STAGE TO SCREENS: "30 Rock" Director-Producer Don Scardino, Plus a Peek at Fall TV

By Michael Buckley
June 28, 2009

This month, we talk to veteran stage actor and director Don Scardino (Godspell, The King of Hearts), one of the helmsmen of "30 Rock."

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Episodes of "30 Rock," NBC's hit sitcom, which was created by and stars Tina Fey, are often enhanced by New York stage actors' guest turns. Discussing this event of turns, among other topics, is a co-producer and frequent director of the show, Don Scardino.

The former actor spent 25 years on the boards and opposite side of the camera. On Broadway, he's played a few good roles and directed Aaron Sorkin's A Few Good Men, the 1989 Broadway drama that preceded a Kennedy Center break-in engagement with a tryout at the University of Virginia.

Recalls Scardino, "Tina Fey was in the theatre department, and became part of our props' crew." Since graduated — via Second City and "Saturday Night Live" — to actress-writer-executive producer, Fey's present "props" include five Emmys, four WGA Awards, two SAG Awards, and two Golden Globes.

"Tina and her husband, [composer-producer-actor] Jeff Richmond, are huge theatre fans," he reveals. "Since the series is shot in New York, they thought: Why not get the best actors around?"

To date, the Fey creation has won a total of ten Emmys, including back-to-back honors as Outstanding Comedy Series for its first two seasons, and seems ripe to reap a "Rock"-slide of Emmy nominations for its recently wrapped Season Three. It's also received five Golden Globes, five SAG Awards, three WGA Awards, and a Peabody.

Not only are a lot of guests stage-oriented, but also two "Rock" regulars have theatre backgrounds: Jane Krakowski, a two-time Tony nominee (Grand Hotel, Nine) who won in 2003 for memorably accepting "A Call from the Vatican," and Alec Baldwin, a 1992 Tony nominee, as Stanley Kowalski, for A Streetcar Named Desire.

"Alec [also a co-producer], who's great fun, puts in his two cents about casting," adds Scardino. "Alec loves theatre, and sees everything. Tina, Alec, and I — cover a wide swath of theatre."

Some guests — like Marylouise Burke, Elizabeth Marvel, John Cunningham, and Jackie Hoffman — are known mainly to the theatre community, while others more readily recognized include Nathan Lane, Alan Alda, Patti LuPone, and Elaine Stritch, who won an Emmy the first season, and was a nominee the second, for playing Baldwin's feisty mother.

"I've known her for years," states Scardino. "There's no one like her. She can be spiky, but she's phenomenal! Her choices are completely singular. She's a singular Stritch-sation. The key to making Elaine comfortable was bringing her in for the table read [of a script]. Normally, guest stars are not part of that. To Elaine, it was like the read-through of a play.

Tina Fey, Elaine Stritch and Alec Baldwin in "30 Rock"
photo by Nicole Rivelli
"She got the whole thing — and, when she gets it, it's like a force of nature. You stand back, and let it happen. I wish I could take credit for her performances," he admits. "What I can take credit for is making her comfortable, so she could be Elaine."

Does he find a difference in directing stage actors? "Absolutely! They come in knowing their lines. On Alan Alda's first day, he had some of his biggest scenes. He had every word down perfectly. Alan was grateful for, and ready to accept, any direction. He's a thorough professional."

With non-professional guests, Scardino claims, "It's about putting them at ease. When we had Al Gore, he knew his lines and was ready to work. I stood by the camera, and tried to relieve any tension about being on the set. I'd say, 'Let's do it again, let's do it this way.' By the end, he was coming up with his own ideas for bits."

Exteriors are shot mostly in Manhattan's Rockefeller Plaza; interiors, at Queens' Silvercup Studios, a former bread factory. "I grew up in Queens," explains Scardino, "and, on Sunday evenings, my parents would drive my brother and me past the factory. We could smell the week's supply of bread baking. I always connected the 59th Street Bridge with that scent." He laughs. "Who woulda thunk, years later, I'd be there, directing and producing a hit TV show?"

Many believe that former actors make the best directors. Does Scardino?

"Yes, because I am one." He laughs. "I can speak to actors in their terms. Knowing I was an actor, they relax. You can have the best shot in the world — but, at the center of it, you still need a good performance.

