Television director and producer
Born James Edward Burrows, December 30, 1940, in Los Angeles, CA; son of Abe (a writer, composer, and director) and Ruth (maiden name, Levinson) Burrows; married and divorced; married Debbie, 1997; children: three daughters. Education: Received undergraduate degree from Oberlin College, 1962; received graduate degree from the Yale School of Drama, 1965.
Addresses: Agent —Broder Kurland Webb Uffner, 9242 Beverly Blvd., Ste. 200, Beverly Hills, CA 90210-3731.
Drove a truck for a theater company; assistant stage manager for Holly Golightly on Broadway, 1967; stage director at Arlington Park Theatre, Arlington Park, IL, early 1970s, and in San Diego; began career as television director on the The Mary Tyler Moore Show, CBS, 1974; directed episodes of The Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda, Laverne & Shirley, and Taxi, among many others, during the 1970s; series co-creator and producer of Cheers, NBC, 1982-84, and executive producer, 1984-93; also directed 240 of the show's 275 episodes; television director for numerous other series, including Wings, Frasier, Friends, 3rd Rock from the Sun, Caroline in the City and Dharma & Greg ; executive producer, Will & Grace, 1998—, and director.
Awards: Emmy Award, National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, for outstanding direction in a comedy series, for Taxi, 1980 and 1981, and for outstanding individual achievement in directing a
Television legend James Burrows has had a hand in perfecting a long list of top-rated sitcoms, from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to Friends and Will & Grace. One of the industry's most highly paid directors, he continues to reap lucrative syndication profits from reruns of the long-running Cheers, which he created. His uncanny sense for the timing of an actor's quip have made him, according to New York Times television critic Bill Carter, "the man whose visual style and comedic instincts have helped create more comedy hits than anyone else in television."
Burrows comes from a show-business background. Though he was born in Los Angeles in 1940, he grew up in New York City, where his father, Abe, was a noted Broadway VIP as a writer, composer, and director of some of the era's leading stage musicals. The senior Burrows' credits include the books for Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and his son gained first-hand experience of the craft when he accompanied his father to the office. "I used to suggest jokes all the time," Burrows recalled in the interview with Carter in the New York Times. "Abe would be very nice and say, 'I'll think about it.'"
Burrows sang in the Metropolitan Opera Boys Choir during his youth, but chose Oberlin College in Ohio when it came time to leave home. "I had no desire to go into show business! New York was my father's town, and I was just Abe's kid," he explained to Broadcasting and Cable writer Caitlin Kelly. His aversion to the arts was so marked by the time he wrote his Oberlin application essay that he asserted, "I don't have any real plans for the future. However, math and science interest me most," according to Plain Dealer reporter Sandra Clark.
After majoring in government, Burrows graduated in 1962 and seemed to have a change of heart, winning a spot in the playwriting program at the Yale School of Drama. He started in show business at the relative bottom, as a truck driver for a theater company, and rose to the position of assistant stage manager for a 1967 musical based on the hit movie Breakfast at Tiffany's. Holly Golightly was a notable flop, but it did serve to introduce Burrows to Mary Tyler Moore, its star.
By the early 1970s, Burrows was directing theater productions in suburban Chicago and in San Diego. Turning on the television one Saturday evening, he caught the now-famous Moore in her new sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show on CBS. "I said, 'Gee, they're doing a little 20-minute play every week and here I am in summer stock doing a two-hour show every week,'" he recalled in an interview for a Newsweek profile by Cheech Marin. "If I can do two hours, I can do 20 minutes."
Burrows contacted Grant Tinker, who was both Moore's husband at the time and president of the production company that created the hit show, and asked for a job. The first episode he directed was "Neighbors," which aired on December 7, 1974, and featured Mary's boss, television station manager Lou Grant (Ed Asner) moving into an apartment in the same building as Moore's likable, single-career-girl character. Burrows has called his experience on the show an excellent training ground, noting that Tinker's stable of sitcom writers were a particularly talented, opinionated bunch, and he learned how to cull the best from them as well as translate their ideas into a formula that struck a chord with viewers. Watching veteran director Jay Sandrich—whose credits included I Love Lucy —work with The Mary Tyler Moore writing staff was crucial to his own development as a director, Burrows asserted. "You can't teach comedy, but you can teach someone how to feel empowered," he told Kelly in the Broadcasting and Cable article. "He taught me to do that."
Burrows earned just $200 week when he began working for Tinker's company, and went on to direct episodes of spin-offs from Moore's show, including Rhoda and Phyllis. He also directed episodes of the hit ABC sitcom Laverne & Shirley before signing on to a quirky new sitcom project set in a New York City taxicab dispatch-center, Taxi. In 1980, he won what would be the first of many Emmy Awards.
In the early 1980s, Burrows teamed with brothers Glen and Les Charles, who had been writers on both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi, to create a sitcom based on a group of regular patrons at a Boston bar. The series became Cheers, which debuted on NBC in 1982. Recalling the moment in the pilot episode when the portly Norm (George Wendt) strode through the bar's entrance, and the bartender said his name—in what would be the signature moment of every episode—and then asked "Whaddaya know?" to which Wendt's character replied, "Not enough," Burrows said the studio audience erupted in laughter. "I said, 'They know who this guy is! They're not laughing at a joke, they're laughing at an attitude!'" Burrows told Josh Wolk in Entertainment Weekly. "That was when I knew we had something special."
