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TV ACTORS GET COMFORTABLE IN THE DIRECTOR'S CHAIR : Some TV directors have expressed concern about stars taking up so many of the limited number of directing slots.

July 23, 1986|MORGAN GENDEL | Times Staff Writer

James Brolin, star of ABC's "Hotel," pulled his co-star,, Connie Sellecca, toward him as she whispered seductively about the fine points of Puccini's "La Boheme," playing in the background.

She leaned over and blew out one candle and then another. The lighting on the Burbank sound stage dimmed. They drew closer.

But as their lips started to touch, Brolin shifted Sellecca's head to catch a reflection and shouted into her face, "How's the lighting now?"

Those words were not in the script, and they were aimed not at Sellecca but at the camera crew 10 feet behind her. Brolin was not only acting in the episode being rehearsed, but directing it. It is the eighth episode he has directed since making his directorial debut two seasons ago.

He's joined a club that the Directors Guild of America reports is becoming less exclusive: TV actors who direct episodes of their own series.

Don Johnson made his directorial debut on "Miami Vice" last season. So did Edward James Olmos on the same series, Kate Jackson on "Scarecrow and Mrs. King," Linda Gray on "Dallas" and John Larroquette on "Night Court."

Other actor-directors on current series are Robert Foxworth of "Falcon Crest," Larry Hagman and Patrick Duffy of "Dallas," Roger Mosley of "Magnum, P.I.," Gerald McRaney of "Simon & Simon," William Daniels and Eric Laneuville of "St. Elsewhere," Michael Landon and Victor French of "Highway to Heaven," Al Waxman of "Cagney & Lacey" and Tony Danza and Katherine Helmond of "Who's the Boss?"

Many industry observers say directing has become a plum for stars who need to be kept happy. Michael Franklin, executive director of the Directors Guild, said some TV directors have expressed concern about stars taking up so many of the limited number of directing slots. "We have not taken a position," Franklin said.

And executive producers do not necessarily like tossing this particular plum to their stars.

"It takes up a great deal of their time and energy," said "Dallas" executive producer Leonard Katzman. "I would be just as happy if shows were written by writers and directed by directors and acted by actors." There's also the fear that permitting one actor to direct can open a floodgate: "Dallas' " Steve Kanaly and Ken Kercheval will each direct their first episode this season, bringing to five the number of series regulars whose contracts guarantee them directorial assignments.

"Any of the actors that get a certain amount of clout want to direct," Katzman said, referring to the industry at large. "I cannot tell you why."

The answer is more for love than for money. The going rate for directors on hourlong episodic TV is $17,935 per episode, a pittance in contrast to the $1 million to $2 million a year that many top series stars are paid.

But mostly, actors who consider themselves creative souls go behind the cameras out of sheer boredom.

"I felt I had to do it as--if you'll excuse me--an artist," Jackson said last week, shortly after directing a "Scarecrow" episode. "Every day I'm this character Amanda King, and I can get a little tired of her. She can bore me stiff after a while."

Jackson keeps a cinematography manual and books like "People Skills" by Robert Bolton close at hand in her motor home on the Warner Bros. lot. Asked about her qualifications as a director, she pointed to 10 seasons on series TV during which, she said, she learned such things as "the difference between when you pan with somebody and when you dolly with them."

Danza had watched Danny DeVito step behind the cameras on "Taxi," in which they both starred, and liked the idea of having "your own baby to mold." Danza echoed the sentiments of most of the actor-directors interviewed when he cited as his main qualification, "I can talk to actors just as good as anybody."

Brolin originally wanted to be a director, but "couldn't get a job." Even after becoming an actor, "I always made Super-8 films," he said. Now, he's often seen with pages of stick-figures and arrows hanging out of his pocket, his method of storyboarding the episodes he directs.

"It's a strangely seductive undertaking," said Johnson from his Miami home. But not everyone, he said, is up to the "monumental" task. "You have to be slightly crazed or megalomaniacal and I qualify on both those counts."

Are these actor-directors dilettantes?

Some of the TV actors, directors and producers contacted suggested that there might be some stars who, in the words of veteran director and Directors Guild board member Jack Shea, might be "just flitting with the job" of directing.

On the other hand, Shea said, directors generally come to the field via "an interest in the performing arts." Though the Directors Guild has no firm figures on the subject, estimates from guild members range as high as 80% for the number of working directors who started out as actors of some kind.

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