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Interview: Director Lee Shallat Chemel (Pt. 1)
If you haven’t seen the name “Lee Shallat” or, more recently, “Lee Shallat Chemel” in the credits of one of your favorite TV shows, then maybe you should reconsider the shows you’re watching, because she’s been on some great ones over the course of her directorial career, which began in 1984 during the second season of Family Ties on an episode entitled—appropriately enough—“Ready or Not.”
To be fair, it took me awhile before I realized just how many of my favorite shows Lee has directed, but I can definitely tell you the one that really cemented her reputation for me, and it won’t surprise any of you: it was The Middle.
Between 2009 and 2018, Lee directed 86 episodes of The Middle, starting with the second episode and concluding with the two-part finale, although it’s worth mentioning that she also helmed the Sue-centric spin-off we never got to see: Sue Sue in the City. I’ll tell you, ABC’s failure to pick up that series still stings…
Lee and I talked for a little over an hour, and during the course of that time, we didn’t come anywhere close to covering her whole career. We did, however, hit some major highlights, and she had plenty of anecdotes about her experiences as a director. In this first part, you’ll hear about how she became a TV director, how much she enjoyed working with Bob Saget and Norm MacDonald, how much she respects Fran Drescher, how thrilled she is that Jason Bateman finally found the right series to spotlight his talent, and much more.
Given your formidable resume as a director, I'll ask the obligatory question first: how did you find your way into directing in the first place? What led you down that path?
Lee Shallat Chemel: Failure, and a lot of other things. [Laughs.] That's only partially true. Interestingly, I actually had always wanted to be a teacher, so my first couple of degrees were in education, and then I taught for a few years. But when I was in college, I did do drama - I acted and stuff - but I never took it as anything that would be a career for me. It was unimaginable, and it didn't sound interesting until...
I was in my first marriage, and I moved to Seattle and I was teaching, but my husband was in the directing program at the University of Washington, and he took me to a production of this new professional acting training MFA program, and I saw the production, and I just thought it was so wonderful, and I was engaged by it. And my husband, who was really great about this, he said, "You should go ahead and try it!" Because he had been an actor in college, too. And I said, "Well, I don't know..."
But at the same time - and this is what's so interesting - my dream teaching possibility came up: to teach at Helen Bush School, which is, by the way, where Bill Gates was a student...and a friend! But it was a great private school and an ideal teaching situation. So here came up that possibility, too! So I auditioned for the acting program, and I applied for the teaching position, and the same week I got a positive response from both. So there I was, looking at the career that I always thought would be my life, and a great version of it, and the opportunity to jump off a cliff.
So I jumped off the cliff: I got into the MFA program there, and then that led to acting. And when I was down in Orange County, I had to make a living, so I started teaching at Orange Coast College, and then I started directing and directed theater for many years. And then somewhere in my theater career - I worked a long time at South Coast Repertory - I began to notice that, as I was directing plays, I kept looking for closeups. [Laughs.] So my mind starting going into film and television. Isn't that funny?
So it just kind of evolved. And, of course, none of this was a career that I... I mean, it's not like I grew up wanting to be a director. It wasn't one of those initial dreams. It just sort of went, "Well, now I'll do this...and now I'll do this!" And then there's the story of how I got into TV, but...that's how I got into directing in the first place: it just evolved from teaching to acting to directing theater to directing television!
Well, on that front, IMDb is notoriously inaccurate, but from what I'm seeing, it looks like your first TV directing gig was an episode of Family Ties.
That's exactly right, yes. And that's a good story, too! Do you know who Joseph Stern is, by any chance? Founder of the Matrix Theater in Los Angeles. But Joe was also a TV producer, and the most well-known one when he was producing was probably Law & Order. He did a lot of Dick Wolf stuff, and then he did Judging Amy. Anyway, he knew me as a theater director.
