Interview with Jerry London, Emmy Winner

Interviewer: Anna Faktorovich, PhD

Jerry and Whoopi Goldberg

Jerry London: After four decades of commitment and dedication, the name “Jerry London” has become synonymous with “excellence.” A film director, whose professionalism is the hallmark of his work, and whose outstanding success with the twelve-hour Emmy winning miniseries Shõgun won him the best director’s award from the Directors Guild of America, has garnered him directorial prominence on an international scale. Among his previous directing accomplishments are the critically acclaimed three-hour special, The Scarlet and the Black starring Gregory Peck, as well as Sidney Sheldon’s If Tomorrow Comes, Ellis Island starring Richard Burton and Faye Dunaway, Chiefs starring Charleton Heston, and Wheels starring Rock Hudson and Lee Remick. These are just a few of the eleven miniseries he has directed and produced. He also has directed over forty Movies of the Week for television. He has worked with twenty-five academy award winning actors.

London - cover

From I Love Lucy to Shõgun and Beyond: Tales from the Other Side of the Camera: (Purchase on Amazon: From award-winning director Jerry London—behind-the-scenes tales of famous actors, producers, television shows, and miniseries written in his inimitably humorous style. If you’ve ever wondered what happens on a set after the director calls, “Cut!” this book is for you. Jerry takes the reader into the heart and soul of the television business, revealing stories of celebrities such as Lucille Ball, Rock Hudson, Mary Tyler Moore, Liam Neeson, Jane Seymour, and many others. Richly illustrated with more than seventy-five photographs, this book will take you into a world of exotic locations, competing egos, and big money stakes that only a rare few ever get to experience.

Faktorovich: One of your most profitable deals was being the Creator for ABC’s Arthur Hailey’s Hotel series. In your newly released memoir, From I Love Lucy to Shõgun… and Beyond: Tales from the Other Side of the Camera, you describe how you got the idea by playing tennis at a resort with the manager of Rancho Las Palmas Marriott Resort. Your agent at the Creative Artists Agency knew in advance that the blockbuster producer of 90210 and Charlie’s Angels, Aaron Spelling, would be the best fit for it, and an easy “yes” from him followed. You completed some of your other most acclaimed and award-winning projects around the same time: Chiefs (1983), Shõgun (1980), and The Scarlet and the Black (1983). How can starting directors and producers replicate this experience?

London: The best way is to write a treatment a script, or sell an idea to someone you know. Have all the tools—editing, photography, etcetera. Basically, at that point, I was in demand. You get hot in this business. So, CAA was very receptive to anything I brought to them. I had a deal with CBS: I would do two movies for television for them, and they’d do one of my projects. They let me read all the scripts that came to them. I owned the ones I did with my company. I ended up making four of my own movies with CBS, and did lots of other projects for CBS.

I used to play tennis with the manager of Rancho las Palmas. Afterwards, we’d have drinks. Once he said, “There are all these TV shows going on. Why aren’t there any about hotels?” I said, “Isn’t that boring?” He spent an hour explaining how he finds dead bodies and maids stealing stuff, and he gave me a lot of interesting ideas. I gave my assistant at the time, a young guy just out of college, the info, and he researched it. He pointed out that there was already a movie made about the hotel business, called Hotel. All the characters were there, but we’d have to buy the rights. CAA said, “No problem. Let’s see if Aaron wants it.” He did. We got the rights, hired a writer, and in six to eight weeks, we were ready to go. Bobby Small, the hotel manager, said, “I used to work at the San Francisco Fairmont Hotel. Why don’t you film it there?” It’s a beautiful hotel, the drapes, the carpeting, very beautiful. We went up there and talked with the manager. He was happy to have us film, as long as we worked on it at night. To sell anything, you have to have the ability to prove yourself. You hear around Hollywood that agents don’t do anything. Well, they do. If they’re power houses, they can pull everybody together and get a project made.

Faktorovich: You directed a couple of episodes for the original Hawaii Five-O TV series back in 1976-7. How has that series changed in its recent incarnation?

London: When you did a TV series back in the ‘60s through the ‘80s, you were allowed six days to do a one-hour show; now it’s eight days because they’ve added so much action and production value. If you cast it well, you can fit it into this timeframe. The writers figure out how much action you can have if you are only filming for six days. Then, if during scheduling, I figured out that it would be impossible to complete the suggested actions, I’d go to the writer and they’d cut it down. This is because they don’t want to go over budget. Same thing happens now. Basically, you have to be very sharp, and know your script backwards and forwards.

Faktorovich: If you time traveled from your first days in show business to the present, what would shock you the most about how film and television is produced and directed today?

