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Their First Gig: The Television Beginnings of Major Film Directors

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The upcoming release of ‘Thor: The Dark World‘ may bring back every cast member from the previous film, but there is a new man sitting behind the camera: Emmy award winner Alan Taylor, directing his first feature film in a decade. For many people, replacing Kenneth Branagh with a “TV guy” may seem like a step back, but do yourself a favor and look at the TV shows that Taylor has directed.

‘The Sopranos.’ ‘Boardwalk Empire.’ ‘Game of Thrones.’ ‘The West Wing.’ ‘Sex and the City.’ ‘Homicide: Life on the Street.’ ‘Oz.’ ‘Deadwood.’ ‘Rome.’ ‘Bored to Death.’ ‘Mad Men.’ Taylor isn’t just a TV director — he’s a god amongst TV directors and we couldn’t be more excited to see what he can do with a big budget blockbuster.

But countless amazing filmmakers have turned successful television careers into big screen opportunities. Let’s take a quick jaunt back in time and examine the early TV work of some of your favorite filmmakers. Let’s check out the first gigs of some of the most successful directors of all time.


1

Steven Spielberg

 
 

You Know Him As...the legendary director of 'Jaws,' E.T.' and 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' one of the most popular filmmakers of all time and one of the few directors whose name carries the same amount of weight as the movie stars who headline his work.

But He Got His Start...directing an episode of 'Marcus Welby, MD,' a longrunning but most forgotten series starring Robert Young as a doctor who, along with James Brolin as his hip young partner, take on mysterious maladies and save lives every week. Spielberg's episode, titled "The Daredevil Gesture," is notable for not being anything particularly special at all, lacking the flair Spielberg would bring to his later television projects (including episodes of 'Night Gallery' and the TV movie 'Duel'). Of course, Spielberg would be directing 'Jaws' and changing the film industry forever less than five years later.

 
2

Robert Altman

 
 

You Know Him As...the man who made classics like 'MASH,' 'Nashville,' 'The Long Goodbye' and 'The Player' (as well as memorable flops like 'Popeye'). His distinct style, which frequently involved actors talking over each other, is inherently cinematic, requiring your utmost attention to follow and appreciate.

But He Got His Start...directing television for over a decade, contributing to popular and iconic shows like 'Combat,' 'Bonanza' and 'U.S. Marshall.' Altman only got into feature filmmaking after 15 years of toiling away on the small screen. However, his first gig was an episode of the anthology series 'The Pulse of the City' and his episod episode, titled "The Case of Capt. Denning," followed public health officials attempting to prevent an outbreak of Cholera in New York City. Unfortunately, only three episodes of this series still remain (preserved by the UCLA Film and Television Archive) with the rest presumably lost forever.

 
3

James L. Brooks

 
 

You Know Him As...one of the most famous TV producers and writers of all time, but also a three-time Academy Award winner, with trophies for 'Terms of Endearment' and nominations for 'Broadcast News' and 'As Good As It Gets.' Of course, he also helped develop a little show known as 'The Simpsons.'

But He Got His Start...toiling away in the early days of television, working on shows that are either forgotten or are only remembered as punchlines on better shows. His first credited job was writing two episodes of the documentary TV series 'Men in Crisis,' but his first comedy gig was working on the iconically awful 'My Mother the Car,' writing the episodes "The Blabbermouth" and "It Might As Well Be Spring As Not." Still, Brooks had the last laugh: less than a decade later he was creating shows like 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' and 'Taxi.'

 
4

Sidney Lumet

 
 

You Know Him As...one of the greatest directors of all time, a man with a filmography that is laundry list of vital, important American cinema. His '70s output alone is an education in great moviemaking: 'Network,' 'Dog Day Afternoon,' 'Serpico' and 'Network.' And that's not all of the films he made that decade. And that's only one decade.

But He Got His Start...directing a 1952 'CBS Television Workshop' adaptation of 'Don Quioxte,' which somehow managed to squeeze Cervantes' epic story into a brisk thirty minutes. One-off dramas like this were only around for television's infancy, so Lumet quickly moved on to directing episodes of shows like 'Danger' and 'You Are There,' establishing himself as a reliable work-for-hire guy. Of course, all of his experience directing on a TV budget (and on single sets) allowed him to make the incredible '12 Angry Men' in 1957 and the rest is history.

 
TriStar
TriStar
5

Michael Bay

 
 

You Know Him As...the wildly divisive filmmaker behind monster hits like 'The Rock,' 'Armageddon' and the 'Transformers' series whose bombastic direction is only matched by his frequently crude humor and bad taste. Whatever you think of him, it's hard to imagine Bay working outside of the big screen -- his work is just so big.

