Remembering William Asher

The Archive is sad to report that director/producer William Asher passed away on Monday, July 16, 2012 at the age of 90. Asher got his big break at Desilu, first directing episodes of Our Miss Brooks, and then becoming a regular director of I Love Lucy (he directed the famous “Job Switching” episode where Lucy and Ethel work in a candy factory). Asher went on to direct episodes of The Danny Thomas Show, co-created The Patty Duke Show with writer Sidney Sheldon, and created Bewitched for then-wife Elizabeth Montgomery. Asher also directed JFK’s Inaugural Ball and the President’s famous Birthday Special with guest singer Marilyn Monroe.

Here are some selections from Asher’s 2000 Archive interview:

On how directing Our Miss Brooks led to directing I Love Lucy:

I had a contract to do the first ten if Our Miss Brooks sold, and it did. And Lucy and Desi and everybody wanted me to come on and do their show. So everything happened at once. I found myself doing both shows at the same time. That was a challenge, because they overlapped during the week. I’d work the first couple of days rehearsing Our Miss Brooks and then I’d start with Lucy. I don’t remember quite how it worked, but I did those first ten shows and broke in Sheldon Leonard as the director.

On directing the “Job Switching” episode of I Love Lucy:

It was one of the most memorable of the shows, actually. It was where she and Ethel got a job, dipping candy, chocolates. The boys would take care of the house, do all the home work, and the girls would go out and make a living while Ricky and Fred made dinner and cleaned up the apartments. It didn’t work either way. We did scenes with Desi and Fred messing up the house and dinner and everything, while we were cross-cutting with Vivian and Lucy screwing up dipping the chocolate. It was quite a wild scene or scenes, I should say – both sides of it.  They came home a wreck and the guys were a wreck, then everything got back together again.

On working with William Frawley on I Love Lucy:

On directing three cameras at Desilu (the first studio to use three):

The cameras came in and they were rehearsed and they were all marked on the floor what the scene was – little tapes – and what number it was in terms of their movement. They would follow the A, B, C, whichever letter, and go from one, two, three, four, five, six – whatever the numbers were and the character. We had no trouble at all with that and it seemed to baffle people. I don’t know why, but people would come and ask, “how do you do this?” It was really very simple.

On Lucille Ball telling Desi Arnaz that she was pregnant with Desi Jr., during the taping of I Love Lucy:

When she was pregnant with Desi, little Desi, we wrote it into the story so that she was actually pregnant. One of our best shows was when she told Desi she was pregnant. She kept trying to tell him and he just didn’t hear it. She went down to the club, she sat there on the chair and he had a song he was going to sing to someone who was pregnant in the audience, and she set it up. I forget exactly how we did that, but he went around the room singing this song, “We’re Having a Baby,” and he came to her and she said “yes,” then he went on and two people later he had his double-take that she had nodded yes. He ran back to the table and he said, “really?” and she said, “yes.” And he sang to her. It was very moving. It really was.

On directing JFK’s Inaugural Ball:

It was a fabulous show. We had a cast of people that you could never, ever achieve.  Closed two Broadway shows with actors who came in to do the show. The weather was terrible. Just awful. The show went on about two hours late because people couldn’t get there. I know we picked up a couple of people who were stranded. But when everybody got there, at the armory, the show went on and it was wonderful.

On being scheduled to have dinner with Peter Lawford and Marilyn Monroe the night Monroe died:

The night that she killed herself Peter Lawford called me. We were going to have dinner with her, and Peter called me and said, “I can’t get her on the phone. I’ve been calling.” I had been down at the beach with her and Peter, and she left with her publicity girl, whose name escapes me. He said, “I can’t get her on the phone, the line’s busy. Why don’t we cancel dinner and I’ll keep trying to get her, and if I can you can come on down to the beach (where he lived).” I said, “fine,” and he called me again, then he called me again about twelve o’clock, and he said, “I’m worried about her. I think we should go over and see what’s happening at the house.” I said, “Peter, I don’t think we should do that. I think she’s probably asleep with pills and she’ll be fine.” He said, “well, I’m worried.” I said, “I tell you what you do. Call Joe Kennedy.” Joe Kennedy and I had become very friendly, and I said, “you call Joe and ask him what to do.”  He did and Joe told him, “under no circumstances go there.” There’s just nothing to be gained. It was about three or four o’clock he called me, and he said that Mrs. Murphy, her maid, had called her doctor, who came over and broke into her bedroom, and she was dead. Whether or not Peter and I going there earlier would have saved her life, I don’t know. That haunts me.

