Spring 2015

Lifetime Achievement Award in Television Direction - Robert Butler

With his bold innovations in pilots for such landmark series as Hill Street Blues, Moonlighting, Star Trek, and Remington Steele, Bob Butler brought a new sense of realism to dramatic television. Three colleagues talk about his contribution to the craft.


How did Bob Butler change the look and feel of dramatic television?

THOMAS SCHLAMME: With Hill Street Blues, he was only interested in finding the best way to tell the story. There had always been a safer way to work, but Bob cracked open that door. Using the documentary [style] and saying, 'That's how I'm going to tell the story. I don't care that shows before didn't look like that.' 1981 was the midpoint of the concept of TV. Up to that point, it was an extension of radio. In 1981, it became the brother to film.

MICHAEL ZINBERG: He took that script of Hill Street Blues, which was excellent to begin with, and staged it in a way that encouraged actors to be more of the character than they might have been. Each scene was packed with so much information. I admired the way the camera was a participant rather than just an observer. It opened the door to a whole new way to create TV. Suddenly, it wasn't just master and close-ups; it was a question of, what does this particular scene want?

THOMAS CARTER: He brought to television something it was not doing at the time—the marriage of comedy and high drama. Bob had a background that allowed him to do that. He had done cop shows and he had done comedies. Hill Street had in-your-face dark comedy married to high drama and pathos, and he pulled it off like a dream. It changed the landscape for young directors and was incorporated into other shows. It was more real than what we'd seen on television. And then he did Moonlighting, delicately and elegantly. He enthralled us there in a totally different way.

What was unique about him as a director?

SCHLAMME: He could do a lot of different things well and it still felt personal. [The pilots for] Moonlighting and Star Trek were very different genres, yet they had an affirmative point of view that is very much Bob. He couldn't do something without humor and irony.

CARTER: Bob made use of techniques on Hill Street more common to film than TV. A lot of handheld stuff. A lot of long lenses and compression in the frame. Stacking a lot of images on each other. No one was doing that. He used lighting in a way that we came to call 'down and dirty' on the show. He was questioning light, not afraid of having dark areas in the frame. He wasn't making it pretty, which was exciting. He created so much energy in his frame; even when the frames were tight, there was always activity in motion in the background within the frame. He created energy in his work.

How has he influenced other directors?

SCHLAMME: It's not so much that people copied the exact way he did things, but he gave others the daringness to shoot a certain way. He showed that there was not just one way to do it. The biggest thing Hill Street had was a rhythm that was appealing to me. He used long takes, which was something I've always connected to cinema—letting things play out and not interrupting the performances, keeping the kinetic vitality of the performance alive. For me, with ER and The West Wing, the movement in those shows was influenced by Hill Street. Hill Street inspired the nonlinearity of a lot of great television. It made it safer for TV executives to say yes to talented filmmakers. They had played it safe up to that point.

CARTER: When I directed Miami Vice, it was very different in many ways, but the foundation of it, the use of long lenses, I learned from Bob. Other people were paying attention and used his style too. thirtysomething—it's a domestic drama, not a cop show, but the people who made it were paying attention to how things were shot by Bob. The connections are not obvious but as a filmmaker you see the trajectory. Obviously, you have NYPD Blue. The snap zooms, handheld camera, the foundation came from Hill Street. Even Breaking Bad. You wouldn't say, 'Hey, they watched Hill Street.' But the way it was lit, the boldness, that raw quality, was something Bob had done.

ZINBERG: His passion for what he did and how he expressed it enormously influenced a large number of us. He was a tremendous influence in the Guild because he had such a passion for it. He would convince and encourage young directors to take their point of view and run with it. It was enabling for us to say, 'Bob Butler's our leader, let's go.'

Bob Butler: Passion and Energy (Photo: Courtesy Robert Butler)

What impact has Bob personally had on your career?

SCHLAMME: The pilot for Hill Street Blues had a huge effect on me. At that point, I was a film snob. I saw that pilot and it was a big game changer. There was so clearly a directorial hand that was guiding that pilot visually, and it opened up a massive new world to me. It broke down barriers and began a conversation for me on how to put cinematic storytelling arts to their best use.

ZINBERG: I met him when I was young and it was extremely beneficial. The first thing I observed was his respect for the material, for actors, and for the crew. He's a great listener—he'll take everyone's opinion and turn it all into a cohesive idea on how to approach the material. When you're young and have the opportunity to watch him work, you immediately learn things from him.

CARTER: I got on the Hill Street stage because I was working on the same lot. I observed him shoot in the squad room and immediately understood what he was doing. When I started directing, the images I was pursuing were based on film, not television. I wanted to emulate things I'd seen in movies, and Bob's work was the first time I saw episodic TV that was really cinematic. It pushed boundaries. Episodic TV had gotten comfortable. But when I saw the Hill Street pilot, it looked like something I'd never seen before on TV. That was a seminal time for me that inspired a fundamental approach to how to shoot scenes.

Do you have a favorite Butler moment?

SCHLAMME: At a DGA breakfast, I remember him saying, 'The most important thing is, find yourself in the script. Find something that's making you and not anyone else direct that. See something of yourself in there.' For an elder statesman barking that out to a room of directors with such clarity and insight, I'm sure it was a profound moment for everyone in that room. My favorite moment in his work was the roll call in the Hill Street pilot. All the exposition gets done with fun and excitement and danger and overlapping dialogue; it really puts you in that precinct. It broke every convention of what TV was and you felt like you were watching an independent film.

CARTER: In Hill Street's pilot, kids are holding this bodega hostage, and the police are trying to get to them. There's a helicopter overhead, and I don't think they even showed the helicopter, but inside the bodega, glass bottles are shaking from the effect of the helicopter, creating an atmospheric quake inside the store. Just the shot of the bottles clattering allowed you to feel the effect much more than if you had a shot of the helicopter above. It was so alive; you didn't see people using details like that at the time. On a personal level, Bob and I have become friends. We'll talk about how he got started, from his beginnings as a jazz musician. I think of him as a jazzman. He brought that same coolness to his work.

(Top Photo: DGA Archives)

Director Profile

Stories profiling feature film directors about

their life, work and approach to making movies.

More from this issue