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Jay Sandrich, the top-notch sitcom director who was a regular on The Mary Tyler Moore, The Cosby Show and Soap and on the scene for some of the biggest moments in the history of television comedy, has died. He was 89.
Sandrich died Wednesday in Los Angeles, CAA announced.
A 10-time Emmy nominee and five-time winner, Sandrich landed his first job in Hollywood as a second assistant director on I Love Lucy. He later worked on Make Room for Daddy and The Dick Van Dyke Show; directed the pilot episodes of The Bob Newhart Show, WKRP in Cincinnati and Benson; and produced for The Andy Griffith Show and Get Smart.
His father was Mark Sandrich, the director of five Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers song-and-dance classics of the 1930s, including Top Hat and The Gay Divorcee.
A protégé of acclaimed TV producer Sheldon Leonard, Sandrich worked on all seven seasons of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, helming 119 of the series’ 168 episodes. His efforts included “Love Is All Around,” the pilot that premiered on Sept. 19, 1970, and “The Last Show,” the acclaimed series finale that aired March 19, 1977.
He captured his first Emmy in 1971 for directing the first-season installment “Toulouse-Lautrec Is One of My Favorite Artists,” in which Mary finds herself romantically attracted to a visiting author during a sit-down interview, only to discover that when he stands up, he is much shorter than she is. He received his second for 1972’s “It’s Whether You Win or Lose,” where Mary talks WJM colleague Murray (Gavin MacLeod) into joining a poker game, not aware that he’s a compulsive gambler.
“I like to know what works,” Sandrich said during a 2001 interview for the website The Interviews: An Oral History of Television. “By working, I mean my feeling as an audience: ‘This is funny. I understand the points that are being made and I’m enjoying myself.’ If that doesn’t happen to me early, I try to find a way to make it happen.”
After The Mary Tyler Moore Show concluded its run, Sandrich cemented his place as a top sitcom director on Soap, Susan Harris’ envelope-pushing spoof of daytime dramas that made stars of Billy Crystal, Katherine Helmond, Richard Mulligan and Robert Guillaume.
Sandrich directed every episode of the show’s first and second seasons (and 51 installments in all through November 1979) and received two more Emmy noms. He also directed the September 1979 pilot for Benson, the spinoff based on Guillaume’s character.
While employed on those two shows, Sandrich became friends with Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, then programming executives at ABC. In 1982, the duo launched their own production company, and one of their first ideas was to build a sitcom around Cosby.
Having directed 11 episodes of The Bill Cosby Show, a 1969-71 sitcom for NBC, Sandrich accepted the offer to direct the pilot of The Cosby Show and helped put the NBC series together, serving as an influential voice in the casting of Phylicia Rashad and Keshia Knight Pulliam.
Sandrich wound up helming half of the 200 episodes of The Cosby Show, covering all eight seasons, and winning two more Primetime Emmys, for his work on the 1984 episode “The Younger Woman” and 1985’s “Denise’s Friend.”
“My whole career, I never took a job for money. I know that’s hard to believe, but I only took a pilot for money one time, and I regretted it,” Sandrich said. “And I decided, whatever I do, I’ll do the thing that appeals to me. And hopefully it will lead to making a decent living.”
Jay Henry Sandrich was born in Los Angeles on Feb. 24, 1932, the youngest of two sons. With a father in Hollywood, he grew up surrounded by celebrities and didn’t give a second thought to having Jimmy Stewart and Jack Benny as neighbors or seeing Astaire or Irving Berlin drop by the house.
In 1945, when Sandrich was just 13, his father, then 44, died of a heart attack. (His mother, Freda, died in 2003 at age 103.)
After graduating from Beverly Hills High School, Sandrich majored in film at UCLA, and he joined the DGA — without any credits — while still in college, getting in because of his dad’s stint as the guild’s president from 1943-44. He then spent several summer months as an unpaid second assistant on The Lone Ranger.
After graduating from UCLA in 1953, Sandrich entered the U.S. Army and made documentaries for the Signal Corps. When his service ended, he returned to L.A. and landed a gig with Desilu Productions as a second A.D. on I Love Lucy.
“The reason I got that job is that [Lucille Ball’s] first job, my father had directed,” Sandrich said. “She later told me that she was very nervous and kept blowing her lines and he was really lovely to her. So without me knowing it, there was that heritage, and I got chances. But keeping the job was different from getting the job.”
As Sandrich moved up to first A.D., he said there was constant tension on the set, fueled by Ball and Desi Arnaz’s marital problems. When Arnaz started directing some episodes, Sandrich began looking for another opportunity and accepted an offer from Leonard to serve as first A.D. on the Danny Thomas hit Make Room for Daddy.
Leonard also directed a lion’s share of that comedy’s episodes, and Sandrich took notice. “My philosophy has always been, probably I learned it from Sheldon, is move the cameras. Don’t ever move the actors,” he said. “Make the scene work and then worry about how you are going to shoot it.”
Sandrich assisted when his boss directed the 1961 pilot for The Dick Van Dyke Show, and he also had been alongside Leonard when he helmed the 1960 episode of Make Room for Daddy that introduced Sheriff Andy Taylor and was the springboard for The Andy Griffith Show. (Sandrich later served as an associate producer on that show, describing the experience as essentially overseeing the laugh track.)
Make Room for Daddy gave Sandrich his first shot at directing. In 1963, the series was in its 10th season, and Thomas had his contract modified so that he didn’t have to appear on every episode. Sandrich then helmed a show that featured Thomas’ agent, Charley (Sid Melton), and his wife, Bunny (Pat Carroll).
Sandrich’s next brush with sitcom greatness came in 1965 when he was hired to produce Get Smart, a new spy spoof starring Don Adams.
Sandrich, though, found that he preferred directing to producing, and he left that NBC comedy after a season to work on He & She, a sitcom starring Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss that was produced by Get Smart‘s Leonard Stern. (Sandrich returned to direct six Get Smart episodes in 1968-69.)
He also was a go-to guy for MTM Enterprises, the production company behind The Mary Tyler Moore Show, working for MTM on Rhoda, Phyllis, Lou Grant, The Bob Newhart Show, The Betty White Show, WKRP in Cincinnati and Paul Sands in Friends & Lovers.
His résumé included That Girl; Julia; The Ghost and Mrs. Muir; Here’s Lucy; The New Dick Van Dyke Show; Nanny and the Professor; The Odd Couple; Welcome Back, Kotter; Laverne & Shirley; Love, Sidney; Night Court; The Golden Girls; and Two and a Half Men.
For the pilot of The Golden Girls, Sandrich advocated switching the roles for Betty White and Rue McClanahan, having known White when she played the provocative Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. He also gave John Ritter and Henry Winkler their first jobs in television.
Sandrich also helmed more than a dozen TV movies and one feature, Seems Like Old Times (1980), starring Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn. He was named to the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 2020.
Sandrich’s older brother, Mark Sandrich Jr., who produced the Blake Edwards series Richard Diamond, Private Detective in the 1950s and worked as an A.D. on such shows as Batman and Bewitched, died in 1995.
Survivors include his second wife, Linda, whom he wed in 1984; his children Eric, Tony and Wendy; four grandchildren; a niece and nephew; and great nieces and nephews.
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