This story first appeared in the Feb. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
When Will & Grace star Sean Hayes first proposed the idea of a TV special dedicated to James Burrows, the director had his doubts. “I thought, ‘Give me some of the drug you’re taking,’ ” says Burrows. “I’m behind the scenes. People don’t know me.” People may not know Burrows, 75, but his IMDb page reads like a roster of comedy’s greatest hits, and hot pilots all jockey to land his services. Since he got his big break on Mary Tyler Moore in 1974, the iconic director has helmed the vast majority of Taxi‘s 114 episodes, co-created Cheers, shot the pilots of Friends and The Big Bang Theory and directed nearly 200 episodes of Will & Grace. In that four-decade span, the son of Tony winner Abe Burrows also has picked up 10 Emmys, five DGA Awards and a lifetime achievement award from the Television Critics Association. So when NBC decided to celebrate Burrows hitting his 1,000th episode of TV (on NBC’s forthcoming comedy Crowded) with a lavish dinner in late January, the “Must See TV” tribute lured everybody from Jennifer Aniston and Melissa McCarthy to Ted Danson and Bob Newhart. Ahead of the two-hour telecast Feb. 21, the married father of four sat down at his palatial home in Bel Air to discuss what made the Cheers writers “scared shitless,” the gay kiss on Will & Grace and, reluctantly, how to step into the spotlight.
Your tribute lured the casts of Friends, Big Bang Theory, Will & Grace and Cheers. What did it feel like being in that room?
Like a good acid trip!
You often direct pilot episodes, which means it’s your job to put nervous strangers at ease. What’s your secret?
Kindness, which I learned from my father. I’m not a martinet or a dictator. I don’t come in for the day of rehearsal knowing where my actors are going to be on the stage. I sit with my cast, and I talk to them about their characters, and I try to get them to like one another because if they do, that’s going to come across onscreen. So I’ll try to do lunch together. Sometimes I’ll bring them here for a party, which I did with Mike & Molly. With the Friends kids, I took them to Vegas.
You co-created Cheers. What are your favorite memories from its run?
I remember when George [Wendt] entered the first time: After everybody went, “Norm!” Teddy [Danson] said, “What do you know?” And Norm said, “Not enough,” which got a huge laugh. That was never intended as a joke. I looked at [co-creator] Glen Charles, and my look said, “Oh my God, they’re laughing at a character.” I knew then that we had something special. It became daunting after that because every time George entered, you had to come up with a new joke. I have other fond memories. When we originally thought about the show, we [intended for] Sam to be working for a woman. But then the Charles brothers come back with this character of Diane Chambers [a waitress played by Shelley Long], which was extraordinary. When Shelley decided to leave, we decided to go back to the old way, and we cast Kirstie [Alley] as Sam’s boss. In rehearsal, we wrote her like a strict disciplinarian who was very tough with Sam. But in the run-through, that didn’t work. So at one point, Kirstie had to go into the office, and for some reason the door handle didn’t work. She turned it again, and then she became flustered. I looked at Glen and Les [Charles], and I said, “Oh my God, this is what this character is. This is a character who thinks she’s a strong woman, pretends to be a strong woman, but underneath there’s this bundle of nerves.”
Amid much controversy, Shelley Long left after season five. How difficult was that transition?
We were scared shitless because Sam and Diane were the propeller that drove that show. The other characters in the bar were just tubing behind the show. But we began to find out how incredibly skilled the other actors were. Lilith [Bebe Neuwirth] and Frasier [Kelsey Grammer] got a lot of stories. George got stories. Woody [Harrelson] got stories.
You turned a lot of heads when you had Sam and Diane kiss. Was there any hesitation?
We got raked over the coals by a lot of critics who said, “You’ve killed the show.” Because Moonlighting was on, and they never got together. But I kept saying, “Sam Malone is [supposed to be] this incredible stud, this lothario, and if he can’t bed a woman after a year, then he’s not.” So we made that choice. We couldn’t write that flirting anymore. We got a lot of people upset till they saw what these two kids could do.
Conversely, on Friends, you directed Ross and Rachel’s big breakup. Why was it important to split them up?
It’s the same as Sam and Diane. They flirted for a lot longer, but you have to shake it up. … If you don’t fight, and if you don’t get angry, you have no place to go.
Why were there different endings for Ross and Rachel compared to Sam and Diane?
Well, if Shelley had stayed, Sam and Diane would have gotten together.
What are your best memories from Friends?
One of my favorites was the prom video [during which Rachel finds out that Ross was prepared to be her backup date]. For me, one of the best things is at the end, when they’re all watching it, and Jennifer gets up and slowly crosses the stage to Ross. I remember [Friends co-creator] David Crane saying to me, “Isn’t that [walk] too long?” But it was a great moment. You don’t know what she’s going to do, and all of a sudden she kisses him.
What was it like filming the first same-sex kissing scene on Will & Grace?
We never set out to proselytize. We knew that if we could get the audience to watch it, somehow they wouldn’t leave it because it was so funny. You’ll notice at the end of the pilot, there’s a kiss between Will and Grace. And at the end of the first year, there’s a kiss between Will and Grace. In the back of my mind, I wanted audiences to think that somehow Will will take magic pills and become straight. He would never do that. We would never do that. But I wanted people to at least tune in to see how funny it was. I’m sure there’s a sector of the population that would never watch because it had gay people all the time. But I always say Ellen kicked the door open, and we broke it down.
Why were you successful where Ellen struggled?
I think maybe Ellen [DeGeneres]’ coming out [on her show] was thrust upon [the audience] because they started with a different show. It was kind of this thing at the end that they were not, in essence, ready for, but we were balls-out from the beginning. It broke down barriers because it was really funny. And since it was somewhat cartoonish, it wasn’t really threatening.
What were those conversations with the network like?
I’ll never forget on the pilot, one of the NBC executives came over to me and said, “Too many gay jokes.” I said, “If not here, then where?”
When Burrows’ NBC tribute was being billed as a Friends reunion, he admits he was “a little concerned.” He stresses it’s not a reunion of any of his shows because none of his former actors are in character. “All they do is they talk,” he says, “and embarrassingly enough, it’s about me.”
Is there one actor who showed the most improvement over time?
Sam Malone was originally a wide receiver for the Patriots when it was written. Then we cast Ted, and we made him a pitcher. We had an audition for the Sam and Diane characters. There were three couples who auditioned in front of the network: We had Fred Dryer and Julia Duffy, Billy Devane and Lisa Eichhorn and Ted and Shelley. Fred Dryer was a famous football player, but Ted and Shelley were clearly the best suited. So we hired Dryer to play one of Sam’s friends who was a sports guy. I said to Teddy, “Watch [Fred] because that’s who Sam Malone is. He’s a peacock. He’s always spreading his feathers. Watch how he grabs his groin.” Ted is not a jock. Ted’s a farceur from Carnegie Mellon. But he’s a good enough actor to learn how to do that. He improved a lot over the first couple of shows.
You’ve done 1,000 shows, and you’ve won 10 Emmy Awards. What motivates you now?
I like the process and the casts. I like going in and having your day broken up by being with new people. I still get nervous on shoot night.