Jack Shea, a Hollywood veteran who directed popular sitcoms such as “The Jeffersons” and who, as president of the Directors Guild of America, forcefully argued for minority hiring and local production, has died. He was 84.
Shea’s death Sunday at a Tarzana care facility was caused by complications from Alzheimer’s disease, a family spokesman said.
His first TV directing gig came when he was 27, a frightened novice who suddenly was asked to fill in when the director of the game show “Truth or Consequences” called in sick. Over the years, he directed 110 episodes of “The Jeffersons,” 91 of “Silver Spoons,” 15 of “Sanford and Son” and episodes of many others, including “Designing Women,” “Growing Pains” and “The Waltons.”
He also directed 10 Bob Hope Christmas specials, often rehearsing his exuberant casts aboard the airplanes that took them to U.S. military posts around the world.
All the while, Shea held leadership positions in the Directors Guild and in various Catholic organizations. In 1992, he and his wife, Patt Shea, a TV screenwriter who worked on “All in the Family” and other programs, helped form Catholics in Media Associates, a group that seeks to honor films and TV shows expressing spiritual values.
“He loved his family and God and the Directors Guild, though not necessarily in that order,” said his daughter, Shawn Shea, who, like two of her brothers, is also a guild member.
John Francis Shea Jr. was born in New York City on Aug. 1, 1928, the son of a travel agent and his bookkeeper wife. He was a scholarship student at New York’s Regis High School and, in 1950, graduated from Fordham University with a bachelor’s degree in history.
A participant in student productions who soon realized his greater talent lay behind the scenes, Shea started out at NBC as a stage manager on the “Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse.” In 1952, he signed on for two years with the Air Force and was shipped to Los Angeles, where he made instructional films that included a lesson on proper tooth-brushing technique.
Shea later said he couldn’t believe his good fortune at being posted to a place where “everyone was walking around smiling.”
“I didn’t see how they got any work done,” he told the National Catholic Reporter in 2002. “I decided California was for me.”
After his time in the service, NBC agreed. At the network’s Hollywood studio, he was active in the Radio and Television Directors Guild, which he helped organize in New York. In 1960 he helped negotiate a merger with the Screen Directors Guild, striking a deal with famed film director Frank Capra.
On the set, he tried to maintain a light touch, handling touchy actors with his characteristic calm.
He once said he had to occasionally remind Sherman Hemsley, who played African American businessman George Jefferson, how to do “the George walk,” the cantankerous character’s comical strut.
“I didn’t do it as well as he did,” Shea said, “but that’s why he made a lot more money.”
In the guild, Shea kept “movin’ on up,” just like George and Louise Jefferson in their show’s theme song.
He was elected the organization’s president in 1997 and stepped down from his third term in 2002. During his tenure, he pressed for diversity in hiring and drew attention to the “grave threat” of entertainment industry jobs leaving the United States.
He also stripped the name of D.W. Griffith from the guild’s award for life achievement. Critics said Griffith’s 1915 “Birth of a Nation,” while a masterpiece on some levels, glorified the Ku Klux Klan.
Shea was nominated for two Emmy awards — one for a Bob Hope Christmas production and the other for “Designing Women.”
Taylor Hackford, the guild’s current president, praised Shea on Monday for his “gentle manner and the kindest of hearts.”
In addition to his wife and daughter Shawn, he is survived by his sons, Bill Shea, Michael Shea and John Francis Shea III, as well as six grandchildren. His daughter Elizabeth preceded him in death.