But He Got His Start...making TV commercials, which, despite their budget, represent their maker just as well as 'Bad Boys II.' His first ad was a World War II themed commercial for Coca Cola, but his first taste of major success came with his Clio award winning ad for the Red Cross. But it was his original "Got Milk?" commercial (yes, you can blame Michael Bay for that still ongoing campaign) that got him the director's seat on 'Bad Boys.'

 
6

Brad Bird

 
 

You Know Him As...a modern master of animation and storytelling. He made the amazing and beautiful 'The Iron Giant.' Then he won an Oscar for 'The Incredibles' (which is still one of the best superhero movies ever made). Then he won a second Oscar for 'Ratatouille.' Then he made the successful leap into live action with 'Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol,' breathing life into a franchise that had no right to still be kicking. His 'Tomorrowland' is set to begin filming soon.

But He Got His Start...directing one of the most famous episodes of the Steven Spielberg produced genre anthology series 'Amazing Stories.' His episode, "Family Dog," was considered a risk, an animated episode in a series that, up to that point, had been entirely live action. However, the episode was such a huge hit with audiences that it received its own (Bird-less) spin-off series. From there, Bird would become an animation director (and then an "executive consultant") on 'The Simpsons,' launching his career into bold new places.

 
7

Joss Whedon

 
 

You Know Him As...the geek icon behind many of your favorite TV shows and some of your favorite movies. 'Serenity' has developed a devout cult following over the years, 'The Avengers' was one of the biggest films of all time and his Shakespeare adaptation 'Much Ado About Nothing' has proven itself to be a festival favorite. You probably like or love at least one of his movies.

But He Got His Start...weaving in and out of the television and film worlds, waiting for something to truly click. His earliest credits were as a writer on 'Roseanne' and later 'Parenthood,' but he didn't step behind the camera until the 1997 first season finale of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer,' the hit series based on the flop movie that he wrote a few years earlier. Like 'Buffy's entire first season, his debut is rough around the edges in every possible way, but he continued to helm important episodes as the series went on, his directorial chops vastly improving with each outing. It's impossible to fathom that the same man who directed "Prophecy Girl" helmed 'The Avengers.'

 
8

Mel Brooks

 
 

You Know Him As...one of the funniest people of all time, the man who made 'The Producers,' 'Blazing Saddles,' 'Young Frankenstein,' 'Silent Movie' and 'High Anxiety.' His trailblazing comedy is only matched by his genuine love of film and film history, lending his parodies a sense of love and adoration not seen in modern filmmaking.

But He Got His Start...working alongside legendary comic Sid Caesar on a series of television variety shows throughout the 1950s. Although Brooks' contributions to Caesar's 'Your Show of Shows' are the stuff of legend, his first credited job was as a writer was on 'The Admiral Broadway Revue,' a 1949 show that only lasted 18 episodes. Although the show is forgotten now, it marks the first tim Brooks worked with Caesar, forging a working relationship that would last for well over a decade and a friendship that would last a lifetime. Brooks continued to work in television for nearly twenty years, writing for shows and TV movies alike before he made 'The Producers' in 1968.

 
9

Ridley Scott

 
 

You Know Him As...the visionary director behind all-time classics like 'Alien' and 'Blade Runner' as well as more recent blockbusters like 'Gladiator' and 'Prometheus.' Known for big, expensive and visually stunning films, Scott has been cranking out blockbusters for over thirty years.

But He Got His Start...in 1965, directing an episode of the BBC series 'Z-Cars' in his native England. The show (which ran for 799 episodes!) followed police officers on patrol in the fictional city of Newtown, tackling social issues and telling frequently realistic and unsympathetic stories. Scott's episode, titled 'Error of Judgment,' came in the show's first "final" season (it was revived two years later). Scott continued to toil away on television work for the next decade before finally landing his feature debut with 'The Duellists.' 'Alien' was two years later.

 
20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox
10

Edgar Wright

 
 

You Know Him As...the director of some of your favorite movies of all time, namely 'Shaun of the Dead,' 'Hot Fuzz' and 'Scott Pilgrim VS the World.' Right now, he's working on his highly anticipated apocalypse comedy 'The World's End' and will follow it up with 'Ant-Man' for Marvel Studios and Disney.

But He Got His Start...working in British television, where he directed one the best (and geekiest) shows of all time: 'Spaced.' However, that wasn't his first project. Five years before 'Spaced,' Wright directed the six episode series 'Asylum,' a dark comedy about an ethically dubious mental hospital and its various patients. Although not particularly remembered today, the series featured characters played by Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes, who would later go on to create, write and star in 'Spaced.' And as you probably know, Pegg remains one of Wright's go-to stars to this very day.

 

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