Well, in the early '80s, the women's steering committee of the guild was pressuring producers to hire more women. That was the first big try. So Joe Stern knew Gary David Goldberg, who created Family Ties, and Gary said to Joe, "I'm looking for women directors," but he said to him, "I'm not just wanting to bring an A.D. up, because they're technical. I want someone who knows how to talk to actors, someone from theater." And Joe said, "Oh, well, you want Lee!" Because the thing is, there weren't even a lot of women theater directors in those days, so I'd sort of made a name for myself. So I got to meet Gary and observe on Family Ties, and I got my first gig there. So it's interesting that it just happened to be at the right time. I mean, the timing couldn't have been better. Not that that meant it was an easy journey from there... [Laughs.]
And talk about a high-profile show to get started on.
Well, that's the thing: with Gary, it led me right into a high-end show. That was a big, big piece of great fortune, to which I owe great thanks to Gary and Joe Stern, for sure.
As far as your early stuff, would you believe I found on YouTube the episode of Down to Earth that you directed?
[Immediately dives under her desk, then comes back up with a stunned expression on her face.] Oh, my GOD! You are amazing! You do find stuff! I said to my husband earlier... He said, "Now, who's this guy?" And I told him, and I said, "He knows more about me than I know about me!" [Laughs.]
I like to research. It's kind of my thing.
Yeah, you certainly do! Well, that was a neat little deal. I'll tell you why, and then you'll tell me what you thought of it. But there was Down to Earth and there was another one called Safe at Home, and Art Annecharico was the producer of these shows, and they were, like, off-season. He did these three-camera dinky little shows for virtually no money, and he was later finally sanctioned. The DGA had to dump him. But for me, it was great because I could, like, practice without a lot of eyes on me. Because live cutting was really hard, and to go from the theater to live cutting... A lot of people come up from being A.D.s, and they've learned the live cutting of the multi-cam thing, but to come from theater... I was on Mars! I went out of some shows in a body bag because it was so hard to learn that. So Art Annecharico offered people like me a chance to fail over and over again without hurting too much. [Laughs.] So that was a good thing, even though he got sanctioned, which I understand.
Well, the reason it caught my eye in particular was because it starred Dick Sargent - it must've been his last series-regular role - and Ronnie Schell, two '60s sitcom veterans.
That's right. Sweet men. Dick was a very sweet man. He was lovely. He was working a lot with the Special Olympics, which have now become much bigger, but in those days it was not as present a thing, and he really donated a lot of time to that. It's funny to think that the special effect on that show of disappearing was such a big deal! [Laughs.] But I'm grateful to it.
Say what you will about that show, but it had a great theme song.
Oh, I don't remember it! Tell me!
It's very 1930's inspired. There's even a "boop-boop-be-doop" in it.
Oh, my God! Really? How come I don't remember that?
You're allowed to not know everything.
You'll have to write my biography someday, because I won't remember anything! [Laughs.]
I wanted to ask about this next one in particular because I interviewed one of the stars for this newsletter: Duet. I had a great conversation with Matthew Laurance a few months back.
Oh, yes, Matthew! And Jack Lemmon's son, Chris, was also on it, and he was also wonderful and delightful to work with. And the gal who created it, Ruth Bennett, she was a writer on Family Ties. And this was a big deal that a woman was the main executive producer on a show. But here's the cool thing: that show turned into Open House, where it turned into a show about the real-estate side of things, and guess who had a small part as a regular on that?
I am blanking.
This is a huge person. Do you have the cast list in front of you?
No, but I can pull it up quickly enough.
I want you to find it, because she didn't look at all like she looks now, and she wasn't happy on the show. But then eventually she got her own show...
Oh! It was Ellen DeGeneres. Wow, I'd forgotten that completely!
Yeah, she was on that show, and it was interesting, because her hair was longer, and it was clear that she wasn't happy, but she was funny, and she had that wonderful dry thing. But I could tell that the writing wasn't working for her.