"Directors can manipulate actors, but I have total faith in them." Scardino's low-key, easygoing temperament allows him to overlook occasional outbursts. "Having been an actor, I take that with a great grain of salt. As an actor, I was a pain in the butt.

"We ask actors to come to work ready to open a vein, to be emotionally thin-skinned. If someone screams, 'What about my coffee?' — it's not about the coffee; it's because they're working in an emotional state. It ain't easy being an actor."

Do actors and directors read scripts differently? "Yes. An actor reads from the subjective perspective; a director, from the objective."

Scardino rarely relies on others' opinions of actors.

"When I directed Lesley Ann Warren in [a 1990 video of Tennessee Williams'] '27 Wagons Full of Cotton,' I was warned, 'You don't want her. She asks so many questions.' I said, 'That's the kind of actor I want.' She was phenomenal! It's the same with Vincent D'Onofrio," the star of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," with whom Scardino's often worked.

Of course, there are times when not all goes smoothly. He shares stories of two stars of defunct series with whom he had to negotiate. At a frazzled publicist's request, he persuaded one to approve some photographs that she had refused to okay; and he had to dissuade another from coming on set complete with her make-up man, cosmetics' cart, and a full-length mirror.

Edmund Kean, Edmund Gwenn, and actors not named Edmund have been credited with the quote, "Dying is easy; comedy is hard." Is comedy harder to direct? "Actually, it is. What may be funny to me may not be funny to you.

"It's pretty easy in theatre. The comedy's either physical or verbal, and you're looking at the whole frame at once. But TV executives want close-ups," he points out. "I keep telling them to look at Preston Sturges' movies. He'll do a whole scene without a cut in it, and it's a riot."

Writer-director Sturges' 1940s screwball comedies include "The Lady Eve," "Sullivan's Travels," and "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek." Continues Scardino, "He has everybody interacting with everybody else — and it's funnier than cutting to a close-up for a joke.

"On '30 Rock,' there's no audience. When we rehearse, I rely on the crew, which is like family. I also have some of the best comic minds around: Tina's brilliant, Alec's so funny, and Robert Carlock, the head-writer with Tina, has a very demented, funny mind."

Each "30 Rock" requires "four days to prep and five days to shoot. We usually work from 7 AM to 8 PM." When he works as a producer only, Scardino discloses, "Basically, that means that I prep the director of the next episode. I go over the script with him, sit in on casting sessions, walk the stages, talk about how we shoot [on] them: 'This wall moves, this one doesn't.' 'You've got a great angle here.' During the shoot, I'm there to support him."

How does directing differ between stage and film? "The connection in theatre between the writer, via the actor, and the viewer is greater. Movie making is like a giant jigsaw puzzle. You can cut and paste. There are so many tricks. You can blow menthol into an actor's eyes and make them tear up. Theatre is a purer art form."

Donald Joseph Scardino's parents were musicians: bassist-band leader Charles and jazz pianist Dorothy Denny. "My father always said, 'Do what you love, don't do anything just for money.' Sometimes, they didn't have two nickels to rub together, but my brother and I never went barefoot."

Five-year-old Don saw baby sitter Judy in Kismet, at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse. "I thought: It's Judy; it could be me." He besieged his parents: "I want to be a Mouseketeer. I want to be in The Sound of Music."

Growing up, he watched a lot of movies on TV. "I admired [James] Cagney and Mickey Rooney. I watched Shakespearean films. I thought Laurence Olivier was God!" He laughs when I interject, "Olivier probably thought so, too."

As an adolescent, Scardino learned that aspiring actors need photographs. He saved money, had pictures taken, got an agents' list from Actors' Equity, and left head shots on their doorsteps. "I had my Equity card by age 14."

Soap operas, he believes, "are a great training ground." He appeared as a regular on "Guiding Light," "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing," "As the World Turns," "Ryan's Hope," "All My Children," and "Another World," receiving a Daytime Emmy nomination for the last.

At 16, Scardino had the opportunity to become one of the Monkees, but his "Guiding Light" contract prevented him from accepting the offer. "The Beatles were my idols, and the Monkees were going to be the 'American Beatles.' I was devastated, especially when their TV series and records became so popular. But it all turned out for the best. I wouldn't want to be known today as 'a former Monkee.'

