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Where the 'Action!' Is

Many familiar faces from TV comedies are stepping behind the cameras to find a different level of satisfaction, challenge and success--as directors of sitcoms.

November 17, 1996|Chuck Crisafulli | Chuck Crisafulli is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Could that really be Jerry the Dentist calling "Action!" and "Cut!" on the set of a hit sitcom?

Well, yes and no. As an actor, Peter Bonerz will probably be forever linked with Jerry, the swinging tooth doctor on "The Bob Newhart Show" throughout its run in the '70s. But even in his Jerry days, Bonerz was launching something of a stealth career--as a director.

Encouraged by "Newhart Show" producers to swap the dentist's chair for the director's chair, Bonerz went on to direct nearly a third of that show's episodes. He built upon his success there, moving on to direct episodes of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Rhoda" and "Archie Bunker's Place." And today, the former character actor is one of TV's most sought-after directors of comedy--he has served as something of a director-in-residence for "Murphy Brown" the past four seasons, and he will also be helming episodes of "Home Improvement" and "Friends" this season.

"I think Jerry was pretty much the apogee of my acting career," Bonerz, 58, says with a laugh, resting at home after a week of work on "Friends." "But I'm very satisfied as a director. The thing is it's a totally different kind of satisfaction. As an actor, I got immediate gratification--like being given a piece of candy. It's a tremendous pleasure to be out there making people laugh. The pleasure of directing is more like the feeling you get afterworking out--you ache all over, but you know you've done something good."

Increasingly, the aches and pleasures of directing television comedy are being explored by familiar faces from the other side of the camera. David Steinberg, whose TV performance career includes sitcoms, variety shows and a lengthy stint as substitute host on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show," works almost exclusively as a director now, having directed most episodes of "Mad About You" as well as episodes of "Seinfeld."

Mary Kay Place, memorable as country chanteuse Loretta Haggers on "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," has directed episodes of "Friends," "Dream On" and "Arli$$." Philip Charles Mackenzie, who appeared on "Brothers" and "Open House," has moved on to directing episodes of "Frasier" and "Roseanne," and James Widdoes, once part of the cast of "Charles in Charge," now directs the casts of shows such as "Something So Right" and "Boston Common."

Certainly not every working TV actor is capable of directing a show, but actor-directors who have mastered both sets of skills are clearly capable of distinguished work. This year's Emmy for comedy directing went to the director of a "Friends" episode--Michael Lembeck--whose face might be familiar to many from his years as a cast member of "One Day at a Time" (he played Mackenzie Phillips' husband).

A decade ago, Lembeck had built a solid acting career on stage, screen and TV and was respected as a leader of comic acting seminars. But it has been as a director that Lembeck has soared. He got his start on "Coach" and during the last few seasons has guided such successful comedies as "Friends," "NewsRadio," "Ellen" and "Mad About You." This season he helped launch CBS' "Everybody Loves Raymond," directing the pilot and two additional episodes.

"When you move from acting to directing," Lembeck explains, "you show up on your first day thinking, 'I've got the job--I'll give them my best shot.' The first thing you discover is how much you don't know. It's a shocking epiphany.

"By the 34th time that day you're asked a question you can't answer, you want to kill yourself. You have to learn how to work with the people who do know the answers. And with my experience, I still don't have all the answers and I'm still learning every time out.

"The important thing in TV is that the show isn't about the director--I'm not making 'a film by Michael Lembeck' every week, and I have no pretensions about that. A television show is brought to life by a lot of people, and being a part of that collaborative effort is actually one of the joys of directing television comedy."

With an Emmy on his shelf and directing offers continuing to pour in, Lembeck, 48, isn't exactly pining for his days in front of the cameras.

"As an actor I had hundreds of jobs, and I probably loved seven or eight of them. I loved being an actor--I loved working in the theater--but nothing like the way I love directing. When I work on a show now, I'm the first one in, the last one out, and I can't wait to get back the next day. I've developed the metabolism of a hummingbird, and I find it wonderful to bring all that energy to whatever show I'm directing. Granted, I have my fair share of hellish experiences--days where absolutely nothing goes right--but still, I love the work."


Bonerz says that two of the great assets an actor can bring to directing are empathy and adaptability.

"Some directors come out of editing bays or writing rooms and aren't necessarily great at communicating with actors. But someone who's acted knows what other actors are going through, and that makes it very easy to communicate.

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