I remember talking to her occasionally and saying, "What can I do to help you?" And she goes, "Oh, you know, it's just...not great." [Laughs.] But then all of a sudden... Well, not all of a sudden, but many years later, boing, she was a star! And I'm happy for her for that.
I know you directed a few episodes of Full House, so I'm sure you have the same stories that everyone else does about how wonderful Bob Saget was.
Oh, I loved Bob Saget. And I did Raising Dad with him, also. Yes, he was a lovely man. And, of course, the whole thing that everybody has talked about, which is his potty mouth... Oh, my God, he would say some things off-camera... Not so much when we were doing Full House, because the kids were so present, but when we were doing Raising Dad, there were times when he would just go off, and I would go... [Horrified gasp, followed by laughter.] But that was his humor, you know? And I had to learn to understand it.
I had a rough time on Full House with the producer, and I ultimately got fired, but Bob was so wonderful to me, because he just made me feel like, "That has nothing to do with you." It was healing, how he handled me. He was really lovely. It was sad, because I guess he was going back to standup and really, really loving it. But maybe you could say he went out happy. Yeah, I loved Bob. Loved, loved, loved him.
He lived in my area for a few years when he was growing up, so I had the opportunity to interview him for the local paper.
Was it fun?
Oh, yeah, it was fantastic. And I told him I was a fan of Dirty Work, the movie he directed for Norm MacDonald, and he said, "Oh, why don’t you just get me flowers? This is unbelievable. I mean, that’s just the nicest thing you could possibly say to me."
Oh, that's so nice! Oh, and Norm MacDonald... [Sighs sadly.] Oh, God... I loved Norm. I don't know if you ever read my story that I posted on Facebook when he died...
I'm not sure if I did. I'll have to go back and find it.
Oh, I'll just tell you what I said. [Hesitates.] I know we're bouncing everywhere...
That's fine. I'm the one who brought him up, so this is a perfect time to talk about him.
Okay, well, I didn't really know much about Norm MacDonald before he came onto The Middle because... I don't know, it just wasn't stuff I was looking at. So he was in the back of my head as a name, but I didn't really have a feeling about him at all, because I stopped watching SNL ages before he was on there. [Laughs.] I go to bed too early! I'm the most unlikely comedy director ever.
Anyway, they just said, "Oh, you're gonna really love Norm," and that always makes me go, "Uh..." [Laughs.] Because telling you that you're gonna love someone doesn't necessarily mean that you are gonna love them! And he just seemed at first to me, like, "This guy is fucking off the wall, and I don't even know if he's read the script! He's saying things that aren't even in there! What's going on?" And I'm kind of a by-the-book director. I'm, like, "The script is the bible, and if you want to go off it, then let's nail that down first, and then jazz." But he was different.
I finally got it that that's why they brought him on. They let him go loose. Because the girls who ran that show - you know Eileen and DeAnn - they're very, very strong with the script and staying with the script. They're very much that way. And their scripts are solid! And then here comes this guy who just... [Shakes her head and laughs.] What's sad is that no one knew he was ill. When he came on the show that first time, he was drinking gallons of Pepto-Bismol and stuff like that, because he was just trying to subdue some symptoms, and he didn't look well, which...now we know he wasn't well! But oh my God, he was funny.
So what I wrote on Facebook was that when Norm would come on the show, you wouldn't get what was written, but you didn't get bupkis. At first you think it's bupkis, but it's not, because then he would add so much stuff. And then came the point where we had to say, "Now, Norm, we really need you to help us, because you have give us enough of the lines to tell the damned story!" [Laughs.]
So what happened was something miraculous: he got an [earpiece], and he got a guy to read the lines into his ear. Now, Will, you can imagine that that's not necessarily a recipe for success, because if somebody's reading you the lines, then how are they going to come out of your mouth and make any sense in the right timing? How's that gonna work? For some reason, his brain worked so that the guy would start reading the line a half a second before the cue, and his lines came out real and spontaneous and word-perfect. We all just went, "What the...?!"