London: Today there is more intervention from networks. When you’re making a film, you anticipate everything going wrong, and usually you’re right. Have good people around you, a cinematographer, an editor, makeup, wardrobe. For my biggest projects, I produced and directed, so I could hire who I wanted. Between the old days and now, everything is the same. You just need more time to do bigger projects.

Faktorovich: Some of your well-known recent projects were episodes from The Guardian, Strong Medicine, and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Is it difficult for you to jump between so many different genres (legal, medical, feminist, comedy, tragedy, etcetera)?

London: No, you either can direct or not. I know both comedy and drama. Some directors have a problem switching between them. I don’t. I started in comedy with I Love Lucy and the MTM show. I had a feel for shooting comedy. When you direct, you have to have confidence to get actors to trust you. It wasn’t a problem for me.

Faktorovich: When you come in to direct an episode in the middle of a series, do you consciously change your style to adapt to the style of the show, or do you focus on expressing your own creativity within the essential formula of who’s who in the story?

The cast of Dr. Quinn

The cast of Dr. Quinn

London: It’s the latter: you don’t want to change the format of what they’re doing. On Dr. Quinn, if I started to get very flashy with the angles, or started doing big dramatic camera moves, which I usually do in drama, they didn’t like it. They didn’t want to be distracted by the camera moves; they don’t want you to change things. You can put your own ideas in the staging, working with the actors, but you really don’t change the tone of the episodes.

Faktorovich: Does a script writer have more control in the direction of an episode than the director? Do you change the script to fit the realities of the shoot?

London: The writer sets the story and tone on a series. On a TV series, when you’re a hired director, the producer and writer set the story. When you come in, the script is set and ready to go. You can give the writer ideas if you think something doesn’t work, add, subtract. When you’re doing a miniseries and you’re the main director, a lot of times the script isn’t written yet, so you tell the writer the types of locations and other elements you want to include in the story.

Faktorovich: Before your major successes in the ‘80s, you directed episodes for some iconic shows in the ‘70s: The Bionic Woman, Happy Days, and The Brady Bunch. You describe this period in your book thus: “For about five years I bounced around Paramount working on sitcoms.” You used the “three-camera show technique” on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and other similar shows. Was it easy for you to direct something like The Brady Bunch? Was it just a matter of pointing the camera and correcting major mistakes from actors? Other than working with famous actors, is there anything unusual that stands out in your mind about those experiences?

Mary Tyler Moore and Jerry

Mary Tyler Moore and Jerry

London: I was trying to set my reputation as a comedy director, and enjoyed working on all of those shows. Basically, shooting comedy and drama is different. Comedy is a writer’s medium; you are there to interpret, to make sure the jokes work. In drama, there is more control over staging, camera movements. Three-camera shows aren’t necessarily more difficult. I just saw from previous experiences how the three-camera technique works, so I understood it. I knew how to work this setup. It’s like doing a live stage play. Those early shows I did were just very simple comedies. I liked the people. The producers of the Brady Bunch, Sherwood Schwartz and Lloyd Schwartz, and I became friends. On the Partridge Family, Shirley Jones (who won an Academy Award for Elmer Gantry), was a dream to work with as well as all the casts of these sit-coms.

Faktorovich: Your first “real job in the television industry” back in 1955, was as an assistant to the film editor on I Love Lucy. You wrote that prior to this big score, you were in apprentice training for six weeks at Desilu Studios. Is this similar to an internship somebody might get in the industry today, or was it more intensive?

London: I wasn’t looking to get paid. I was there to learn. Didn’t know anything about editing at the time. My uncle was the manager of the studio, and knew everybody. I spent time in the cutting room. We cut film with scissors and put paste on it to stick parts together. Nowadays everything is done on the computer; the editor pushes the buttons to do the editing.

Faktorovich: How competitive was it to obtain this apprenticeship back then? You write that you “passed on a business scholarship to Yale for show business.” Why would anybody pass on a scholarship to Yale?


“Firetree”: Painting by Jerry London

London: I was always only interested in the TV and movie business. When I was a child, six years old, I was walking around studios. I always wanted to be an art director. I paint, have a good eye. But my uncle said he could only get me into editing—that’s how I became an intern to learn the business. I was a really good student in school. In those days, colleges came around to speak with students. They said, “We want you to come to our college,” and offered the scholarship. But I passed on it because I wanted to get into the movie business. I thought about it for a bit, but I knew what I wanted to do, and kept my mind on the end result, which was getting into the business. I was seventeen or eighteen, and I never regretted it. I had much more of an education in doing the work. Yale isn’t a school that’s predominant in making films, neither is Harvard. New York University, UCLA, USC, and Chapman, those schools are really great. I had a goal, and I stuck with it.

