But What I Really Want to Do Is Direct!

Actors who direct have made their mark over the years, whether as a second career option or by creating memorably good or bad films

The late-2009 release of Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, “Whip It,” earned some positive reviews, albeit limited box office. With this $10 million Fox Searchlight film, Barrymore joined the ranks of colleagues Clint Eastwood, Rob Reiner, George Clooney . Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, Ben Affleck, Emilio Estevez, Tim Robbins, Tom Hanks, Sean Penn, Ben Stiller, Robert Redford, Denzel Washington, Zach Braff, David Schwimmer and (yes, even the Duke) John Wayne, plus a host of other actors who use their stature and contacts to score a directing gig.

It was the show business bible Variety — the long-lamented Wednesday “weekend” edition — that came to my Philadelphia doorstep, where as a 12-year-old I first saw a cartoon of a Rockettes chorus line, all the long-legged dancers kicking, with the caption “What I really want to do is direct!”

Actors have indeed turned to directing since George Mêlies made his first film 100 years ago. Those of us forced to endure college film-appreciation classes are taught about the first “hyphenate” British vaudevillian Charlie Chaplin, who had a long and troubled Hollywood career as actor-director. Chaplin’s once acclaimed masterpieces (and “Modern Times” and “The Great Dictator” were indeed visionary classics) simply do not hold up for contemporary audiences.

Not so his contemporary Buster Keaton, whose work I didn’t discover until the '70s at a Waverly Theater retrospective in Greenwich Village. There I was overwhelmed by the sheer magic of “The General,” “Steamboat Bill Jr.” and “Sherlock Jr.” — the mere tip of the Keaton iceberg — still awe-inspiring in their visual imagery, storytelling, set-ups, direction and performance.

Yet Keaton is largely ignored today in academia. Chaplin’s last gasp at starring and directing himself, his second talkie in 1957, “The King of New York” presents a fey, self-important egoist with an irritatingly high-pitched voice in an over-the-top performance. Keaton, on the other hand, had that dancer’s grace while creating new uses for the camera, with impossible stunts, daring gymnastics and all the ingenious smoke and mirrors a true film artist could muster pre-CGI. Keaton was a celluloid magician, barely treasured during his life. His last years were “Beach Blanket Bingo” and corn chip commercials.

Other actors of the era – even scandalized Fatty Arbuckle – followed suit and directed their own and others' films. Decades later, whenever he wasn’t jumping into lesser acting fare to pick up an easy check , Laurence Olivier, the greatest film actor who ever lived, would direct his pet projects. Crashing onto the scene came that 25-year-old boy wonder from New York theater and radio, Orson Welles, given a chance at his very own “set of toy trains” when he yelled “action” at “Citizen Kane.”

Every actor seems to believe that he or she has a “Kane” in him, just as the baby boomers believed that each possessed the great American novel.

Two of our most iconic moments in cinema were directed by actors.

“Easy Rider,” directed by Dennis Hopper, was a milestone film that was an ode to 1960s rebellion. His follow-ups were incomprehensible.

“The Night of the Hunter,” the only feature directed by actor Charles Laughton, from a screenplay by film critic James Agee, is a masterpiece for many reasons, not the least being the riveting, prophetic lead by Robert Mitchum. Visually it’s an astonishing work. Laughton the actor was always brilliant (with the possible exception of a “Playhouse 90” where Rod Serling and Fielder Cook miscast him as a Warsaw ghetto rabbi). Laughton died in his early 60s (looking much older) and never getting the shot at a second film.

It’s often forgotten that Sydney Pollack, the preeminent, in-demand director adored by the industry, began his career as a working actor racking up television episodes in “The Twilight Zone,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Ben Casey,” “U.S. Steel Hour,” “Have Gun Will Travel” (Sydney played a cowboy?), as well as the aforementioned “Playhouse 90.”

Same for the great dramatic actress Ida Lupino, an edgy, tough broad in flicks who became a go-to director for light family comedy in the 1960s with “The Trouble With Angels.” Lupino, however, did not wait to jump into directing after working in front of the camera. While cast for her sultry beauty and voice, she was writing and producing at the beginning of her career and spent the '60s and '70s either acting or directing or both in hundreds of television series on every network.

Speaking of tough and sultry, the vibrant Lee Grant (from “Detective Story” to “Shampoo”) turned to directing and became HBO's favorite for her documentaries and CBS’ favorite for her Emmy-winning movies for television such as “Nobody’s Child.”

Often an actor will use his cachet to get a picture a greenlight for the chance to direct. Just as often these will turn out to be “one-offs,” a never-again experience. Henry Winkler, revered as TV’s Fonz, believed he could capture the vibe of his costar and friend Ron Howard; he got his shot with feature “Cop and a Half.” Its sole star, Burt Reynolds, was by the film’s release not only “cold” but “poison,” and the film wasn’t very good.