I mean, the problem was solved, but...who can do that? [Laughs.] I mean, chunks of speech like that on the page, and he would go and deliver it and it was funny and great. I was just stunned by that. It was amazing. He was such a kind soul, never temperamental, never ego bloviating all over the place, like some people can be. He was just there and having a good time. I loved him. After I got it figured out. [Laughs.] At first I was frightened. "How am I ever gonna get this scene?" But, oh, he was just a great guy...
He was one of my favorite comedians even before The Middle, so to add him to the show was just gravy.
Oh, and then I went back and looked at some of his early stuff, and it was great. And on the show, I was sometimes laughing so hard that I had to cut, because I couldn't control my laughter anymore. He had this thing where he had this human hand... This was one of the Rusty bits. It was, like, "You know, this is gonna be my new thing. It's gonna be a backscratcher. Because it feels like a real hand!" It was this grotesque prop, and...only he could make that work. [Laughs.] It was probably his idea!
Speaking of comedy legends, you got to work with Bob Newhart on Newhart.
And I've got a good story for Bob! Yes, Bob Newhart was absolutely wonderful and, of course, he was teamed with Tom Poston. This was the multi-cam days, where you rehearse on the stage for three days and then on the fourth day you bring the cameras in - four cameras - and you block the scenes with the cameras, and then you shoot on Friday. So this is how the day would start: at 10 a.m. - no earlier - you come to the table to read the script, and every day you would read, because there'd always be rewrites. So you'd sit there, and Bob and Tom would come in, and they'd pull out their newspapers, and they would each get a cup of soup, they'd sip their soup, and they'd talk across the table about the news as if it were a Bob and Ray routine. It really was like a Bob and Ray routine...and it was spontaneous! That's how every day would begin. And then finally, when they were done with their cup of soup, we would do the table read. [Laughs.] It was wonderful!
The first one I did turned out to be the 100th episode, and how I ended up inheriting their 100th episode, I have no idea. But there I was! So all the characters from the series who had ever been on it were going to be on the episode, because they were going to be involved in this big event they were going to have. It was a big show, in other words. Oh, and I was told before I began, "Now, Lee, Bob likes to get out early. That's very important." I said, "Okay, what time?" "Three o'clock." "Okay!" So we start at 10, we have a lunch hour, we have to be out by three, and I have to have everything staged. So I work really hard, very diligent, trying to make it work, and it wasn't terribly difficult, but it was somewhat difficult. Anyway, I was able to get him out on time the whole week. On the camera-blocking day, we had to do some pre-shooting because there were so many characters that had to talk and stuff like that. And Bob doesn't like to be blocked. He just wants to come and stand or go over and sit, and that's it. [Laughs.] He doesn't want to move around a lot. So that makes things somewhat more simple!
But on Friday night it went really well, and at the end of the thing, they had a big cake and champagne and stuff to celebrate the 100th episode, and they offered me champagne, but I said, "I'm sorry, I don't drink champagne, it gives me a headache." And the stage manager said, "Well, what do you drink?" And I said, "Well, scotch." That was in the olden days. I don't drink anymore. But I said, "Scotch," and they said, "Oh, Bob has some scotch." I said, "Oh, no, no, no..." But Bob invited me into his dressing room, and this is how it went. Bob is over there making me a scotch, and his wife Ginny is here talking to me, and Ginny said, "Lee, Bob was so happy with the way the show went tonight." I said, "Oh, thank you, Bob!" And she said, "And you know what? He was also really happy that you got him out early." I said, "Oh, thank you, Bob!" I had this entire conversation with his wife telling me what he wanted to say to me! [Laughs.] It was the most hilarious thing.
But I adore him. I absolutely adore him, and I adored Tom, and I feel so lucky to have done a whole bunch of those, because he was just a delight, and all you did was let him do his thing. You let him do his dry thing and that's it. Once in awhile I'd say, "Would you feel comfortable moving over here?" And he goes, "I'd rather not." And I said, "Don't. Just stay right where you are." [Laughs.] I love Bob. Bob's great.
