William Asher: Pioneering director who helped make the blueprint for the modern sitcom

 

One of the American pioneers who carved out a blueprint for sitcom around the world, William Asher had a 40-year television career whose first two decades were dominated by three women. He quickly made his mark by directing 100 of the 179 episodes of I Love Lucy, starring Lucille Ball as her own dizzy alter ego and Desi Arnaz playing her bandleader husband, as he was in real life.

Joining the programme as a director in 1952, a year after its launch, Asher quickly established his authority. He had no fear in reprimanding Ball – who was fast becoming the biggest star on television and partner with Arnaz in the sitcom's production company – on finding out that she was giving "notes" to her fellow cast members. "There can only be one director, and you're paying me," he told her.

Asher – who earned a then astonishing $500 an episode – remained with I Love Lucy until it ended in 1957. He saw it become one of the most popular programmes in the world – still screened today – and a major influence on the development of sitcom, a genre that had been dropped in Britain by the BBC after a short run of Pinwright's Progress following the Second World War.

The Corporation tried again when it launched a television version of its radio hit Life With The Lyons in 1955. Shortly afterwards, I Love Lucy became one of the weapons in the armoury of the newly launched ITV and firmly established situation comedy as an ingredient in the schedules.

The in-demand Asher then co-created, with the writer Sidney Sheldon, The Patty Duke Show (1963-66). It featured the rising teenage star of the title in the dual roles of a "rock '*' roll" New York schoolgirl into boys, ice cream and sleepovers, and her sophisticated, prim-and-proper lookalike Scottish cousin. This presented Asher, as producer and director of many of the early episodes, with major challenges in those days of limited special effects. He resolved to use a split screen for scenes with both characters facing the camera but a double for Duke when one was facing away.

The third woman to define his career in sitcom was the actress Elizabeth Montgomery. In the same year as The Patty Duke Show's launch, the pair married – it was his second marriage, her third. Pregnant with their first child, she was keen to give up her career, but he suggested they work together on a sitcom.

On a trip to Columbia Pictures' Screen Gems offices to discuss an idea, the couple were shown Sol Saks's outline for Bewitched (1964-72), about a witch called Samantha living as a suburban housewife with her new husband, Darrin (Dick York, then Dick Sargent) – based on the Columbia films I Married a Witch and Bell, Book and Candle. Several hours later, they telephoned to say they would take it, with Montgomery in the starring role and Asher directing.

It proved to be another landmark programme in sitcom history – memorable for Samantha's twitch of the nose before performing a spell – and, although Asher was not officially producer until the fourth series, he initially carried the title of production consultant and it was acknowledged that he and his wife had control over the programme. "They are the mama and the papa of the set," said one studio insider. They also took 20 per cent of the sitcom's profits.

Asher was born in New York, where his mother, Lillian Bonner, had been a clerical assistant at MGM Studios and his father, Ephraim, was director of publicity for Mack Sennett Comedies, before moving to Los Angeles with the family and, as EM Asher, becoming an associate producer of films such as Dracula and Frankenstein.

The couple divorced when Asher was 11 and the boy moved back to New York with his mother, who became an alcoholic. Two year later, he took a job in the mailroom at Universal Studios and, lying about his age, at 15 he joined the army, serving with the Signal Corps in New York but never being posted overseas. He became a unit photographer and whiled away his rest time by writing short stories that were accepted by magazines.

He continued to write after leaving the army and eventually found work at Universal as an assistant cameraman and film editor. In 1948, he was given the chance to co-produce and co-direct Leather Gloves, a low-budget boxing film, for Columbia Pictures.

Moving to CBS television, he directed the pilot episode of Our Miss Brooks (1952), starring Eve Arden in a small-screen version of her popular radio series. This led Desi Arnaz to hire Asher for I Love Lucy and the director went on to work with other major American stars such as Danny Thomas and Donna Reed, before producing Shirley Temple's Storybook (1960-61).

In 1961, Asher was asked to stage and direct John F Kennedy's inaugural gala, produced by Frank Sinatra, as well as the president's birthday celebration, which included Marilyn Monroe singing. Although he made few films, Asher was responsible for the "Beach Party" series of five musicals (1963-66) aimed at teenagers and featuring Frankie Avalon accompanied by an array of girls in bikinis.

The films proved popular with young audiences in the same way that Elvis Presley's pictures had been and other directors copied the formula. Although he conceded that the "blondes, bodies and beach" storylines were "nonsense", Asher ruefully added that they depicted teenage years as fun in the way that his own while living with an alcoholic mother never were.

As a television director, Asher later directed episodes of Alice (1977-79), The Dukes of Hazzard (1979), Private Benjamin (1981-82), Harper Valley P.T.A. (1981-82), and the feature-length Return to Green Acres (1990), before retiring in 1991. Like Elizabeth Montgomery, Asher's first and third wives, Dani Sue Nolan and Joyce Bulifant, were actresses.

Anthony Hayward

William Milton Asher, producer, director and writer: born New York 8 August 1921; married 1951 Dani Sue Nolan (divorced 1961; one son, one daughter), 1963 Elizabeth Montgomery (divorced 1973; two sons, one daughter), 1976 Joyce Bulifant (divorced 1993; one adopted son), 1996 Meredith Coffin McMachen; died Palm Desert, California 16 July 2012.

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