Walter Grauman dies at 93; 'Murder, She Wrote,' 'Columbo' TV director

Walter Grauman dies at 93; 'Murder, She Wrote,' 'Columbo' TV director
Walter Grauman in 1990. (Iris Schneider/Los Angeles Times)

Walter Grauman, a prolific television director whose credits include numerous episodes of hits such as "Murder, She Wrote," "Barnaby Jones," "The Fugitive" and "The Untouchables," died March 20 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 93.

He had been battling heart and vascular problems and died of natural causes, said his wife, Peggy Grauman.


Although Grauman was one of the busiest television directors in the 1950s through the mid-1990s, he had no background in theater or movies when he got into the business during the live TV era. Sometimes, it was a trial by fire.

In 1957, for an adaptation of "Frankenstein" for the NBC anthology series "Matinee Theatre," he cast champion boxer Primo Carnera as the monster. At one point Carnera was supposed to pick up a stunt man and carry him a bit before putting him down. But the hulking boxer got carried away.

"He grabs him, he lifts him up like a toy and threw him," Grauman said in a 2009 Academy of Television Arts and Sciences interview, "and the guy went right through the scenery, the wall."

Luckily, the stunt man was not badly hurt and the show went on.

It was the kind of situation that made Grauman nearly unflappable as a director, including when dealing with stars. When he directed an episode of the "Columbo" mysteries in 1990, actor Peter Falk rejected Grauman's setup of a shot, insisting that a pair of underwear on an actress be worn inside-out with the tag showing. "I thought it was crazy, what the hell did that have to do with the story?" Grauman said.

Falk didn't explain and it wasn't in the script, but by the end of the shoot, the underwear turned out to be a clever clue. "That son-of-a-gun had figured it out in his head," Grauman said with admiration.

Grauman finished his career with "Murder, She Wrote," directing more than 50 episodes.

He was born March 17, 1922, in Milwaukee where his father owned several movie theaters. (His father's cousin Sid Grauman built the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood).

Walter Grauman went to the University of Wisconsin for a couple of years and then briefly the University of Arizona before enlisting in the Army during World War II. As a pilot in the Army Air Forces, he flew more than 50 missions in Europe and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

After the war, he got a succession of short-lived jobs, including in the publicity department at Universal Studios, but felt that local TV shows were so terrible, he could do better. He co-created "Lights, Camera, Action!" a talent showcase/contest for performers, including a young Leonard Nimoy, who did not win his episode.

Grauman went from that show to NBC where he directed several shows before getting his big break on "The Untouchables."

TV historian Stephen Bowie wrote in his "Classic TV History" blog that Grauman's work on the series marked its "transformation from a simplistic cops-and-robbers shoot-'em-up into a richer, more character-driven melodrama."

Grauman supported several local arts institutions. In the late 1980s he created the Spotlight Awards that annually give free training to students in music, dance and acting, culminating in an awards show at the Music Center.

In addition to his wife, Grauman's survivors include a daughter, Amy Danzinger of Westlake Village; son Larry Grauman of Agoura Hills; and four grandchildren.


Twitter: @davidcolker