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Betty Thomas  Television Director, Actor

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Mark Sullivan/WireImage.com
 
Betty Thomas is probably best known for her role as Officer Lucy Bates on the acclaimed series Hill Street Blues. But even then, she always wanted to direct. “I never wanted to be an actor,” she once said. “[During Hill Street] I was always saying, ‘When do I get to direct?’” Steven Bochco, executive producer of Hill Street, never gave Thomas the opportunity to direct any of that series, but he later hired her to direct episodes of Hooperman with John Ritter and Doogie Howser, M.D. Thomas likened directing to her start as an improv artist at Second City: “The first hour I started directing I knew I was home. The first fifteen minutes! There’s nothing like directing because…it’s like improvisation, on stage…You’re basically in front of a hundred and twenty guys in shorts who want to know what’s going to happen next.” Thomas went on to win an Emmy for her directing work on HBO’s Dream On, but it was the success of her very first theatrical feature, The Brady Bunch Movie, that—as one of the highest-grossing films ever directed by a woman—catapulted her into the ranks of Hollywood’s top female directors. Thomas was once asked her philosophy of directing and offered this assessment: “I have no filters on my ideas. And I never, never, never give up.”

Thomas was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and attended Ohio University as an art major. She took the one film class offered, and decided that Stan Brakhage, an avant-garde filmmaker, was her hero. She began to make art films “with no dialogue and just music.” In the late 1970s, Thomas joined a networking group. “We had to keep notebooks, make five-year plans,” she later recalled. “My five-year plan [said] ‘I will be directing a movie about dolphins, blah, blah, blah, and it’s a comedy.’ That meant I was thinking back then about directing, which I hadn’t remembered at all!”

However, right out of college, Thomas decided to earn extra cash for a trip to Europe by becoming a high school art teacher. Unfortunately, the school questioned her ability because she was a bit too opinionated. Consequently, she left the teaching profession and became a waitress at the famous Chicago improvisational theater, Second City. Being naturally funny, she was encouraged to take an improv class. She did, and eventually joined Second City, officially starting her career in show business.

After failing to move on to the West Coast branch of Second City, Thomas landed many smaller roles on such shows as the NBC’s The Fun Factory and the television movie Outside Chance. Her big break came in 1981 when she was cast as a police officer on Hill Street Blues. She became one of the stars of the ensemble series and was nominated seven times for the Supporting Actress Emmy, winning once. But she was ambivalent about her success. She would have preferred to do more comedy and try her hand at directing. As she studied the directors on the set, she became fascinated with the profession. “When I was observing,” she said, “I wanted to stand up and say, ‘Here, put the guy there, put the camera here, put a fifty on it, bring it back this way and you’ve got the shot and it’ll be funny.’ That’s how ready I felt. I mean, I couldn’t wait.”

She didn’t have to wait long after Hill Street Blues to get her dream job. Executive producer of Hill Street Blues, Steven Bochco, who originally did not allow Thomas to direct any Hill Street programs, hired her to direct episodes of Hooperman on ABC with John Ritter. Following Hooperman, Thomas directed several television series, ranging from the comic Doogie Howser, M.D., to the serious Shannon’s Deal.

Thomas expanded her skills by directing several notable television pilots and movies. In 1994 she directed two very different works: Couples, an ABC pilot written by Friends creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman about child rearing, and the touching movie My Breast, starring Meredith Baxter as a journalist who discovers she has breast cancer. In 1996 she helmed the adaptation of The Late Shift, a book by Bill Carter that documented the late-night talk show war between Jay Leno and David Letterman. Her cable movie offered an insider’s glimpse into the highly competitive world of television talk shows, replete with lies, threats, and unbridled ambition. Movie reviewer Vince Leo stated, “[The Late Shift] is a very enjoyable and interesting drama for all those interested in how networks operate.”

In 1995, with a mere $12 million budget, Thomas transformed The Brady Bunch Movie into a huge hit. The unexpectedly clever satire became one of the highest grossing films ever directed by a woman (in excess of $60 million), putting Betty Thomas in the same league with Penny Marshall and Penelope Spheeris. David Lyman of Film.com wrote “Wonder of wonders, Thomas and her colleagues have turned this mother lode of 1970s kitsch into a pretty tasty little comedy.” She was just as successful in 1997 with the critically acclaimed Howard Stern comedy/biography, Private Parts. Audiences were treated to a surprisingly sweet and hilarious picture. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times claimed Thomas’s “steadying hand makes it play like a movie and not a series of filmed radio shows” and “many sequences are very funny.”

While Thomas and her colleagues have put up a good fight to attain equal opportunity for female directors in television and film, the fact remains that no female director has won an Oscar. “I hate it that a woman director has never won the Academy Award,” Thomas said. “I want some women to win it so that it’s done with, so that women have won it and we don’t have to think about it anymore, we can go on with life.” To help fulfill her desire, Thomas serves on the National Board of the DGA and has seen changes: “When I go to the Directors Guild of America and we have our meetings, in general it’s still a boys’ club there. But it’s changing. Look at our offices. It’s staffed by all women—women producers, women writers, women development people…It’s an evolution, it is not a revolution.”

 

 


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