Faktorovich: Given that you’ve taught at UCLA since, do you now think that a formal education at Yale might have detracted from your success (as perhaps people in the industry are less likely to trust highly educated people)?

London: The best teacher is doing the work. I became a director by always being on the set, learning, watching, like a sponge. I talked with a lot of directors: “How do you put a show together, how do you block the actors?” The studios brought the same directors every year—it was like a family. A young person getting into the business has to have the tools (like photography, making short film, writing etc.), and get lucky and create your opportunities.). Nepotism is very high; you have to know somebody but not always. It’s tough business, but you have to go for it if it’s your passion.

Faktorovich: Your children and preceding family members are also successful in the industry. Meanwhile, the odds of an outsider without connections breaking in are declining by the year. Do you think it’s a smart business or artistic strategy for Hollywood to remain so insular without being more welcoming to new blood with top degrees or with extraordinary creative energy? What are the reasons hiring within the family is appealing in Hollywood? Does this lead to better products because of familiarity or a family atmosphere?

London: Not always! Sure, family connections are great or if you know someone in the business and If you have a connection to getting a job, go for it. I’d love for producers to be more open, bringing in young people with education. I think the networks are a little more open than they used to be. But producers don’t want to gamble with somebody who is not experienced; they only have so much money. In the networks, they are not working on a single project, but many projects, so they are more open to bringing new talent now.

Faktorovich: One of your early experiences on I Love Lucy was placing a $5 bet on Desi’s horse in a race, which you made while out with Desi during work hours. Once again, it seems that socializing and being seen around famous actors and filmmakers is a significant part of the trajectory a career takes in Hollywood.

Jerry, Lucille Ball, and Marilynn at a Desilu Picnic 1956

Jerry, Lucille Ball, and Marilynn at a Desilu Picnic 1956

London: This was all in fun. Desi was great. I wanted to go. Desi was a great person, very warm, very friendly. I got to know him very well. It wasn’t work; it was like being with a buddy on Saturdays. Those days were always fun. We went to his Del Mar house in Southern California. We would have lunch, and then have a great time at the races. I was anxious to go to the race, you read the story. Fernando Lamas, an actor, went with us. On our drive home, he said he wanted to hear the last race. He’d made a bet on it, and won; it was a long shot. When Desi learned this, he got mad at him for not telling him the inside secret. This kind of an outing with the boss isn’t normal in the industry. Desi was just a really a nice person, so he took the editor and me in. On most of the shows, I never got socially involved. We’d have lunches together, but this was a special thing with Desi.

Faktorovich: In the next chapter, “Hogan and Other Heroes,” you worked a “ninety-hour work week” to get a pilot sold to CBS for Hogan’s Heroes. Was it normal to work those kinds of hours?

London: No, just do the work and make it good. That particular pilot was a special case. They knew going in that we’d be rushed. Before we filmed the last day, nobody anticipated how much pressure it would be. We just stayed in the cutting room until my assistant said, “I gotta get some sleep, please let me go home!” I realized that it was 2am, but the job had to get done. The pilot ended up turning into a very successful series. The hard work paid off.

Faktorovich: In a later chapter, you describe filming two scenes from Shõgun that disturbed the censors at NBC: a beheading for “an improper bow” and urination on a subordinate for disrespect. You write that an executive at the network, Ethel Winant, stepped in to defend these scenes to stay in. You observe that recently: “I’ve seen soap commercials on TV that are far more provocative than both of those scenes put together!” After the Emmy for Shõgun, did you consciously choose riskier or more censorable films? Hotel was also a bit sexually explicit and Chiefs was a bit out there on the violence spectrum.


London: No. Just find good scripts. If a script had violence and it made sense to the story, I did it. But there was no conscious effort to pick sexually explicit or violent material. They are not important. Back in the ‘80s, there were more restrictions on nudity. In one scene in Shõgun, Richard Chamberlain takes a bath with the Japanese girl. We had to film two versions of this scene, one for foreign countries where you can show nudity, and we reshot this scene without nudity for the US market. When I read a script, I put myself in the perspective of the viewer. It should be interesting, not boring, have some dramatic thrust, a good ending. Am I interested in the story? If you’re a good director, you have to understand the material. That’s what’s important: the story itself. A lot of the films I did came from books and became TV series. There is a lot material in a book that you can use that can’t fit in the script. A character might have done this or that. You can use this type of background material when you are talking to the actors. Some of the actors even read the book to understand their characters more.

