- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 9, 2001

LOS ANGELES — In moviemaking, its the writers who get no respect. In television, the Rodney Dangerfield role is played by directors.
Scribes such as David E. Kelley ("Ally McBeal," "The Practice") and Chris Carter ("The X-Files") are celebrated for their words and enjoy the cachet that in films is owned by a Francis Ford Coppola or Steven Spielberg.
TV directors, on the other hand, have been largely anonymous figures whose work is viewed as interchangeable. As the medium has evolved, however, they may be finally coming into their own. Thomas Schlamme is convinced of that. He also is one of the reasons its true.
"I feel so blessed right now to be a director on television," says Mr. Schlamme, who, in creative partnership with writer Aaron Sorkin, brought the dazzling "Sports Night" and "The West Wing" to life.
Mr. Schlamme and other directors, including Paris Barclay and Mark Tinker (both of "NYPD Blue") and Kevin Hooks ("City of Angels") are creating a body of TV work that can be matched, frame for frame, with the best of feature films. Theyre building on the foundation of Gregory Hoblit ("Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law,"), Eric Laneuville ("St. Elsewhere," "Bull"), Mimi Leder ("ER") and others. Some now shift between TV and movie work.
"These directors on 'West Wing or 'ER or 'NYPD Blue are gifted artists," says Gil Cates, founding dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and currently the director of the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.
"The styles of those shows are directorial achievements; the rhythms and the performances are directorial achievements," Mr. Cates says.
Mr. Schlammes collaboration with Mr. Sorkin on "The West Wing" has produced a series that, after only two seasons, is destined for the all-time best TV lists.
Before that, Mr. Schlamme helped put the wit and sizzle into programs that include Tracey Ullmans "Tracey Takes On " and "The Larry Sanders Show," Garry Shandlings sitcom mold breaker.
NBCs White House drama, starring Martin Sheen as a liberal president with an idealistic staff, collected a record nine Emmy Awards last year and a rare second consecutive Peabody Award for broadcasting excellence.
Mr. Schlamme and Mr. Sorkin (along with "ERs" John Wells) share executive producer credit on "The West Wing." As the director of the pilot and key episodes, including the season finale (airing 9 p.m. next Wednesday), Mr. Schlamme has shaped the series look and tone.
He won Directors Guild of America honors this year for the holiday episode "Noel," which traced the lingering emotional scars from an attempted presidential assassination. It was his third consecutive DGA award.
"I got in this business to tell stories and communicate. I have to be honest and say, 'Where is the material that offers me the most opportunity to do that?"
The answer, he says, is television.
A bruising venture into films as director of 1993s box-office flop "So I Married An Axe Murderer" ("The worst experience of my career") moved Mr. Schlamme to an epiphany.
"Wow, I gave up television to do a movie because of some preconceived notion in my head that to be a filmmaker I had to make movies," he recalls thinking.
Mr. Schlamme, who is married to actress Christine Lahti, says he accepted that he could be a bona fide filmmaker by working in television, with movie detours if and only if "the script was as exciting as 'Larry Sanders or 'West Wing or 'Sports Night."
The bias against TV directors had legitimate roots, with a number of the earliest directors hired more for their ability to handle the newfangled equipment than for creativity.
Interesting directors did venture into live television, but it developed into a medium in which speed generally was valued over artistry, Mr. Schlamme says.
"I think it took a long time to evolve past that 'How many pages can I make today approach. There was no concern about point of view or vision or anything like that."
The image of TV directors suffered accordingly.
"If somebody said to me when I was in college, 'I think youre going to be a successful television director, I would have been insulted, ridiculously so," Mr. Schlamme says.
That is because by that time, the 1970s, directors such as Mr. Hoblit were beginning to open the medium up beyond the long-dominant static approach.
A "film vocabulary" was coming into play, Mr. Schlamme says. Directors were using inventive camera angles, pacing and other elements to squeeze more drama and style into the small screen.
The result: increasing regard for TV directors and some of the best television ever.
And while movie power continues to tilt heavily toward directors — writer pique over widespread use of the "A film by" credit for directors forced the issue into writer-studio contract talks — television is breaking new collaborative ground, Mr. Schlamme says.
He and Mr. Sorkin have a relationship like "a 1930s playwright-director relationship in New York: 'Ill direct your new play; youll be there for rewrites while Im staging it."
(For now, the show is on summer hiatus. Mr. Sorkin also is dealing with drug possession charges after his arrest last month at a Los Angeles-area airport. He has pleaded innocent.)


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