"Stick to your guns, because each time we did, we succeeded. And each time you gave up, if you gave a little, the networks sort of would view it as weakness and jump into that area, and make you do work that was less good. You shouldn't compromise."
About This Interview
In his five-hour Archive interview, Allan Burns describes his early years as a page and later a story analyst at NBC in Los Angeles. He outlines his move into the animation field, working for the legendary Jay Ward on The Bullwinkle Show and Fractured Flickers, and recounts the unusual publicity campaigns that accompanied the animated shows. He speaks of his work for Ward on the advertising campaign for "Cap'n Crunch"— a character that Burns himself invented. Burns talks about working with writing partner Chris Hayward on the series My Mother the Car, He & She, and Get Smart, and discusses his work as a writer, then as producer on the first season of the groundbreaking series Room 222 -- his first association with producer-director Gene Reynolds and writer-producer James L. Brooks. Burns then details his co-creation (with Brooks) of the classic sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show. He chronicles the creation of the concept for the series, the casting process, and memorable episodes. He recalls later series he wrote and produced at MTM Productions (a tenure that lasted over twenty years) including Rhoda, Lou Grant, The Duck Factory (starring Jim Carrey), and FM. B-roll consists of publicity pieces from Jay Ward Productions and photographs from several MTM series. Dan Pasternack conducted the interview on February 18, 2004 in Brentwood, CA.
Born in Baltimore and educated at the University of Oregon, Allan Burns moved to Los Angeles in 1956 intending to pursue a career as a cartoonist and/or commercial artist. After being laid off from his job as a page at NBC, he did begin earning a living as a cartoonist for greeting cards. He soon moved to television, employed in 1962 by Jay Ward on the cartoon series, Rocky and his Friends and The Bullwinkle Show. Burns then formed a partnership with Chris Hayward and they created The Munsters, perhaps an obvious next step for a cartoonist. He then moved on to the comedy series, He and She, where he won the first of six Emmy Awards for his writing. Of that series Burns says, "That was my first great experience, creating character rather than gimmicks." On He and She Burns met Jay Sandrich who was directing the show.
Hayward and Burns then became story editors for Get Smart where they worked with Mel Brooks and Buck Henry and where Sandrich also worked for a time as a producer. Following that experience the Burns-Hayward partnership dissolved and in 1969 Burns saw the pilot of Room 222, created by James L. Brooks, liked it, and began to write for the show. When Brooks took a leave to do a movie, Grant Tinker, Fox executive in charge of programming, asked Burns to produce Room 222. "He did," Tinker reports, "and I couldn't tell the difference between what he did and what Jim did. Both were obviously superior talents."
At about this same time Tinker received a 13 week commitment from CBS for an undeveloped series starring Mary Tyler Moore to whom he was then married. CBS agreed that the project was to be under the complete control of Tinker and Moore; Tinker approached Burns and Brooks and asked them to collaborate to develop a show. As Burns remembers, "We had this remarkable situation where we had an office and an on-air commitment and nothing else."
The group rejected the idea of a domestic comedy and determined to portray a woman who was 30 years old, unmarried, and employed "somewhere." Burns recalls that they had to explain "30 and unmarried" to the network, so "We thought, 'Ah! here is our chance to do a divorce.'" CBS would have no part of that idea and the executives in New York sent word to Tinker, "Get rid of those guys." He refused. Instead, the creators changed the plot to begin with Mary having just ended a failed love affair. The pilot was made with--Jay Sandrich directing--and one of television's landmark series, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, was on its way.
In 1977 when the show concluded after 168 episodes most of the writing staff moved to Paramount Studios with long term contracts. Burns, however, decided to stay with Tinker and joined with Gene Reynolds to create Lou Grant. Despite the fact that it essentially re-invented the Lou Grant character, the series was a major success, and soon became part of the CBS Monday night response to ABC football.
Burns also directed his talent to the writing of feature films, one being the highly praised A Little Romance, starring Laurence Olivier, for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay Adaptation. Burns left MTM in 1991 after developing several other TV series.
Calm and persuasive, Allan Burns combines outstanding talent with an ability to work extremely well with a variety of competing personalities. Observing him on the set of a series in production one senses that he quickly commands both trust and respect from those with whom he collaborates. Director Jay Sandrich sums it up well, "Allan is the best."
-Robert S. Alley
ALLAN BURNS. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., 18 May 1935. Attended University of Oregon, 1953-57. Married Joan Bailey, 1964, children: Eric C. and Matthew M. Screen and television writer from 1964. Recipient: Emmy Awards, 1968, 1971, 1977, 1974, 1976, 1977; Writers Guild Award, 1970.
1964-66 The Munsters (co-creator) 1965-70 Get Smart (head writer) 1967-68 He and She (head writer) 1969-74 Room 222 (writer, director, and producer) 1970-77 The Mary Tyler Moore Show (creator and writer) 1974-75 Paul Sands In Friends and Lovers (creator and producer) 1974-78 Rhoda (creator and writer) 1977-82 Lou Grant (creator and writer) 1984 The Duck Factory (creator and writer) 1988 Eisenhower and Lutz (creator and writer)
Butch and Sundance: The Early Days, 1979; A Little Romance, 1979; I Won't Dance, 1983; Just the Way You Are, 1984; Just Between Friends (also director and co-producer), 1986