"Actors have always inspired me," he confides. "They keep the theatre alive. If theatres were to crumble down around them — and all the money was gone — actors would stand on street corners, doing Shakespeare and Chekhov and Ibsen and Mamet. Theatre would live on in the actors."

He fondly remembers working with — and learning from — Al Pacino and James Earl Jones in The Peace Creeps, Off-Broadway in 1966. "Al never stopped working, never took breaks in rehearsals. I realized: That's the kind of dedication you need. Onstage, James Earl Jones would nail you with his eyes. He taught me Cagney's lesson on acting: 'Place your feet on the ground, look the other guy in the eye — and tell the truth.'

"During Johnny No-Trump, Pat Hingle gave me two pieces of advice: 'Don't fool around during the curtain call,' and ‘Never worry about your billing.' He said, 'If you're good, people will know who you are.' He was amazing! No pretense — a regular guy, and a great actor."

That play cast Scardino as James Broderick's son, and in his next, My Daughter, Your Son, Robert Alda played his father. When the older actors' real-life sons, Matthew Broderick and Alan Alda, were "30 Rock" guest stars, Scardino informed them that he was their "brother."

What does he consider highlights of his years onstage?

"Making my Broadway debut, on short notice, in The Playroom. I was 16, understudying Richard Thomas, Peter Kastner, and Alan Howard — who was 12, and playing a character with a French accent.

"Producers said that, when we opened, they'd get a 12-year-old to cover for him. I concentrated on the two other parts. Then I had to go on as the French kid — not knowing one word, nor having an accent. The stage manager drilled me all day. I went on, and didn't miss a word. I played three performances."

Peter Ustinov's The Unknown Soldier and His Wife: "It was wonderful having Ustinov attend rehearsals. He was a fantastic storyteller! And it was great working with Christopher Walken. He and I attended High School of Performing Arts together. Chris used to be named Ronnie Walken — and, at one time, he and his two brothers were known as 'The Dancin' Walkens.'

"Playing in The Comedy of Errors, opposite Blair Brown. Michael Tucker played my servant. Danny DeVito had four lines, Ted Danson had none. A divine time was working with Mary Beth Hurt in Secret Service and Boy Meets Girl [performed in repertory]. I think she's one of the finest, most inventive actors in this country."

Park was "notable," he reminisces, "because I got to work with the late Joan Hackett [1934-83], a generous, extraordinary actress. And, every night, I sat at Julie Wilson's feet, as she sang an incredible song. That was worth the whole experience; she vibrated with emotion. It was a real lesson.

"Though I loved Jungle of the Cities, which I did with a brilliant actor named Seth Allen [1940-86], and How I Got That Story — nothing can approach Godspell. That reached people's hearts. It was astonishing to play Jesus. I did it over a thousand times [including on Broadway].

Don Scardino in Godspell
"Originally, I replaced Victor Garber in Toronto [when Garber left to make the 1972 movie version]. It was an unbelievable company, including Martin Short, Gilda Radner, Andrea Martin, and Eugene Levy.

"There are so many memories. People sent me letters about how Godspell had restored their faith. Once, a nun kissed me, because she 'didn't know Jesus was so cute.' Another time, a woman called me 'blasphemous,' and hit me with her Bible." In 1988, he directed the Stephen Schwartz musical at Manhattan's Lamb's Club.

TV appearances include "Purlie" and "The People Next Door," and among his films are "Cruising" and "Homer." The latter, for which Scardino also composed music, lists him on IMDb.com as "Chelo Scardino." He clarifies, "Chelo was a nickname for my first wife, [actress] Connie Scott, who's also in the picture. I've tried to get the data base to change that, but without success."

Scardino's Off-Broadway credits include The Rimers of Eldritch, Sorrows of Stephen, I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road. Among his other Broadway shows were two musicals: Angel, based on Look Homeward, Angel and King of Hearts, in which Scardino played opposite his second wife, Pamela Blair, who, in A Chorus Line, originated the role of Val ("Dance Ten, Looks Three").

"In Boston," he states of King of Hearts, "there were six numbers that stopped the show. When we came to New York, the director [Ron Field] kind of froze. It happens when people don't trust themselves anymore. He couldn't fix the numbers that didn't work, so he worked on the show-stopping numbers — and got them to not stop the show. It was sad."