On shooting The Patty Duke Show:

United Artists had a deal with me to do a pilot, and they selected Patty… We did the pilot here and she played two characters, and playing two characters took a lot of time. We’d have to stop it and she would change and it was a hard show to do. Under the children’s labor laws of California, there was a limit of only, I don’t know, eight hours or something when she could work. When the show sold we went to New York where there were no rules. The little boy who played her brother – their family didn’t want to go to New York, so we were in New York and we recast the little brother, and he was playing “Oliver” in the show “Oliver.” He was in the show ’til midnight and on our set at eight o’clock in the morning. Nobody complained about it.  It was fine.

On creating Bewitched:

Liz and I had done a movie together, Johnny Cool, and we started going together, and we got married, and I was busy doing television and so was she. She made up her mind she didn’t want to work anymore. She insisted upon it. She had an offer of some kind and she turned it down, and she just wasn’t going to work anymore. I said, “this is not right. This isn’t fair. You’re too good. You just don’t belong retired.” We’d had a baby, and she said, “I don’t want to leave the baby, and I don’t want to be away from you. I just don’t want to work.” I suggested, “what if we do something together, how would you feel about that?” She said,”I would do that. If you can find something.” So I wrote something. I was doing a pilot with Paul Lynde, and I wrote something for us to do and submitted it to Columbia, and they liked it, but they said it’s close to something else that we have. My script was about a young girl, like a Gidget character, who was going with a boy on the beach, and there were no last names on the beach. The beach kids all had only first names. They were in love and they got married and on the night of their marriage she tells him that she’s the daughter of J. Paul Getty or the equivalent. He was furious. He said, “that’s something you tell him after you marry him? You tell before!” They had quite a scene about that. He said, “your family’ll be interfering all the time.” They had a house at the beach on stilts, and he worked at a gas station, and when the surf was up, he was out there with her. That was the basic idea… Columbia said, “we have something here that was written for Tammy Grimes and we like it and want you to read it. Well, I read it to Elizabeth and she liked it very much. The problem with it was it was dark, it was very witchy. It was boiling cauldrons and cobwebs and quite witchy. I didn’t like that. I thought she should be the girl-next-door, what she ultimately became. I went back to Columbia and I said, “let me do a rewrite on this,” and they said, “if we like it we’ll do it.” I did the rewrite. Elizabeth typed it, they liked it and we did it. It was all very quick.

On “Samantha’s” nose twitch on Bewitched:

That was something that I saw Elizabeth do. I was looking for something that was inherent in her to motivate the witchcraft, and I didn’t want to do any abracadabra stuff. She had done that, and when I first realized that would make a good motivator for the witchcraft I told her about it, and I tried to show her what it was, and she said, “I’ve never done anything like that.” I said, “you have, and I want to use it.” She said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I kept after her and as we got closer and closer to doing the show, I kept pushing on her to try and remember it. The night before we did the show she was at the bar making a drink and she spilled something or did some kind of a mistake, and she did it, and I said, “that’s it, that’s it!” She did it, “that?” I said, “that’s it. That is it.” She said, “I don’t want to do that.” I said, “yes, you do. That’s it.” That’s how it was born.

On directing 1960’s beach party films:

The idea came from American International Pictures. Sam Arkoff and Jim Nicholson came to me to do a beach concept, and they had a script and it wasn’t right at all. It was like all the others. It just wasn’t very good, or at least I didn’t think so. I felt that the beach pictures should be about young people having a good time, with no heavies, no parents, no last names, no sex. Just fun. When I told them that they said, “well, what would it be about?” I said, “just what I said – it would be about having a good time.” I’d have comedy heavies in it and I’d have a bike group, which would be the Von Zipper and his gang, and treat it all comically. It would just be fun. They accepted it.

On advice to an aspiring director:

Directing is an instinctive thing. It’s knowing the material, understanding it, getting that character out of the actor. There are no tricks to it. You’re in charge of everything. You’re in charge of the cameramen, the photography is in your hands, the casting, the art direction… The whole package is the director. Even though there’s a producer, it’s in the director’s hands. It’s a very taxing job. It’s hard work. It really is. You get there early, you’re the first one there, and you’ll be the last one to leave. It’s a lot of work. Very tough. I don’t know how you’d break someone in. I’ve done it, but I did it just in the way I explained it to you. You’ve got to be prepared to do that and know how to do it. A lot of people have that and a lot of people don’t.

On how he’d like to be remembered:

I think as a good director. That’s it.

Watch William Asher’s full Archive interview

Read his obituary in The Hollywood Reporter

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