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Earl Bellamy, 86; Prolific Director of Television, Films

Times Staff Writer

Earl Bellamy, a prolific television director who amassed a diverse list of more than 1,600 episode credits ranging from “The Lone Ranger” to “Leave It to Beaver” and from “I Spy” to “MASH,” has died. He was 86.

Bellamy died of a heart attack Sunday evening at a hospital in Albuquerque. He had lived in nearby Rio Rancho, N.M., since 1991.

In a career that began as a messenger at Columbia Pictures in 1935, Bellamy launched his more than three decades as a director with “Seminole Uprising,” a 1955 Columbia western starring George Montgomery.

Bellamy directed about 20 feature films, including the westerns “Blackjack Ketchum, Desperado,” “Incident at Phantom Hill” and the Tony Randall comedy “Fluffy.”

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But, as Bellamy once said, “I got hooked on television,” and it was in television that he became one of the most respected and sought-after directors.

The 1950s and early ‘60s were known for the proliferation of TV westerns, and Bellamy directed many of them, including “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin,” “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon,” “Wagon Train,” “Rawhide,” “Daniel Boone” and “The Virginian.”

In 2002, he received a Golden Boot Award from the Motion Picture and Television Fund for his contributions to the western film genre.

But Bellamy was equally at home with such diverse fare as “The Donna Reed Show,” “Bachelor Father,” “Lassie,” “Perry Mason,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Munsters,” “The Mod Squad,” “Fantasy Island,” “The Love Boat,” “Eight Is Enough,” “CHiPS” and “Starsky and Hutch.”

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“He did a lot of everything; he was a workhorse,” Boyd Magers, a friend of Bellamy’s who publishes Western Clippings, a western film publication, told The Times on Monday. “But to me, the important thing about Earl was his irrepressible spirit. It rubbed off on everybody that he knew and came into contact with.”

Bellamy’s on-set motto as a director was “No strain.”

“I have always respected the actors I’ve worked with and, as a director, I wanted to keep them relaxed,” Bellamy said in an interview last year with the Albuquerque Journal.

“If someone flubbed their lines, no strain. Everyone I’ve worked with has appreciated it.”

Ernest Borgnine, who worked with Bellamy on the 1960s hit comedy series “McHale’s Navy” remembered Bellamy’s “no strain” approach.

“It was wonderful working with him because he made everything so enjoyable,” Borgnine told The Times on Monday. “When you worked with him, there was plenty of laughter all the time.”

Robert Wagner, who worked with Bellamy on the series “Hart to Hart” remembered another Bellamy catchphrase.

“He used to have one wonderful saying, and that was when you finished a shot. He’d say, ‘First rate’ -- and that’s what he was,” Wagner told The Times.

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The son of a railroad engineer, Bellamy was born March 11, 1917, in Minneapolis. The family moved to Hollywood in 1920 and Bellamy’s father got a job running the steam engine that powered the Gaylord Hotel in Los Angeles.

After graduating from Hollywood High School in 1935, Bellamy landed a job as a messenger at Columbia Studios. “I was there a week and knew what I wanted to do,” he told the Albuquerque Journal.

He worked his way up to production clerk and, in 1939, became a second assistant director on “Blondie Takes a Vacation.”

In a 1968 interview with The Times, Bellamy recalled that he attended college night courses to study drama, never intending to become an actor but only to help him “have a better rapport with actors.”

By the early 1940s, Bellamy had become assistant director on films such as George Stevens’ “The Talk of the Town,” starring Cary Grant and Jean Arthur. He was working on the Shirley Temple film “Kiss and Tell” when he was drafted in early 1945 and assigned to a Navy photographic unit that turned out training films.

“I really enjoyed it,” Bellamy recalled in 2002. “I had a lieutenant who was a great officer but knew absolutely nothing about making movies, so I had quite a bit of creative control.”

Returning to Hollywood in 1946, he worked as assistant to such directors as George Cukor (“Born Yesterday,” “It Should Happen to You” and “A Star Is Born”) and Fred Zinnemann (“From Here to Eternity,” for which Bellamy received a Directors Guild Award for his work).

It was while working with Cukor that Bellamy learned that “everybody has something to contribute -- even the guy who sweeps the stage.”

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“I’ll always take time to listen to any suggestions,” Bellamy told The Times in 1968. “I remember Cukor one time used a suggestion that turned into a very funny moment. In ‘It Should Happen to You,’ there’s a scene where Peter Lawford was about to kiss Judy Holliday. ‘Just a minute,’ said Judy as she removed her earrings. ‘Now!’

“It was a prop man’s idea to take off the jewelry.”

As a director, Bellamy reveled in the hectic pace of early series television.

“The interesting thing about television was that, in those days, you had six days to put together an hourlong show and three days for a half-hour show. It was possible to do two shows a week,” he told the Albuquerque Journal.

“That was half the fun of it, because you’d get a new script and a new cast. If you were doing features, which were a lot of fun, it was a long and drawn-out process. With TV, you’re through with one show in six days, and now you’ve got another one to do with a new script, and off you go again.”

Bellamy, who retired in 1986, is survived by Gail, his wife of 26 years; three children, Earl J., Michael and Karen; five grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

There will be no services.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests that friends make donations to the Television and Motion Picture Fund retirement home or to a charity of their choice.


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