
Mark Sandrich, Jays father, was a film director, known best for directing five of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musicals, including such classics as Top Hat and Shall We Dance. But the elder Sandrich died when Jay was 13, and didnt pass on much in the way of cinematic technique.Which is not to say that the father didnt have a hand in the sons career. One thing left to Jay was automatic membership in the Directors Guild of America. (At that time, sons of members were granted membership; daughters were not.)Also left to Jay were his fathers contacts, even if Jay wasnt aware of them. In the 1950s, after getting out of the service where he made training films for the Signal Corps Sandrich wrote a letter to Desilu Productions. His goal was to get a job with the production company responsible for I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith Show, two of Sandrichs favorite shows. Sandrich was granted an interview and, almost as quickly, a job.I thought, Boy, I must have given a great interview, said Sandrich, who has three children and four grandchildren, none in the entertainment business. Not quite. The production manager with whom he had interviewed, Argyle Nelson, had been an assistant director on several of Mark Sandrichs films. Jay was with Desilu for three years, working on The Andy Griffith Show, The Danny Thomas Show and Get Smart. A year after going out on his own, he landed the job as director of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, for which he would earn several Emmy Awards.Sandrich had a knack for getting attached to ground-breaking shows. Soap broke a sexual barrier; Jodie, played by Billy Crystal, was an uncloseted homosexual, with a boyfriend. There also were interracial romances, and a broad mix of comedy and drama. Then came The Cosby Show, which put a new face on black family life for viewers who were accustomed to The Jeffersons and Sanford and Son.That was a change in the way people saw black families, said Sandrich. It was the first time people saw black families who were like them, or how they wanted to be. They were smart; they were good parents.For all his work in comedy, Sandrich insists he is not a funny person. No. Absolutely not, he snapped. But a lot of comedy directors, writers, are not funny people. But I have a sense of comedy. I certainly recognize comedy. I have an eye for what works. But I could never sit down with a blank piece of paper and write funny dialogue.And Sandrich has loved being surrounded by comedy. One of his early jobs in television was as assistant director for the crime drama, The Untouchables.It was dark sets. Noisy. Fake gun battles. I didnt like that, he said. With comedies, even if there was tension, it was funny three quarters of the time. It was a fun way to make a living.Having experienced something of a golden age, Sandrich doesnt think the current world of sitcoms looks all that attractive.Im done with TV. And TVs done with me, he said. In my mind, theres nothing of the caliber of what I used to do. Its a different style. It was much more character-based, and longer scenes. And it wasnt everything about sex. We didnt aim for kids; we were playing for adults. Today, too many of the shows are aimed at teenagers. And every joke seems to be about sex. I dont mind that. But we had a much broader range of firstname.lastname@example.org
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