Writer and director William Asher, most famous for his work as one of the founders of the cinematic grammar of the multi-camera sitcom on I Love Lucy, died Monday in Palm Desert, California. He was 90.
Asher took over the directing reins from Marc Daniel in the second season of I Love Lucy, then directed all but three episodes of the show’s second, third, and fourth seasons, including all of the series’ most famous arc, in which star Lucille Ball’s pregnancy was written into the show, the first time a pregnant woman had ever been depicted on television. Lucy wasn’t Asher’s first foray into television. He’d directed the pilot that became the popular Eve Arden series Our Miss Brooks, but when CBS had asked him to do so, he had asked what a television director did, according to this interview. Desi Arnaz was so impressed with Asher’s work that he brought him over to Lucy in its second season, and Asher would go on to direct 110 episodes. He left that series in its fifth season, but returned to finish out the sixth, after forays directing other series, often for Desilu.
Though Asher’s work on Lucy is likely the most famous, if only for the way that series defined much of what television would become, he worked in the medium well into the 1980s. After Lucy, perhaps his most famous work was on the series Bewitched, for which he won his sole Emmy award for direction. Asher married the star of that series, Elizabeth Montgomery, in 1963, a year before it began airing. His visual stamp was vital to the show, which explored the shifting roles of women in the United States and expressed some of the uneasiness men had with the changing times. Asher directed multiple episodes of all eight seasons of Bewitched, and he and Montgomery’s marriage ended one year after the series itself ended. (In all, Asher was married four times, marrying his widow, Meredith Coffin, in 1996.)
Other classic sitcoms Asher contributed to included The Danny Thomas Show (another series he contributed much of the visual stamp for, as he directed the first 10 episodes), Alice, The Patty Duke Show, and Gidget. He also dabbled in directing TV dramas, including episodes of The Twilight Zone, The Dukes Of Hazzard, and Marcus Welby, M.D. His work in television often involved translating characters that had been successful in other media into the television format, and he worked on several radio series that were adapted to TV, most notably Our Miss Brooks and Fibber McGee And Molly.
Asher also directed several films. His “big break” came on the low-budget 1948 film Leather Gloves, and he spent much of the 1960s alternating his work on Bewitched with the filming of low-budget beach blanket comedies, including Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach, and Beach Blanket Bingo. These films—many of which starred former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello—were light, frothy programmers, designed to appeal to teens who were either living through long summer months or longed for them. Many were surprisingly successful, and they briefly invented a new genre, to which directors occasionally pay homage to this day.
Yet it’s Asher’s television work that most resonates. Despite how groundbreaking his work on Lucy was, he struggled with the transition from the goofier gimmick sitcoms of the 1960s to the more realistic sitcoms of the 1970s and ‘80s. He briefly worked for the MTM sitcom factory on The Paul Lynde Show (one of that studio’s most famous flops), before returning to the more familiar territory of movies adapted into sitcoms. His last significant work as a sitcom director came on the twin adaptation series Private Benjamin and Harper Valley, but the style he’d established and perfected in TV’s first two decades was giving way to a looser, less-stagebound style pioneered by directors like James Burrows. That style took the innovations Asher and his contemporaries had come up with and pushed it in more cinematic directions, leaving less and less room for the early directorial pioneers. Asher’s last series credit is a 1985 episode of Crazy Like A Fox. He directed two TV sitcom reunion movies—for I Dream Of Jeannie and Green Acres—and then retired in 1991, the business having less and less room for those of his generation.
Asher’s death marks the passing of one of the last significant figures of the original generation of television personalities and creative staff who had still been alive. In particular, he was one of the few remaining people living with any connection to Lucy. (Only Bob Schiller, who wrote for the series’ final two seasons, remains alive from the series’ central brain trust.) Yet his contributions to the medium live on, even if they’ve evolved further and further away from the style he helped pioneer. Asher was one of the fathers of TV direction, and without him, the medium might have stayed hopelessly theatrical. He—and his Lucy contributors—were among the first to consider the best ways to blend the theatrical with the cinematic, and that tiny choice created reverberations that continue to this day.