Oscar voters: How some TV veterans made it into the academy
In 1971, writer-producer William Link gave a 24-year-old named Steven Spielberg one of his earliest directing jobs, an episode of the TV show “Columbo.” The production required some managerial finesse—when the crime show’s veteran cinematographer balked at Spielberg’s youth, Link placated the worried crewman with a box of Cuban cigars.
Nearly 40 years later, Link, now 78, still feels a bond with Spielberg, and he just cast a vote for the director’s latest film, “War Horse,” in Oscar’s best picture race.
Link is one of a dozens of members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences better known for their work in television than in film -- others include Oprah Winfrey, CBS chief executive Les Moonves, the producer of the Charlie Brown TV specials, the costume designer from many “Star Trek” shows and former “Patty Duke Show” patriarch William Schallert.
Many of these members have a film credit or two under their belts—Winfrey was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in 1985’s “The Color Purple,” for instance—but they found their greatest successes on the small screen. Most of them joined when Hollywood maintained a rigid caste system between TV and film, but the academy itself was more permeable.
Today, the line between film and TV has blurred, as “movie stars” like Kate Winslet, Dustin Hoffman and Claire Danes play high-profile roles on cable, but that wasn’t the case 20 to 30 years ago, and still television figures became academy members with regularity.
“When we came to Hollywood, TV was considered this elementary channel to go into feature films,” said Link, who is the co-creator, with his partner Richard Levinson, of “Columbo,” “Murder, She Wrote” and several made-for-TV movies. Together they wrote the screenplay for the 1980 Steve McQueen movie “The Hunter” under the pseudonym Ted Leighton and joined the academy in the early 1980s.
“Movies was Nirvana. That was El Dorado. There was a snobbery about the TV business. We wanted to get into films, but we saw that film was a director's medium. In TV, as writers, we had final cut. TV really became our medium.”
Some members who came from the TV world had high-ranking benefactors in the academy.
In 1972, Schallert played the judge in the movie “The Trial of the Catonsville 9,” a political passion project of its producer, then academy president Gregory Peck.
Schallert, who was on the board of the Screen Actors Guild during a particularly rancorous period in the 1970s, joined the academy’s board of governors as well.
“I thought, ‘What a civilized group, by comparison to SAG. What do you want me to do?’” He ended up championing an honorary Oscar given to Laurence Olivier in 1979.
Their work in television lends some of these members a unique perspective—an appreciation for the thrift and speed of independent filmmaking that mimics the pace of TV work.
“Twice the work, half the money, that’s how TV is,” said Robert Blackman, who designs the costumes for the TNT drama “Rizzoli & Isles" and worked on four “Star Trek” series as well as the 1994 movie “Star Trek: Generations.” “If you’re doing a star-driven movie, you have more time to prep. In TV or an independent film, they may be talking to you about a tall, slim woman and then they cast a short woman.”
Today, thanks to proliferation of cable channels, TV offers more artistic and economic opportunities than its big-screen counterpart—and movement of talent between the media is more fluid than it once was.
Lee Mendelson, producer of animated television like “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and the series “Garfield and Friends,” said he made movie business friends like Paul Newman and George C. Scott while producing serious-minded environmental TV documentaries in the 1960s and ’70s.
“TV and film were separate worlds,” said Mendelson, who joined the academy in the 1960s. “Movie stars wouldn’t go on TV. Now because of all the new channels, all the movie stars who wouldn’t have done it in the '60s are on TV all the time.”
Mendelson’s 1969 feature film “A Boy Named Charlie Brown” was nominated for its score, opposite the Beatles’ “Let It Be.”
“Paul McCartney said, ‘There is absolutely no way that we’re gonna beat Charlie Brown,’” Mendelson said. “He was absolutely adamant.”
In the end, the Beatles did win, but Mendelson said he has remained an active academy member, and he travels from his home south of San Francisco in Burlingame, Calif., to attend the ceremony every year.
“I was sitting next to Cher the year she won,” Mendelson said. “Will I be there this year? Of course I will.”
-- Rebecca Keegan
Photo (top): Co-creator of TV series hits "Mannix," "Murder She Wrote," and "Columbo," William Link at his home in the Hollywood Hills in 2010. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times (Bottom) William Schallert, left, played the patriarch on "The Patty Duke Show." Credit: United Artists Television