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He Pilots the Pilots : How to succeed in television without really trying? Call James Burrows. He's the sitcom director with the golden touch. (Say "Cheers.")

March 19, 1995|Rick Du Brow | Rick Du Brow is The Times' television writer

On a recent cloudy morning in Hollywood, director James Burrows is moving around animatedly on Stage 9 of the Sunset Gower Studios, practicing his unique specialty--trying to breathe life into a new TV sitcom.

This particular show is called "NewsRadio," which, fittingly, is set in an all-news radio station, and its fate will be decided by its premiere on Tuesday on NBC and five subsequent episodes.

Burrows is hardly infallible--he's had his hits and misses--but as the director of the pilot episodes of such series as "Cheers," "Frasier," "Wings," "Friends" and "Roc," he is in constant demand by those hoping for a magic touch, and his clout in the power structure of television's creative community is considerable.

Yet while he is a preeminent shaper of sitcoms--like his acknowledged mentor, Jay Sandrich, whose credits include "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "The Cosby Show"--Burrows admits that nothing again will probably ever match for him the awesome success of "Cheers," which he co-created with brothers Glen and Les Charles.

"I'll never forget that first night," the 54-year-old Burrows says of "Cheers." "On a pilot episode, I always run it in front of an audience like three days before I actually shoot it, just to have a sense of what we've got. I tell the actors, 'It's like New Haven--you're out of town.' "

When George Wendt, as barfly Norm Peterson, made his first entrance on the show and uttered a line that seemed like a mere throwaway, Burrows recalls, "The audience went bananas. And I turned to Glen and Les and I said, 'OK, we got something special here because they're laughing at a character, they're not laughing at a joke.' They knew exactly who this guy was when he walked through that set.

"When we discussed the making of 'Cheers' and the (Charles) boys went off and wrote the script, I said to my wife, 'This is unbelievable. They have brought radio to television.' "

Radio to television?

"Sure. Because 'Cheers' was: You bring 'em in, you sit 'em down and they talk. That's all 'Cheers' was. The word is more important than the goofiness. It was all about the words--which is how I was trained, how my father (legendary Broadway writer-director Abe Burrows) was trained, how anybody who reads books is trained. It's the word.

"You watch television, it's the words and the action. It's one less step with the imagination. It's like music videos. You used to listen to records. Now suddenly you're seeing the group's interpretation, so you can't imagine what your interpretation is."

How strong is the professional lineage between Burrows and his late father, whose shows included "Guys and Dolls" and "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," and who was widely respected as a show-fixer and script doctor?

"Abe was a writer basically," Jim Burrows says. "I think I'm more of a director. I worked for Abe for about five years as a stage manager. I started by assistant-stage managing 'Breakfast at Tiffany's,' which was a huge flop (on Broadway, with Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain). That's how I got to meet Mary Tyler Moore," whose TV show he later directed.

"Then I did the road company of 'Cactus Flower,' and I did the Broadway production of 'Forty Carats.' And as the stage manager, you direct the understudies, so I got that experience. But I used to watch my father in rehearsal, and he was unbelievable. He used to listen more than he watched. I'd see him walking behind the sets. I said to him, 'What are you doing?' He said, 'Well, I'm doing a straight play here, and if there's a pause, I know I'm in trouble because nobody's dancing.' "


With TV's pilot season soon to heat up as shows vie for a place on next fall's schedule, and with Burrows' special status in the pilot arena, the word is that he probably sees the scripts of just about every possible new comedy project making the rounds.

"I do," he says.

And however "NewsRadio" fares, it is clear from watching him work the set that he is in his element trying to give birth to a new series.

On this day, he is organizing the third episode, doing the trenchwork--running his four cameras through their setups and, at the same time, chatting with his actors about lines and scenes while checking out the various pieces of business on a bank of eight small TV monitors.

Bearded, he is wearing a dark checked shirt, navy blue sweater, jeans and sneakers.

"I learned from my father how to work on my feet," he says. "He worked on his feet all the time. He'd run the scenes over and over. He created this wonderful camaraderie, which I always try to do. I love to do ensemble shows because that's where you get the camaraderie."

On one such series, "Taxi," for which he directed numerous episodes, his role, he says, was "more of a wrangler than anything else. There were a lot of egos on that show. I was really a wrangler to get the ensemble nature. That was my job--check your ego at the door."

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