Few others seemed to agree with that notion, however. Cheers suffered dismal ratings during its first weeks on the air as the well-written show struggled to find its audience, but NBC executives failed to move quickly enough to cancel it. "They had nothing to put on in its place," he told Kelly in Broadcasting and Cable. The show went on to become one the best-loved and immensely successful sitcoms in television history, and Burrows' role in that achievement was inarguable: he directed all but 35 of its 275-episode run, and won another four Emmys in his capacity as a producer of the series and his third as a sitcom director.
Burrows won another Emmy as a director in 1994 for the Cheers spin-off, Frasier, and by then had become one of the most sought-after directors in television history for his talent in translating sitcom laughs into ratings gold. In 1995 alone, four of the six pilots he directed for the fall lineup were green-lighted for a full season, including News Radio and Caroline in the City. He was also involved in another top-rated NBC sitcom by then, Friends, in which his production company had also invested. From that point onward, Burrows directed episodes for nearly every hit comedy on the three main broadcast networks for years to come. These included 3rd Rock from the Sun, Dharma & Greg, and Will & Grace.
Any director so prolific must have a few duds on his resume, and Burrows' include The Tortellis, an early Cheers spin-off, and a 1995 Tony Danza cop comedy called Hudson Street. Burrows has also directed one feature film during his long career, a 1982 Ryan O'Neal gay-cop caper, Partners, that tanked at the box office. He vowed never to try a feature-length film movie again. "I don't like the two years you have to spend on them," he explained to Carter in the New York Times. "I like the instant gratification, the eight-days-and-out of one of these shows. You know when you shoot in front of an audience if it's good."
Burrows has said that his background in theater provided the best training ground for directing sitcoms. He always films before a live studio audience, and rarely watches the camera or the actors, preferring instead to pace—as his father liked to do—and listen. "I listen for the rhythms, I listen for a missed line, for a setup to a joke that's wrong," he told Electronic Media journalist Michael Schneider. Every year, about 30 scripts for sitcom pilots land on his desk, and he chooses from these the ones he wants to direct. Not surprisingly, his involvement nearly always ensures a hit—though he does not always stay to direct the entire season; only with the shows to which he is firmly committed—such as Friends —does he remain on board. In those cases, his production company, 3 Sisters, which he named after his trio of daughters, antes up a financial stake. Such deals often bring lucrative rewards down the line, when a show enters the profitable syndication phase.
Burrows makes nearly a thousand times what he first earned during his Mary Tyler Moore Show days, commanding $200,000 per pilot episode. He also has a hand in casting a new series, and once fired Lisa Kudrow from the pilot of Frasier, replacing her radio-producer character Roz with Peri Gilpin instead. "I didn't think she was right," Burrows explained to Wolk in Entertainment Weekly, about Kudrow, but he did hire her back a year later when he was working on Friends ; Kudrow and her five fellow unknowns went on to command $1 million-per-episode salaries on that show, a sitcom-industry record. "She forgave me in about the third year," Burrows joked in the same interview.
Burrows prefers to work with relatively unfamiliar actors when involved in a series pilot, and explained the reasoning behind this in the interview with Kelly in Broadcasting and Cable. "Ninety percent of comedy is surprise. If you have a known quantity in a particular role, you're already premeditating and adapting to what you think they'll do," he declared. "I look for people who don't look like they'll be funny."
Burrows made a surprising return to directing live theater in 1998, at the urging of Frasier star John Mahoney. He helmed a Chicago stage production of The Man Who Came to Dinner at the city's acclaimed Steppenwolf Theatre, and the show went on to a run at London's Barbicon Theatre with Burrows at the helm still. He still strongly believes that the best sitcom experience hits all the same marks as a successful stage play. "I guess what I bring is the sense of the ensemble, the sense that these actors have been with each other for a long time," he reflected in the New York Times interview with Carter. "And I do it by creating a lot of stuff that's not necessarily on the page."
In that same interview, Burrows also admitted that he labored under his legendary father's shadow for years. "He was the pre-eminent man on Broadway for years, and I grew up with that," he told the newspaper. "I never thought I could exceed him in anything." As an Emmy-winning television director and recipient of four prestigious Directors Guild of America awards as well, Burrows admits that he may have indeed finally found his niche, and it was not in math or science. "When I was growing up I never thought I'd be as good as my father," he told Marin in the Newsweek article. "I'm now coming to terms with the fact that maybe in my field I'm as successful as he was in his."
Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television, vol. 36, Gale Group, 2001.
Broadcasting and Cable, January 24, 2005, p. 4A.
Electronic Media, September 21, 1998, p. 1; August 20, 2001, p. 1.
Entertainment Weekly, March 26, 2004, p. 30.
Newsweek, September 11, 1995, p. 73.
New York Times, May 14, 1995, p. H1.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), October 11, 1996, p. 1B.