You mentioned that you had a Howard Hesseman story from working with him on Head of the Class.
Well, Howard was unhappy after the first season of the series, and he was unhappy because he didn't want to be Johnny Fever anymore, and he felt that because it was called Head of the Class - meaning pothead, obviously - the idea was that this freewheeling, crazy, but artistic guy is talking to all these tight-ass smart kids, and he's gonna loosen them up. And, in fact, he kind of got tighter, and it was hard for him, and it was hard for the execs, and it was hard for me.
But through all of that, even though I know he wasn't happy, he was a gentleman, and he was really lovely. He gave me respect in the first decade of my directing career, and that was hard to come by. To have someone immediately trust you... You didn't have to prove anything. I was there, and he trusted me. And that was rare. He was also intelligent, wry and witty, and we had a nice time together. But it was hard, because certainly the writers wanted a different guy, and he wanted a different script, so that's a real strain on the director, which happens quite often.
So I know it didn't last long, but I'm very curious about the experience of doing Princesses just because of the cast.
What a cast! Did you ever see any episodes?
I never actually did—I was in college when it originally aired—but Twiggy, Julie Hagerty, and Fran Drescher? Come on.
It's where I met Fran, which is how I ended up on The Nanny. But the real behind-the-scenes story there is what happened with Twiggy, because she was really concerned about her role. She said, "You know, everybody where I come from knows I'm completely working class. I could never have been a princess. It's impossible!" And she really was so concerned about it that she wanted to say "no" to the series. So here we are, in the first day or two of pre-rehearsals or something of this pilot that's been picked up to be shot, and she's saying this. And [series co-creator] Barry Kemp was going, "Argh!" So we all were gathered to a meeting, and she's saying, "It just doesn't work," and they were saying, "Well, do we need to recast or what?" And she said, "Well, it just can't be, and I know you want me to be a princess, so...it doesn't work!"
And Fran Drescher starts talking, and she goes [Doing a solid Drescher impression.] "First of all, what you have there is an icon. And you're gonna get rid of an icon because, what, she's not the way that she's supposed to be? You write for her! You change the script, you don't get rid of the icon, okay? Because she's an icon! So you make it work that she can be a princess, because if you get rid of her, you're so stupid..." So they figured out that she was, like, a Fergie or somebody, that she was just a working-class lady that the royal guy wanted and married, and then he kicked the bucket, so she became a princess like that. But it worked. And she was a delight to work with. They all were. And Fran was just a hoot. I mean, it was really fun But i just loved that: "She's an icon! You don't get rid of an icon!" And she was right! Fran is so smart. And underneath the voice and the brashness is a real businesswoman...and now the head of the Screen Actors Guild!
But then after Princesses she said, "Here's a script for a pilot I want to get picked up: it's called The Nanny." And I said to my husband—and this is how stupid I am—"I'll do this for Fran, but the script is so bad." And it turned out to be one of the most successful things I've ever done. The audience went crazy when we did the pilot!
And then Franny and I, we worked together on several things. That one, of course, but then also Happily Divorced, which was so fun to work on. That one should've gone longer, too, I thought, because it was really fun.
Okay, so now that I've dug it up and blown off the cobwebs, I have to ask about this pilot you did called Weldon Pond…
Quick sidebar, since the odds are good that you’ve never heard of this pilot, since I’d literally never known a thing about it until I started prepping for my interview with Lee.
In a March 1994 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Jason Bateman talks briefly about Weldon Pond:
“It's Roger Rabbit with a sheep: my character is just starting out working for an advertising agency and he gets the duty of caring for this ex-spokesman named Weldon, who is a sheep, an animated sheep. Weldon used to be a top TV character like Tony the Tiger. Now he's got a pretty gruff take on things. The idea sounds wacky and commercial. I'll do a lot of acting with a co-star I can't see because he'll be drawn in later."
