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Dwight Arlington Hemion, 1926 - 2008

TV director known for his musical specials

February 02, 2008|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Dwight Arlington Hemion, a television director and producer best known for his musical specials who won 18 Emmy Awards and was nominated a record 47 times, died Monday at his home in Rectortown, Va. He was 81.

The cause was renal failure, his wife, Kit, said.

In television specials starring Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Mikhail Baryshnikov and many other world-class performers, Hemion and his partner, producer Gary Smith, captured popular and critical acclaim.

"Hemion defined an era in television," Ron Simon, curator of radio and television at the Paley Center for Media in New York City, said this week. "He created great variety television for home audiences."

Starting in the late 1960s, Hemion "defined the music spectacular," Simon said.

Shows that Hemion directed were made in a comparatively simple style without elaborate editing or special effects. "The artist was the star," Smith said in an interview this week.

For "Baryshnikov on Broadway," which won Hemion two Emmys in 1980, one segment had the ballet dancer joining the kick line from "A Chorus Line," the Broadway musical.

"We learned that Baryshnikov had a passion for musical theater," Smith said.

It was the type of revealing detail Hemion looked for. In every show, "we wanted to make it feel that there was a new insight into the performer," Smith said.

Another Hemion special, "Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music," was an Emmy winner in 1966 and featured Sinatra in his early 50s, singing songs that conveyed the bittersweetness of life. It was another side to the legend built on Sinatra's glamorous, jet-setting public image.

At times, Hemion directed television specials on location. One early example featured trumpeter Herb Alpert, opening the show with a performance in a Tijuana bullring. The show won two Emmys, one for outstanding director and one for outstanding musical program, in 1968.

Hemion began collecting television's top prize in 1965 with an Emmy for "My Name Is Barbra." He worked with Streisand a number of times after that and earned Emmys for other specials, including "Color Me Barbra" in 1966 and, most recently, "Barbra Streisand: The Concert" in 1995.

Other major performers Hemion worked with included Luciano Pavarotti, Neil Diamond and Bette Midler.

"Every star who had a special wanted Dwight to direct it," Gail Purse said this week. She worked with Hemion through the 1990s when he directed a number of "Disney's Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra," programs that aired on the Disney Channel.

Although Hemion was best known for his work with entertainers, he also directed televised coverage of the inaugural galas of President Reagan in 1985 and President Clinton in 1993 and 1997. He directed TV coverage of several Democratic National Conventions, a number of annual "Christmas in Washington" TV specials and several Kennedy Center Honors programs.

In the 1970s, Hemion and Smith worked in London, after British media mogul Lew Grade invited them to create programs there. They directed and produced television specials with composer Burt Bacharach, former Beatle Paul McCartney and singer-actress Julie Andrews, among other major talents. They also worked on several televised "Royal Command Performance" evenings of entertainment.

Hemion was born March 14, 1926, in New Haven, Conn., the son of an undertaker. After graduating from high school, he joined the Army Air Forces and served in the Pacific during World War II.

After the war, he went to work for ABC television in New York City. His first major directing job was with comedian Steve Allen on the "Tonight Show." He directed a number of the programs during the mid-1950s.

Hemion and Smith became partners in the mid-'60s, based in New York City and later in London before they relocated to Los Angeles in the mid-'70s.

Hemion's marriage to Joyce Hogue Hemion ended in divorce in 1970. He married Kit Lusk in 1973. He is survived by his second wife, two children and three step-children, as well as six grandchildren.

Contributions in Hemion's name may be made to the Young Musicians Foundation, 195 S. Beverly Drive, Suite 414, Beverly Hills, CA 90212.

mary.rourke@latimes.com

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