Rod Amateau, 79; Writer, Director, Producer of Sitcoms, Feature Films

Times Staff Writer

Rod Amateau, a film and television writer-producer-director best known for his work in situation comedies, including "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show," "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" and the memorably forgettable "My Mother the Car," has died. He was 79.

Amateau died Sunday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of a massive cerebral hemorrhage.

Among his many other television credits are "Private Secretary," "The Bob Cummings Show," "The New Phil Silvers Show," "Mister Ed," "The Patty Duke Show" and "The Dukes of Hazzard." He also directed the pilot for "Gilligan's Island."

On "Dobie Gillis," which ran on CBS from 1959 to 1963 and starred Dwayne Hickman as the girl-obsessed Dobie, Amateau served as producer, director and writer.

"He made the set a really enjoyable, funny place to work," state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) said this week. She played Zelda Gilroy, who was always trying to get Dobie to marry her.

"We were a very tightknit group, and Rod was definitely our camp counselor," she said. "He was very funny and very warm."

Kuehl, who was 18 when she started on the show in its first season, called Amateau "amazingly inventive" as a director, a quality she said was evident from the beginning.

"The very first scene where Dobie and Zelda are together, she is very sure they are going to end up together, even though they just met," Kuehl said. "At the end of rehearsing that scene Rod said, 'It still needs something to finish it off.' And so I, as I always do when I'm thinking hard, kind of screwed up my face. Rod said, 'That's it!' 'What's it?' 'Make that face.' And then he said to Dwayne, 'You make it back to her as though you can't help it.'

"We did that at least once every show for four years."

Emmy Award-winning director and "Cheers" co-creator James Burrows said this week that he had "the greatest respect" for Amateau.

"He certainly was a leader in the field of television directing," said Burrows, who got his career start as Burl Ives' dialogue coach on the Amateau-directed "O.K. Crackerby."

"Just to watch him run a stage and how he behaved on a set really came to the fore when I was required to do that," Burrows said. "Everyone loved him, although there was a touch of a martinet ... so he scared people. But he was a pussycat. He was so sweet to me."

In addition to sitcoms during this period, Amateau directed three episodes of "General Electric Theater," starring Joan Crawford, Ronald Reagan and Lee Marvin.

"He was really a yeoman working in a whole number of fields that were producing a really diverse set of crops," said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

Amateau's range, Thompson said, "was from the really high-quality stuff of 'Burns and Allen,' which still goes down just as smooth today as it was first made, to the low-end drivel of 'My Mother the Car.' "

The 1965 situation comedy, which Amateau produced and directed, starred Jerry Van Dyke and Ann Sothern, who provided the voice of the 1928 Porter, the "reincarnation" of the Van Dyke character's mother.

But even "My Mother the Car" has gone down in television history, Thompson said. "We have to recognize the fact that there were people who did bad television very well," he said.

"Let's face it, it's been close to half a century, and we're still talking about that show," he added. "Yes, it was silly. Yes, it was ridiculous, but there was something about the way some of these guys handled silly and ridiculous that planted it deep in the American heart, and I think Rod Amateau was one of those guys."

Born in New York City, Amateau moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was 13.

After serving stateside in the Army during World War II, he began his career as a staff writer for CBS Radio.

He was then hired as a junior writer at 20th Century Fox, where he progressed from dialogue coach and screen test director (he directed Marilyn Monroe's screen test) before becoming a second-unit director for such well-known directors as Robert Rossen, Sam Peckinpah and Nicholas Ray. The wiry Amateau also did stunt double work for James Dean on Ray's classic "Rebel Without a Cause" and for Humphrey Bogart.

Amateau made his directorial debut with "The Bushwackers," a 1952 Civil War movie that he wrote with Tom Gries. The same year, Amateau directed "Monsoon."

He returned to feature films in the late 1960s, writing the screenplay for director George Marshall's 1969 comedy, "Hook, Line & Sinker," starring Jerry Lewis, and directing "The Statue," starring David Niven, in 1970.

He wrote and directed "Pussycat, Pussycat, I Love You" (1970); produced, directed and co-wrote "Where Does It Hurt?" (1972); co-adapted "The Wilby Conspiracy" (1975); and produced, directed and co-wrote "The Garbage Pail Kids Movie" (1987).

The 1988 Blake Edwards-directed movie "Sunset," starring James Garner as Wyatt Earp and Bruce Willis as Tom Mix, was based on Amateau's unpublished book.

Amateau was married four times, to actress Coleen Gray; Broadway musical comedy actress Joan Andre; Sandra Burns, daughter of Burns and Allen; and his wife of 42 years, Charlene, a movie wardrobe supervisor, who survives him, along with four children, Todd, J.P., Susan, and Chloe Shapero; and four grandchildren.

At Amateau's request, no public memorial service will be held.

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