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Doing Director Time : Ken Olin Shelves Acting as TV Films Seek Out His Touch

March 15, 1992|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was requiring more and more effort for Ken Olin to put his heart and soul into playing ultimate yuppie Michael Steadman on ABC's "thirtysomething."

"Acting," he admitted, "had become something so laborious for me."

Olin was actually relieved when the acclaimed series was canceled last spring after four seasons.

"It had run its course," he said. "It was becoming increasingly difficult to do well. And I was tired. I was so tired. I was talking to (ABC President) Bob Iger the other day and he said, 'I really miss "thirtysomething." '

"But you know, I don't so much."

Olin's career quite literally has taken a new direction since the demise of "thirtysomething." These days, Olin works strictly behind the camera.

Currently, he's directing a CBS pilot by "thirtysomething" writer Joseph Dougherty. Last month, Olin received acclaim for his ABC film, "The Broken Cord," starring Jimmy Smits. Olin's latest TV movie, "Doing Time on Maple Drive," airs Monday on Fox.

The disturbing drama focuses on a "typical" American family whose lies are exposed and dreams shattered when their Ivy League son (William McNamara) brings home his fiancee (Lori Loughlin of ABC's "Full House") for a weekend visit. James B. Sikking, with whom Olin appeared on "Hill Street Blues," stars as the tough, demanding patriarch and Jim Carrey ("In Living Color") is the family's black sheep.

Olin said he has always wanted to be a director. As a student at the University of Pennsylvania, he directed a production of Mark Medoff's "When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?"

"I think there were a lot of things about it (directing) that were special," Olin said. "But I didn't have any technical skills and I didn't have any experience. It was very exhausting to me to the point of being a little frightening, so I didn't even go back to it until 'thirtysomething.' "

Still, Olin could sense the director lurking inside him whenever he was on a set. He was always concerned about the script, the blocking, camera placement and the type of lens being used.

"It was not necessarily the best thing to be concerned with as an actor," Olin said. "I think I should be very emotionally available and concentrating on whatever given moment is taking place in a scene."

"thirtysomething" proved to be the perfect training ground for Olin because the series' creators and executive producers, Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, are both directors. All cast members were invited to direct.

"The series was conceived as, not unlike feature films, as a directors' medium," Olin said. "One of the things that attracted me to doing a series and playing the leading role is that it would give me the opportunity to direct. It would give me the leverage."

Zwick, Olin discovered, was "not in the least bit shy of criticizing my work. He was very generous as a teacher and he spent a lot of time with me. We would talk about ideas and break down scenes."

Olin also learned sophisticated visual techniques from observing the commercial directors who worked on the series. "Peter Horton (who played Gary and also directed several episodes) and I would often talk and collaborate about certain things. It was an extraordinary laboratory."

Over the show's four seasons, Olin directed some extraordinary installments of "thirtysomething," including the episode in which Gary died, as well as the cancer-themed episode, "The Other Shoe," written by Dougherty, which won the prestigious Humanitas Award. Olin's wife, Patricia Wettig, who played cancer survivor Nancy Weston on the series, won her second of three Emmys for her work in "The Other Shoe."

It was Wettig who encouraged him to pursue directing. "She is the person who worked most closely with me as an actor being directed by me," he said. "She did great work in the episodes that we did. She always felt I was much happier and much more engaged directing. ... Essentially I took myself out of acting and now I haven't stopped working."

"Maple Drive" star Lori Loughlin said she believes Olin made the right decision. "Visually, he knows what he wants. He knows how to see a scene--he just can see it all in his mind. I think because he is an actor, he is really good for actors."

"I think this is sort of his niche," Wettig said. This summer, Olin will direct Wettig in the fall ABC movie "The Fortune Teller."

"I feel incredibly relaxed with him. I am confident in his ability."

Olin seems content in his new profession and overjoyed his days as Michael Steadman are behind him.

"I work four times as long for about half as much money as I would as an actor," he said, smiling. "But to continue to play Michael Steadman as opposed to directing 'Maple Drive' or 'Broken Cord'--there is no comparison to me."

"Doing Time on Maple Drive" airs Monday at 8 p.m. on Fox.

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