At the time, the running gag was that Meathead, Laverne, Opie and Spock were the hot directors of the day. Rob Reiner had begun his feature directing with mockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap” and followed it with a joyous yet conventional teen comedy, “The Sure Thing.” His career followed in the footsteps of his beloved father, comic actor Carl Reiner, also then an in-demand director.

Penny Marshall, a comic actress from “Happy Days,” sister of Gary and wife, at the time, of the younger Reiner, admitted she knew nothing about cameras and lenses and had little regard for writers. But she knew material and her work was assured. “Big” sealed her career.
Ron Howard, star of iconic film “American Graffiti” and TV hit “Happy Days,” knew he wanted to direct since Andy Griffith gave him an 8mm camera as an 8-year-old. Roger Corman, recognizing the immediate financial rewards of having a series TV star commit to one of his low-budget movies, offered Howard a directing deal if he would star as well. And Corman began Howard’s directing career just as he had done for Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and others.

Leonard Nimoy wanted a future greater than “Star Trek” conventions. A veteran of hundreds of episodic acting before and after “Trek,” Nimoy was able to practice his craft as a director following the series’ brief TV run as a director for hire in episodic TV. When Paramount wanted him to return to the feature “Star Trek III,” he would accept only if he could direct it. The studio agreed and he went on to direct “Star Trek IV” as well, considered by many to be the best. His feature career resulted in “The Good Mother,” a modest hit,  and the box office smash "3 Men and a Baby," followed by several that weren’t.

Many times the actor gets the shot and it simply doesn’t work. The film is not released at all, or goes directly to home video or cable. Roddy McDowell was an industry legend, a child actor who grew up and at every age continued to act, wracking up hundreds of roles and friendships with stars, the industry and the power players. A gifted photographer. he also was one of the most generous spirits in a town of less-than-warm competitors.

McDowell had a second hobby that rescued thousand of otherwise forgotten films. As a kid he had discovered that many tons of 35mm prints were discarded daily by most major studios. After all, following its theatrical release and its rerelease for the neighborhood a year later, what further use could be there for a film? It simply took up too much expensive storage space. The studios all dumped their old films. So Roddy began collecting. At one point he had a print of every major movie ever made. He graciously lent them out to the Hollywood screening-room circuit. Remember, this was many years before the advent of video recorders. No one had a copy of “Citizen Kane” or “Sullivan’s Travels” – not even the film’s directors. But Roddy did. Someone somewhere along the line, perhaps uninvited to a screening, called the cops. Roddy’s collection was briefly confiscated, later returned. Where it rests today is anyone’s guess.

But he did get his shot at directing in 1970. “Tam Lin” was inspired by a Scottish poem, starred Ava Gardner and Ian McShane and was incoherent.

“One-shots” (in some instances two or three) by other actor-directors (some good, some great, some terrible) include Tommy Lee Jones, Liev Schreiber, Billy Bob Thornton, Gary Sinise, Robert Duvall, Jack Nicholson, Burt Reynolds. Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, John Wayne and Marlon Brando.

Yes, entrepreneurial Joan Rivers managed to get her “Rabbit Test” made, which introduced the world to another young stand-up named Billy Crystal, which we won’t hold against her.

A whole new crop of actors who direct comes about when a new series becomes a hit. While the lead and the secondary actors have a solid, binding contract, negotiating for perks in the fourth and fifth seasons of a hit always seems to happen and one of the perks is an episode to direct.

In my experience with a better-than-usual one-hour series for CBS' “Tour of Duty,” executive producer Zev Braun, a director and acting coach himself, graciously gave the line producer, director of photography, story editor and cast members episodes in the third season to direct.

When I asked when he would take a shot himself, he said, “The fourth season.” Sadly, there was no fourth season.

So, yes, shows including “Beverly Hills, 90210,” “Melrose Place,” “Dallas,” “Falcon Crest,” “Dynasty” and most other ensemble cast series had episodes directed by cast members, their families and houseguests. Most of these exercises in star gluttony didn’t amount to much. But there are exceptions: Jason Priestley delivered ably when it was his turn on “90210,” then went on to direct 14 additional episodes along with “The X-Files,” “7th Heaven” and TV movies and, while not giving up acting, established a new career.

Priestley followed on the heels of Michael Landon, the sheer definition of a 20th-century hyphenate. Chosen as “Little Joe” for “Bonanza,” he saw that the future was writing and directing. First he wrote an episode of “Bonanza.” When it was shot, he wrote another and announced he would direct. He went on to direct dozens of episodes of other series, ultimately creating, writing, producing and directing “Little House on the Prairie” and “Highway to Heaven,” among others.

Now we’d be remiss not to mention a related phenomenon. Of course we all know that beloved Sydney Pollack returned to acting, impressively as the CAA agent in “Tootsie,” followed by Woody Allen’s mean-spirited “Husbands and Wives,” working again as an actor off and on up to and including the George Clooney starrer “Michael Clayton.” But not to be undone, gruff and tough Sam Fuller (actually the sweetest soul) acted in movies in Europe playing a version of himself. John Huston and Martin Scorsese couldn’t resist, either. Even Roger Corman got in the act as a senator investigating the Mob in protégé Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather.”

