Fielder Cook, whose long career in films and TV included directing the TV movie that was turned into the popular 1970s series “The Waltons,” has died. Cook, who was 80, died June 20 at a Charlotte, N.C., hospital after suffering a stroke, according to his family.
Among Cook’s credits were several movies, including “A Big Hand for the Little Lady” (1966), starring Henry Fonda and Joanne Woodward, and “Prudence and the Pill” (1968), starring Deborah Kerr and David Niven.
Although, as film historian David Thomson said this week, Cook “never made a knockout movie,” he made “a lot of carefully crafted, very well-acted” films and TV movies.
Cook made his real mark in the 1950s as a pioneering director during the golden age of live television at the helm of numerous Kraft Television Theatre, Playhouse 90 and the Kaiser Aluminum Hour productions.
Cook, as it would happen, directed the last Kraft and the last Playhouse 90 productions, prompting him to quip later, “I was beginning to feel like the mortician of television.”
He continued working in television for the next three decades, directing “The Homecoming,” which launched “The Waltons,” and many other TV films.
He won two Emmys for his work, for the musical “Brigadoon” and for Arthur Miller’s “The Price.”
Cook, a dapper man who was rarely seen without a hat, was known among his peers as someone who could sum things up well.
“He was witty, very funny, quite economical, very quick,” Thomson said. “And yet terribly kind. He seemed increasingly old-fashioned, but in a sense that made you long for those old times.”
Earl Hamner Jr., a fellow Southerner who wrote the teleplay that became “The Waltons,” told The Times in 2001 that Cook, after a long search for the right voice-over for the series, “finally ... said, ‘We need somebody as corny as Earl.’ ”
“And I lived up to that compliment,” Hamner said.
In a 1987 interview with the Houston Chronicle, David Raksin, who composed the music for “Laura,” told of complaining to Cook about the lack of guidance on a film score:
“I said, ‘Look, Fielder, this is pretty vague. What do you want here?’
“He gave me this piercing look and said, ‘Value.’ ”
Raksin said from that point on, “I wrote what I wanted to write.”
Cook is credited with eliciting one of Robin Williams’ best performances, in the 1986 “Seize the Day,” an adaptation of Saul Bellow’s 1956 novella.
His other work included numerous TV movies, including “Teacher, Teacher,” “Miracle on 34th Street,” “This Is the West That Was,” Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and “Will There Really Be a Morning?” about actress Frances Farmer.
He last directed a 1997 USA Network remake of Carson McCullers’ “The Member of the Wedding,” starring Anna Paquin and Alfre Woodard, which earned mixed reviews.
Cook, who was born in Atlanta, grew up in Tampa, Fla., and graduated from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he began directing in New York City.
His first full-length film was Rod Serling’s “Patterns” (1956), starring Van Heflin and Ed Begley, which movie critic Leonard Maltin described as a “trenchant, masterfully acted drama of greed and abuse of power in corporate America.”
“Patterns” was a feature film remake of a Kraft production also directed by Cook.
In 1966, Cook told The Times that after “Patterns,” he could have moved more into film directing as did the two other primary Kraft directors, George Roy Hill and Franklin Schaffner.
“I said no. I went back to TV because I could do what I wanted to do.... You learn from your mistakes with nobody telling you what to do.”
He added that telling a story was “ground zero to me.” He amplified on this thought in 1997, when he told UPI: “As a director, I tell a story, but it’s not my story.” He said that when he directed a film, he wanted the writer to be able to say, “There it is. That’s my work.”
“It would be different if I were a genius like [Alfred] Hitchcock, living on a high wire,” Cook said. “Of course [then] I would want to put my imprint on a film.
“But that’s not why I’m making movies. I love being a storyteller.”
Cook, who spent many years in San Francisco and also lived for a time in Los Angeles, is survived by his wife, Katherine Belk Cook of Charlotte; two daughters, Rebecca Pitts of Suffern, N.Y., and Lindsey Cook of Dorset, England; and four grandchildren.
A memorial service is planned for the fall.