As the director of more than 100 episodes of the enduringly classic 1950s sitcom “I Love Lucy,” William Asher considered the first episode he directed to be one of his most memorable: Lucy and Ethel working in a chocolate factory.
But for Asher, who died Monday at 90, his second “I Love Lucy” episode was even more memorable: He put his job on the line after discovering that Lucille Ball was giving cast members line readings and stage directions behind the scenes.
“So I went to her and said, ‘Lucy, I know what you’re doing. You’re trying to direct this,’” Asher recalled in a 2000 interview with the Archive of American Television. “She told me, ‘I’m just trying to help.’ I said, ‘No. It doesn’t help. There can only be one director and you’re paying me.... If you’re going to do it, you do it.’ She ran off the stage, crying.”
After taking a break and realizing that he was “blowing an opportunity,” Asher returned to the set where he encountered Desi Arnaz, who began screaming at him in Spanish.
“I said, ‘Let me just tell you what happened,’” Asher recalled. “I told him, and he said, ‘You’re absolutely right; she shouldn’t be doing that. But she’s in there crying, and you go in there and make her feel better.’
“So I went in the dressing room and she was saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ The first thing you know I was crying, we were hugging each other. And after that I never had a problem with her. I had contributions from her, suggestions from her, mostly good, and it was a delight.”
Asher, one of television’s most prolific directors, died in a private home-care facility in Palm Desert of complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said his wife, Meredith.
Besides directing “I Love Lucy” in the 1950s, Asher directed the pilot of Eve Arden’s 1950s sitcom “Our Miss Brooks” for Desilu Productions and amassed a string of other credits that included “The Danny Thomas Show,” “General Electric Theater” and “The Colgate Comedy Hour.”
Asher, whose TV directing credits include “Gidget” in the ‘60s and “Alice” in the ‘70s, also co-created “The Patty Duke Show,” the 1963-66 sitcom for which he served as a writer, producer and director.
After Asher married actress Elizabeth Montgomery in 1963, he recalled in a 2005 Seattle Times interview, Montgomery was ready to give up her career.
“She was pregnant with Billy and didn’t want to do it anymore,” he said. “She was too good to quit. I suggested we do a television show together.”
The show, for which he served as a producer and a director, was the hit “Bewitched,” starring Montgomery as Samantha, a young witch married to a mortal.
In 1966, Asher won an Emmy Award for outstanding directorial achievement in comedy for “Bewitched,” which aired from 1964-72; he and Montgomery were divorced in 1973.
During the ‘60s, Asher directed and co-wrote a string of “beach movies” starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello: “Muscle Beach Party,” “Bikini Beach” and “Beach Blanket Bingo.”
He also directed but did not write the first one, “Beach Party,” which came out in 1963.
“Without him, there was no ‘Beach Party,’ I’ll tell you that,” Avalon said Tuesday. “He was a brilliant guy. He had such a flair for comedy, and working with him was such a joy.
“Basically, my character, Frankie, was really Bill Asher. He was truly a surfer — he lived on the beach in Malibu, and he surfed every day. He handpicked all the surfers that were in our pictures. He was just a free spirit and a lot of fun.”
Born in New York City on Aug. 8, 1921, Asher was the son of actress Lillian Bonner and Ephraim Asher, who was associate producer on “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” at Universal in the early ‘30s.
After his father died in 1937, the family moved back to New York. But Asher soon returned to Los Angeles and got a job in the mail room at Universal.
While serving stateside in the Army Signal Corps during World War II, he began writing and selling short stories to magazines.
After the war, he teamed with Richard Quine and co-directed and co-produced “Leather Gloves,” a low-budget boxing movie for Columbia. A year later, he moved into television as a writer and soon made his TV directing debut.
Asher was married four times.
Besides Meredith, his wife of 16 years, he is survived by daughters Liane Sears and Rebecca Asher; sons Brian, Bill, Robert and John; four stepchildren, 10 grandchildren and seven step-grandchildren.