July 19, 2012

William Asher, Director of Classic TV Comedies, Dies at 90

Reported from The NY Times by Denise Grady:
William Asher and Elizabeth Montgomery
on the set of "Bewitched,"a television
favorite that ran from 1964 to 1972.

William Asher, a producer, director and screenwriter in the early days of television who directed some two dozen shows — most notably “Bewitched,” which starred his wife, Elizabeth Montgomery, and more than 100 episodes of “I Love Lucy” — died on Monday, July 16th in Palm Desert, Calif. He was 90 and lived in Indian Wells, Calif.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, his wife, Meredith Asher, said.
Mr. Asher won an Emmy for “Bewitched” in 1966. He also directed episodes of “Our Miss Brooks,” “The Danny Thomas Show,” “The Thin Man,” “The Twilight Zone,” “The Donna Reed Show,” “Gidget” and “The Patty Duke Show.”

In the 1960s he wrote and directed a string of girls-in-bikinis movies with Frankie Avalon and the former “Mickey Mouse Club” star Annette Funicello — “Beach Party,” “Muscle Beach Party,” “Bikini Beach,” “Beach Blanket Bingo” and “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini” — all of which were hits with teenagers despite being scorned by reviewers. Each was shot in about 15 days. Along with the nubile young bodies, Mr. Asher tossed in oddball cameos with his old-time actor friends, including Buster Keaton, Boris Karloff and Mickey Rooney. “Muscle Beach Party” was the screen debut of a singer then known as Little Stevie Wonder.

Mr. Asher loved making those movies, he told interviewers. Silly as they were, they were happy fantasies, what he wished his own youth had been like, instead of what it was: a grim existence with an alcoholic and abusive mother after his parents’ divorce.
William Milton Asher was born in Manhattan on Aug. 8, 1921. His mother, Lillian Bonner, was an actress, and his father, Ephraim M. Asher, was a movie producer. His sister, Betty, became a publicist for Judy Garland.

The family moved to Los Angeles when he was about 10 so that his father could work in the studios, and as a boy he became fascinated with the movie business. But his parents soon divorced, and he moved back to New York with his mother. Miserable at home, he lost interest in school and dropped out; he never finished high school or attended college. He joined the Army in 1941 and served in the Signal Corps for four years, stationed in Astoria, Queens, as a unit photographer.

He loved literature and had always wanted to be a writer, and began writing short stories while he was in the Army, his son Bill said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. After being discharged he went to California and landed work, at first in the mailroom at Universal Studios. But he was soon adapting his own short stories for a television series, “Invitation Playhouse,” and directing them. In 1952, he was directing “Our Miss Brooks.” Desi Arnaz knew of his work and asked him to try directing “I Love Lucy,” which became one of the most successful sitcoms of all time. The show was shot before a live audience and was the first to be filmed using three cameras.

Mr. Asher met Elizabeth Mongomery in the late 1950s, and they married in 1963. His first marriage had ended in divorce. He and Ms. Montgomery had three children, and she wanted to stop working to take care of them, but Mr. Asher persuaded her to keep acting by creating a project they could work on together: “Bewitched,” a sitcom about a suburban housewife who is actually a witch (cheerful and mischievous, not wicked).

The show made its debut in 1964 and lasted for eight years. The nose twitch — one of the show’s hallmarks — that signaled Ms. Montgomery’s character, Samantha, was about to perform a feat of witchcraft was something Ms. Montgomery did naturally, without being fully aware of it. Mr. Asher, charmed by it, pointed it out to her and urged her to put it to good use.

When “Bewitched” ended, in 1972, Ms. Montgomery again wanted to stop working to spend time with her children, and she wanted Mr. Asher to take some time off, too. His ambition would not allow it, his son said, and their differences led to divorce. Ms. Montgomery died of cancer in 1995, at 57.

Mr. Asher’s third marriage, to the actress Joyce Bulifant, also ended in divorce. He married Meredith Coffin McMachen in 1996.

In addition to his wife and his son Bill, he is survived by two daughters, Liane Sears and Rebecca Asher; three other sons, Brian, John and Robert; two stepsons, Charles MacArthur and David Jarmon; two stepdaughters, Mary McClure and Merritt Cook; 10 grandchildren; and 7 step-grandchildren.

Mr. Asher counted Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr. among his friends, his son Bill said, and on occasion would fly with them from Hollywood to Las Vegas on Sinatra’s plane for a night on the town and be flown back in time to arrive on the set by 5 the next morning.

It was “such a rich artistic and flamboyant time,” Bill Asher said. “Those guys were living life big.”

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