On a decidedly less positive note, Steve Taravella’s 2013 biography of Wickes, I Know I’ve Seen That Face Before, refers to Weldon Pond as “the single lowest point of her career.”
“[The experience] began on an unpleasant note, when Mary initially did not understand that she would be expected to read for the role, and things never recovered. At this point in her career, Mary was willing to audition for film roles, but she resented having to read for a supporting part in a sitcom. The role was humiliating: she was to play a Chicago ad agency receptionist who lives with an animated sheep—not just any animated sheep, but a talking sheep who mocks her by calling her things like ‘the wrinkle with lips.’ Mary was offered the part and accepted it, but why? Was her desire to generate income so great at this point that she would stoop to this?”
For the life of me, I can’t find the actual pilot anywhere online, but I did stumble upon a video about “movie magic” that spends a few minutes talking about how they did the graphics and even offered up a little bit of footage. Apparently, despite failing to get picked up to series, it was still a pretty big deal at the time…
So Weldon Pond had the first CGI character on a TV series...or a TV pilot, anyway! And the show runner was Victor Fresco, who I love, love, love, and who's done so many other things that I've worked on. He's so wonderful. And we had Mary Wickes on it, who was... Well, I remember her, of course, from The Man Who Came to Dinner. She played the nurse in that famous film, and she was very funny. And, of course, Jason Bateman was on it, and Jason and I worked together for years. So the guy who played the sheep had to wear the little electronic suit and do the moves for him. That technology was in its infancy.
But I still remember one joke in it that was hilarious...and you may not laugh at it, but I can hear Mary Wickes saying it to this day. Weldon the Sheep is upset because he's not big anymore. He's been the spokesperson for this and that, and now he's not getting jobs, and he needs a place to live, so they tell Mary Wickes' character that Weldon has to live with her. And she goes, "I'm not cookin' for a cartoon." [Laughs.] I'm sorry, I'm still not over that joke. That was Victor's joke, for sure, and every once in awhile it still comes into my head.
Anyway, the pilot was a total failure. But we all got to experience being out in a thunderstorm with a guy wearing a CGI motion suit. Oh, and you know who else was in the pilot? Elliott Gould! And we're all out on a putting green with the guy in the electronic suit, and it's starting to rain, and we hear thunder, and we're trying to shoot... This is a location shoot on a sitcom pilot, and a low-budget one at that! Anyway, we had to run inside something like 45 times so he wouldn't die! And I can still see Elliott Gould going, "Why are we even out here now?" [Laughs.] Good question!
You talked about how you've worked with Jason a number of times. I guess that started with Valerie.
There was that, and a few other things, and then Arrested Development. The story of Jason for me is the story of an actor finally coming into his own in terms of having the fit be good, and that happened with Arrested. Up until then... Well, it started with Weldon Pond - that was CBS, and that was Jeff Sagansky, who loved Michael J. Fox - who didn't? - and kept trying to make Jason be Michael J. Fox. So Jason would come in, and when we'd do a run-through, Jeff would say, "Yeah, but we want more of that Michael J. Fox thing!" And I remember Jason coming up to me and saying, "Lee, I'm... I'm not Michael J. Fox!' [Laughs.] Although he did have kind of a similar look at the time. And I said, "I know, Jason, I'm so sorry..." And then we'd do another pilot, and the same thing would come up.
And then after way too long, here comes Arrested Development, and Mitch Hurwitz writes this character who's dry, understated, not trying to be Michael J. Fox...and he nails it. Because finally someone tapped into what he does best...or what he did best at that time. So he finally got a chance to show his brilliance, and he's just floating along, doing it all. But I think that was a hard time for him, because people were trying to put him in a different mold, and they were molds that didn’t demonstrate what he does best. He's good. He's so good. And people just wanted him to be someone else...or at least they did when I was doing things with him!