John Rich dies at 86; director of landmark sitcoms


As a top television comedy director who won an Emmy directing “The Dick Van Dyke Show”in the early 1960s, John Rich was faced with a tough choice in 1970.

On the same day he received a phone call from Mary Tyler Moore wanting to set up a meeting to discuss his directing the initial episode of her new TV series, he got a call from Norman Lear who wanted to send him a script for a pilot he was about to produce.

Rich was impressed with both scripts, but he was shocked by the “unusually explicit language” he found in Lear’s offering.

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In the end, Rich couldn’t resist going with the series that he doubted would ever “see the network light of day”: Lear’s groundbreaking show about a working-class family in Queens, N.Y., headed by a lovable bigot played byCarroll O’Connor.

Rich, who won two Emmy Awards while directing and producing”All in the Family” during its first four years, died Sunday morning at his home in Los Angeles after a brief illness, said Sahar Moridani, a Directors Guild of America spokeswoman. He was 86.

DGA President Taylor Hackford described Rich in a statement as a “legendary figure in the history of TV comedy” who “tirelessly served our guild for nearly six decades. He directed some of the most beloved classics of all time, and his skills as a director were unsurpassed.”

Once described by Van Dyke as “the best comedy director I ever met,” Rich launched his nearly 50-year directing career during the days of live TV in 1953 and soon moved on to filmed series such as “I Married Joan,” “Our Miss Brooks,””Gunsmoke”and “Bonanza.”

He won his first Emmy in 1963 for outstanding directorial achievement in comedy — for “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

Rich won another Emmy for outstanding directorial achievement in comedy in 1972 for the memorable “All in the Family” episode titled “Sammy’s Visit,” in which guest starSammy Davis Jr., appearing as himself, has left his briefcase in the cab Archie was driving and drops by the Bunker home to pick it up.

After getting to know Archie, Davis ends his visit by telling a camera-toting Bunker friend that he wants one picture taken with him and Archie.

It was Rich’s suggestion to end the scene with what became a classic TV moment: Just as the camera flashes, Davis kisses Archie on the cheek.

“On the night we shot the show, the moment whenSammy Davis Jr.kisses Archie Bunker earned us the biggest, longest laugh I have ever experienced,” Rich wrote in his 2006 book “Warm Up the Snake: A Hollywood Memoir.”

In 1973, producer Rich shared an Emmy with executive producer Lear when “All in the Family” won the award for outstanding comedy series.

Rich, whose many TV credits include “The Twilight Zone”and “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.,” was a go-to director for TV comedy pilots, including those for “Gilligan’s Island,” “The Brady Bunch,””Maude,” “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons,””Barney Miller” and “Newhart.”

During the ‘60s, he also directed five feature films: “Roustabout” and “Easy Come, Easy Go,” both starring Elvis Presley; “The New Interns,” “Wives and Lovers” and “Boeing Boeing.”

In 1974, after leaving “All in the Family,” Rich directed Henry Fonda in the NBC 90-minute live-on-tape production of the hit one-man Broadway play “Clarence Darrow.”

Rich, who later directed shows such as “Benson”and was an executive producer of the 1985-92 action-adventure series “MacGyver,” retired from directing in 1999.

Born in Rockaway Beach, N.Y. on July 6, 1925, Rich was an Army Air Forces navigator during World War II but did not go overseas.

Returning to the University of Michigan after the war, he received a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in English.

As a senior, Rich got a part-time job as a disc jockey-news reader on a small local radio station for which he also broadcast the university’s basketball games.

Moving to New York, he worked on the NBC radio program “Wanted” before beginning his television career in 1950 as a stage manager on NBC shows such as “The Kraft Television Theatre” and “The Jack Carter Show.”

Known as a longtime guiding force in the Directors Guild of America, Rich was instrumental in the 1960 merger between the Screen Directors Guild and the Radio and Television Directors Guild that formed the DGA.

He served on the DGA National Board and Western Directors Council for more than 50 years and served as chairman of the Directors Guild Foundation and chairman of the board of trustees of the DGA-Producer Pension Plan.

He received the Robert B. Aldrich Award for Extraordinary Service to the guild in 1993 and the DGA Honorary Life Member Award in 2003.

Rich is survived by his wife of 22 years, Patricia; his three children, Catherine, Anthony and Robert; his three stepchildren, Megan Lewis, Kimberly Beres and Dana Benton; and eight grandchildren.