If you own a television you've seen Hal Cooper's work. Even if you don't believe in watching television, you've at least heard of Hal Cooper's work. The U-M grad (BA '46) has directed (or executive produced or associate produced or written or created or you-get-the-point) countless television programs. Heard of Search for Tomorrow? He was one of its first directors. I Dream of Jeannie? He directed 70 episodes. Maude? He was director and executive producer. His directing resume is an amazing summary of how many of us spent countless afternoons and evenings watching The Brady Bunch, Gilligan's Island, The Odd Couple, The Dick Van Dyke Show---more than 50 different programs have at least one episode bearing his directing credit.
Cooper is spending five weeks on campus to direct James Thurber's
The Male Animal at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre February 22-25. While he has returned to Ann Arbor in recent years to
watch his son James '94 perform as a theater major, this is the first time he has worked at the Mendelssohn stage since 1946 when he played a villain in Angel Street.
"It's kind of a kick to come back," he says.
Cooper began his career in New York City as a successful child actor, which usually means a certain end to a budding career in show business (ask the cast members from Diff'rent Strokes), but he overcame the jinx. After starring in Big Brother's Rainbow House on the Mutual Radio Network from 1936-1940, he enrolled at Michigan, majoring in theater. He left the University for a short time to serve in WWII but returned to earn his degree in 1946.
Following a stint as the associate director of the Dock Street Theatre in Charleston, South Carolina, Cooper moved to New York City. In February 1948 he received a phone call that began his career in television.
"I was told that the DuMont Network was looking for somebody to create a television show for pre-school age kids," Cooper recalls. "They called the program TV Baby Sitter. The idea was to keep the child occupied while the mother did housework. I developed a format which today is like Sesame Street---teaching the alphabet with fun and music, using stories to teach a moral. But compared with the expensive special effects used on Sesame Street, our production was using an oatmeal box with a string."
Wilmer the Pigeon and a cast of characters premiered the completely unrehearsed program in late 1948. A glowing review in the Nov. 7 New York Times said Television Baby Sitter was the answer "for parents who have searched endlessly for suitable broadcast material for children of pre-Lone Ranger vintage."
But, the article continued, "the idea of a nation of housewives sitting mute before the video machine when they should be tidying up the premises or preparing the formula is not something to be grasped hurriedly. Obviously, it is a matter fraught with peril of the darkest sort."
Despite the threat of dark peril, the series ran until 1951.
In 1958 Cooper moved to Los Angeles with the dream of working on nighttime programs. ("Daytime was considered junk, nighttime was prestige. Even junk that was on at night was prestigious.") His break came in 1962 when Carl Reiner asked him to direct two episodes of the Dick Van Dyke Show. Once he had the nighttime credit, his career took off.
The young man from New York was taken by surprise by his next project---directing Death Valley Days during its post-Ronald Reagan period. "I knew nothing about horses or cowboys, but theater is theater and actors are actors. It was a big production in a suitcase. We shot on 16mm films, no lights---just reflective boards. It was shot for peanuts. We had to do a full half-hour show in two-and-a-half days. To save money, at the end of filming one show we'd turn the cameras around and film the beginning of the next show---pretending as if it were a different location."
After 16 episodes Cooper received a better offer directing I Dream of Jeannie. "Sitcoms are better paying, easier and more familiar," he says. Plus, he no longer had to give stage directions to horses or spend long days in the Arizona desert.
After Jeannie, the director John Rich (also a U-M grad) brought Cooper
aboard the Gilligan's Island crew as associate producer. One of his first duties was to oversee the building of the famous lagoon, which sat on the CBS Studios lot until this year.
Cooper's first stint on Gilligan's Island lasted barely longer than the Skipper's fateful three-hour tour. John Rich was fired after a fight with a CBS executive who gave Rich the pink slip and told him to "take the guy who came in with you, too"---and so Cooper went. But he returned after the first season, following the departure of the short-tempered CBS exec, and directed episodes of the sitcom.
He directed multiple episodes of many other sitcoms in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and settled in as director and executive producer of the Beatrice Arthur hit, Maude.
"Maude was a love affair right from the beginning. It was the happiest six years of my life," Cooper says. The program stirred controversy with an episode devoted to Maude's decision to have an abortion. "There was some backlash," Cooper recalls, "and some people said they wouldn't watch anymore---some stations even banned it." Although William Paley, then-owner of CBS, backed Cooper and Lear, Cooper says he is "not sure if they could do the same episode today."
Cooper has not worked on a series since the short-lived The Powers That Be in 1992. "In the last two years I've been saying, 'No, thank you.' It's no fun anymore." He bemoans the current status of situation comedies. "Today is such cookie cutter stuff. Everybody does what everybody does. The reality is based on prior successful sitcoms rather than on life. There are 10 Friends on the air right now. You cannot formula-ize success. That extra element is elusive. Everybody thinks they know what that element is say, a boy with a dog, for a while everyone had the boy and the dog---the sum of the parts does not equal the whole. Anything creative has an air of mystery about it. Somehow, sometimes, mysteriously you put the right colors on the palette."
He also believes that the way sitcoms are made has lessened the quality of the programs. "When you create a show," he says, "there's a big distinction, a huge distinction, between what you think is good and what you think people will like; 10 to 20 years ago you'd bring an idea you like to the network exec and he'd tell you whether he liked it or he didn't like it. Today, I never hear an exec say, 'I like it' or 'I didn't like it.' It's always, 'They'll like it' or 'they won't like it.' There's very little show business left in the executives who make the decisions about what goes on the air. It's all done with research and polling and actuarial figures and demographics. A lot of it, I'm sure, to an extent is accurate, but it loses heart. It lessens the ability to be innovative."
As a case in point he cites Love, Sidney, a program for which he was executive producer and director. Swoosie Kurtz and Tony Randall starred in the series, which featured Randall portraying a gay character. Critically, the show was a hit but it was killed after one season.
"Middle America and the Bible Belt were not interested in a homosexual Jew from New York," Cooper sighs. "The homosexuality was not featured anymore than it is with your own friends who are gay--you don't sit around and talk about it. They also didn't like that a gay man was hanging around a house with a little girl. It was a darling show."