- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 20, 2000

NEW YORK Betty Thomas lied her way into directing.

Her interest in it dates back to the '70s, when she first went to Los Angeles with the Chicago-based Second City comedy troupe. But those ambitions got sidetracked when she played Sgt. Lucy Bates on "Hill Street Blues" through most of the '80s.

She found her interest in directing revived toward the end of the series' run, and asked the show's producer-creator Steven Bochco if she could direct an episode. He said no, but she hung around the set trying to learn things from the other side of the camera. She did the same thing over on the set of "L.A. Law" and "Hooperman," which starred John Ritter in the late '80s.

Then she told Army Archerd, the Variety columnist, that she was directing an episode of "Hooperman."

"It felt good to say that, anyway. Next day: in the column," she says.

Then the show's producers called.

"Let me explain. I didn't really … you know Army exaggerates," she recalls stammering, laughing at her lie upon lie.

They stopped her verbal tap dance by offering her a shot.

Since then, she's built a creditable career behind the camera, making movies with what one critic called "wonderfully oddball results."

She's directed the box-office hit "Dr. Dolittle," pairing Eddie Murphy with talking animals; "Private Parts," offering a humanized Howard Stern; and "The Brady Bunch Movie," sending up the family by showing them stuck in fashions, attitudes and everything else in the '70s even though it was the '90s.

Her latest movie, "28 Days," could be called a "rehab comedy" an apparent oxymoron that Miss Thomas loves. "I just love that. I love it. I love it. I love it."

Miss Thomas, who's in her early '50s, relishes combining humor with heartbreak.

She did a skit with Second City about a woman at her husband's funeral who kept being asked how he died so suddenly. And she would have to repeatedly explain: "He got his head stuck in a gallon can of Van Camp's beans."

"It's such an absurd, horrible thing, there's no way you can't laugh," she says.

And that kind of humor applies to "28 Days," which stars Sandra Bullock as an alcoholic writer who also pops Vicodin.

"Not that there haven't been plenty of movies about alcoholism. But there just hasn't been the one that has taken this sort of hit to it where you're forced to laugh," she says. "I force you to laugh."

While researching the movie, Miss Thomas saw people in rehab approaching some serious, deep problems in their lives and at the same time found "a sense of a sort of a gallows humor."

Quite often people deal with hardship or loss through humor, and it was the same with the people in rehab, she notes.

Born in St. Louis, Miss Thomas grew up wanting to be an artist. Her parents made her get a teaching certificate, but she taught just to make money and go to Europe in the summer and see the great masterworks.

"I made little art films. And I thought, 'That's what I will be. I will be like a fabulous … art-film maker,"' Miss Thomas says.

Her films include the 1996 HBO movie "The Late Shift" about Mr. Leno and Mr. Letterman. She's among the few women directing big feature films. No more than 10 percent in any given year are directed by women.

But Miss Thomas, who has won one Emmy for her "Hill Street Blues" role and another for directing HBO's "Dream On," noted that 40 percent of the films at this year's Sundance Film Festival were directed by women.

"I say it's a woman's job … You get everyone to do what you want. Which is a very 'feminine' thing to have happen. It's a great women's job," she says.

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