The beheading

Faktorovich: After the censorship story, you include two photographs from the questionable scenes in Shõgun. You are holding a “behead mockup,” a sculpture of the beheaded actor’s head. Up close and without movement, the head does not really look like the actor, and is pretty silly when compared with currently produced wax figures or props used in films. The still body with a red neck, but without any blood gushing out also looks pretty funny. Editing obviously played a major part in making these silly images appear as realistic scenes from a tragic beheading. Do you think through a shoot like this by making drawings of the angles and otherwise planning how to execute a scene, or do you fix it afterwards in editing? Is there a trick to making blood, gore, fights, and other potentially unbelievable scenes look like they could have happened?


“Moonlight Frigate”

London: Good editing makes it work. I plan everything before shooting. Get good special FX and makeup people. First, you have to understand editing before you start. Know in advance how the editing will work. For the blood, hire good makeup people who know what they’re doing. When you see the still by itself, it doesn’t work at all. We took a lot of photos of the creative process to show the setup. I knew if I shot enough angles of the beheading, then later, in the editing process, it would work. I do a lot of prep, including storyboards. I don’t storyboard the whole show, only scenes that could be complicated. I had a big earthquake scene. I had to break the scene down. We used ten cameras, so we had to be really well prepared. To make it look like an earthquake, the camera was shaking, and if not, you do it afterwards, make the film shake optically. After all that prep, the first time we shot, it didn’t work. The way we were originally doing it was we had these big deep canyons and we covered them with dirt. The effects man put a charge or gun powder in them, and covered them with dirt and boards. They were supposed to fall in to look like an earthquake. We got it ready to go, but it started to rain, so the dirt turned to mud, and it was like cement. None of the doors opened. It didn’t release. One of the crew had to go underneath to see what happened. He went down there, and suddenly all the dirt and boards fell on top of him and buried him alive. We got in and saved him. Then during the second reshoot, we used a bulldozer that pulled a cord, and the cord released all of the boards across the series. I had an art director and a special effects guy that worked out the initial and the later plan. But, I am the one who holds the responsibility. Hopefully everything works, but the first time we tried to shoot the earthquake scene, it didn’t work as planned, so we had to come up with a new plan.

Faktorovich: What do you think about the sexual harassment scandals working their way through Hollywood?

Bill Cosby and Jerry

Bill Cosby and Jerry

London: People didn’t really talk about it. All of a sudden, the door opened, and everything has come out. The press crucified Bill Cosby. When I worked with him, I had no inkling of what he was doing. I went to his house for dinner. Very nice, polite. When it came out about him and the women, I was really shocked. The press made a major thing out of it. They just enhance all this stuff. I might have been propositioned, but jokingly. Like when a star like Morgan Fairchild asked me to go upstairs with her, she was joking. My impression was that Cosby is a good person because of how he treats people. We were filming in New York a scene where he was crossing the street. A lady came up into the shot, and started talking with him. Instead of stopping and saying to her, “What are you doing? We’re filming!” he just talked with her politely. After she was done, he came up to me and said, “I guess we’ll have to do it over.” If we had to work nights, he’d bring coffee, cakes, donuts. One time, Cosby heard my cameraman mouthing off to me, and he told him, “You don’t talk to the director that way, have some respect.” He was out of the ordinary; he really was. Everybody is an individual. The bigger the actors are, the nicer they are to people. Richard Burton was very respectful of the director and nice to be around. Some young actors, when they come in, have a sense of arrogance that is unnecessary. The director has to spot the personality of the people, gain their confidence. It’s a psychological game.

Faktorovich: If you met yourself today at eighteen, what advice would you offer for making it in the entertainment industry?

London: Be prepared. Know editing, photography. See lots of movies and television projects. Talk to producers and directors. Know who the actors are. When you get a chance to have a job, be well prepared, and work hard. If you can write, create a script or treatment. People who are making films will read a treatment hoping to find a little gem. Become friends with people in the business, and they will go out of their way to help you. If you just graduated from Harvard in writing or film and you are applying for a job in Hollywood, you need to persevere and make it happen. Use any contacts or connections you have. The four main things to do to succeed are: be prepared, understand all aspects of directing, write and persevere.

Faktorovich: Do you have any other comments you’d like to make?

London: The book says it all. It’s a great tool for new directors. It includes a lot of things they maybe have never thought about. The other part of the book is all the humorous stuff. I’ve been very fortunate. I had people helping me because they believed in me. My friends in the business love reading this book because they know the actors and the people in it. But, more importantly, it’s also an educational tool about directing and producing and perseverance!

Faktorovich: Thank you for participating in this interview!

Rent-a-Cop—Liza Minelli and Jerry

Rent-a-Cop—Liza Minelli and Jerry


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