Not very well known is the fact that at one slow point in his career, “Manchurian Candidate” director John Frankenheimer was going to join the cast of “L.A. Law.” However, the show’s producer so enjoyed his meeting with the famed director that he rewrote the character (a Balanchine-like choreographer) accused of sexual harassment – which Frankenheimer liked – to a much larger role with scenes that proved his innocence by making the character gay. Not for macho Frankenheimer, who dropped out.

Following an endless parade of questions at a Chasen’s lunch, I challenged Frankenheimer, saying, “I believe directing is a scam.” I wanted his reaction. I had visited so many sets and seen directors reading magazines while the DP set up the shots, directors who never spoke to the actors, directors who had absolutely nothing creative to add to the material except moving it along like a traffic cop to get the necessary pages shot each day. Frankenheimer rose from his leather booth, his tennis-tanned face turning red, and I believed I would be on the receiving end of his notorious temper. Instead, he laughed loud enough for everyone around us to notice and screamed, “You’re absolutely right! It’s nothing but a scam.”

The truth, however, is a mixed bag. I have also seen a director take a scene that took place in a hotel room, a lethargic therapy session for an injured skier, and shift it to a professional basketball stadium across town. To do so he had to visit the facility, negotiate with the venue and the team for a shoot that was to take place the next morning, and rewrite the script so the actress would be comfortable and convincing running up and down the 10,000 stadium steps in a more aggressive therapy montage that would take most of an extra day to shoot. He did it simply to make an ordinary TV movie better.

I also remember, as representative for the producer of a two-hour network movie, offering actor Richard Crenna the directing job at a fee that even in the '90s was six figures for 10 weeks' work. Crenna, who was not working at the time, had become a favorite for a certain kind of fast-paced TV movie, his directing career, like Ida Lupino’s, alternating between acting in episodic television and directing. He had, in fact, directed episodes going back to the earliest days of Mayberry. But that day he said, “I am grateful, Arthur, for your call and your offer, but I don’t need to direct. While it isn’t firm yet, I have been getting acting availability inquiries and believe I more want to return to being the ham that I am.” “Isn’t directing more fulfilling?” I asked (the producer really wanted him). “Actually no. Directing is grueling, it’s hard work. Acting is easy, it pays better and it’s simply more fun. But, hey, you can always call me and ask — you never know.” A really nice man — I’m glad William Morris got him a small fortune for “Rambo.”

Diane Keaton enjoyed a brief run as director. It was a slow time for her and she may have seen the handwriting on the wall for actresses of a certain age. However, like Crenna, once she got hot again as an actress, she bid farewell to calling the shots.

I clearly remember my first encounter with Danny DeVito. It was the Upper West Side, 84th and Broadway to be precise, Danny and Rhea Perlman and two friends, walking on a very cold night. The week before I had been invited to a screening at William Morris' 32nd-floor screening room, a short film called “Hot Dogs for Gauguin” directed by Martin Brest, a young film-school graduate and apprentice of Scorsese who was repped by a high-energy film agent: Jonathan Perlman. DeVito’s performance, while over-the-top, was still joyous and memorable.

Coincidentally, here I was interrupting their nighttime sojourn as I told him I had seen the film; he and Rhea were delighted. I gave him my card. It was hugs and kisses from them both and he called the next day. We met for lunch and I told him I truly believed he would work in television in half-hour. I envisioned Norman Lear signing him for a series. Danny was warm and funny, radiating wicked humor. He gave me some headshots and a resume. I immediately wrote a memo to a West Coast talent agent I liked and sent off the pictures and my excitement about discovering this great new potential series star. A week passed before I finally got a memo back. Not from the agent I knew, but from someone called Fred Westheimer. He wrote and I remember it precisely:

“We have been offered the representation of midgets in the past, both Johnny Puleo and Billy Barty, a personal favorite of Mr. Lastfogel, and we have followed the policy of not representing midgets. Therefore, we are passing on representing Danny DeVito.”

Six months later William Morris moved me to the California office. Danny, now in L.A., invited me to a screening of a short movie he directed for the AFI. Enchanted by his work, I send out a memo about the screening and the industry excitement. No one was interested except for a veteran WMA talent agent, Fred Spektor, who met with Danny and, upon leaving William Morris and beginning at CAA, immediately signed DeVito, whom he represents to this day.

Danny used his popularity to direct three episodes of “Taxi” and went on to direct episodes of Steven Spielberg’s “Amazing Stories” before getting his first major feature, “Throw Momma From the Train.” A hit first time out led to “War of the Roses,” another hit, and “Hoffa,” which was not, and eventually to “Death to Smoochie,” a genuine disaster that did not enhance Danny’s directing career.

The question is not why so many actors of so many generations felt the need to take charge and make their own films, but why so many who were obviously bright and creative, such as Bette Davis, Edward G. Robinson, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Claude Rains and Jimmy Cagney, who experienced the talents of hundreds of directors, good and bad, did not ever feel the need to call the shots.