About a year after Scardino had begun working on "Another World," John Whitesell, a producer new to the show, told him, "I know how old you really are, and I know that you direct. If you have an interest in directing TV, I'll put you in a training program." The course lasted eight weeks. "On the day I directed my first show, [Whitesell] offered me a contract for two years."

Hang On to the Good Times marked Scardino's farewell to the spotlight. "It was one of the things that propelled me toward directing. It had wonderful songs by Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford, but the director [Richard Maltby Jr.] couldn't find a shape for it. I thought: I could. I decided to direct full-time. Overnight, I went from 'juvenile, the eternal kid' [due to his youthful appearance] — I was never able to beat my own image — to 'daddy.'" He laughs.

"Acting had been a way to be someone other than who I was. When you're younger, I suppose you're less comfortable with who you are, or you don't know who you are. But when I started directing, I felt I came into my own, as to who I was. The more I became who Don was, the less interesting it was for me to be someone else."

For directing A.R. Gurney's A Cheever Evening, based on stories by John Cheever, Scardino won an Obie Award. He's also earned three DGA and two Emmy nominations. TV-directing credits include multiple episodes of many series, including "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd," "Cosby," "Law & Order," and "Hope & Faith."

Was he disappointed that he didn't get to direct "A Few Good Men" as a movie? "Not really," he replies. "Aaron Sorkin made his case for me to direct the movie, just as he fought very hard for me to direct the play. It's really through his persistence that I did.

"Also, at that point, I hadn't directed a film. It was a big-budget, big-star vehicle." Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson played the roles originated by Tom Hulce and Stephen Lang, and Rob Reiner helmed the 1992 film. "Aaron's screenplay had a lot of what he and I had worked on," Scardino comments. "I'm very proud of that."

Extreme pride, however, is reserved for 11-year-old son, Evan. Might Evan follow in his father's footsteps? Remarks Dad, "He's been on sets, or backstage, since age four. Evan likes science — paleontology, marine biology — but, this year, he did a school play about the civil-rights movement, and liked it a lot. If, as an adult, he wants to act, I'd be thrilled!"

Happily married to Dana Williams since 1995, they met during his tenure (1991-96) as Playwrights Horizons' artistic director. "Dana became head of their musical-theatre department."

According to Scardino, "I tried to introduce new playwrights to new audiences which is what [predecessor] Andre Bishop had done. But audiences — and critics — suddenly wanted 'mainstream.' It was tough on playwrights, and tough on me. They asked me to re-up, but I said, 'I don't think so. I'm going back to directing, to being a gun for hire.'"

Don Scardino
photo by Aubrey Reuben
Lennon, the 2005 Broadway musical that featured music and lyrics by John Lennon, was "the realization of a dream" for Beatles' fan Scardino, who conceived the show, wrote the book, and directed. Playing the title character were people of different sexes, races, and ages. It ran 42 previews and 49 performances.

"Critics hated it," he concedes. "I think that they'd had it with jukebox musicals, and were ready to annihilate us. It wasn't perfect, but we had standing ovations every night. Yoko Ono told me, 'John would have loved it' — and no one knows better than she."

Feeling "unfulfilled" about Lennon, he wants "to do more work on it. And I'm working on an idea for a musical-theatre piece about the civil-rights movement, using gospel and Motown music.

"Meanwhile, I'm bought and sold to '30 Rock,' which leaves very little time for anything else." Scardino regrets not seeing as much theatre as he'd like. "I do make sure to see things with friends, like John Lithgow."

More than happy to roll with the 'Rock' band, he's pleased to have "won an Emmy last year," as an Outstanding Comedy Series co-producer. Says Scardino, "We start shooting Season Four the last week of August, and we'll be working with New York stage actors again. They're the best!"

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A Look at Some New (and Returning) TV Series in 2009-10

ABC

"Flash Forward" (Thursdays, 8 PM ET) features Tony winner (Frozen) Brian F. O'Byrne and two-time nominee Courtney B. Vance.

CBS

"NCIS: Los Angeles" (Tuesdays, 9 PM ET) stars Chris O'Donnell, LL Cool J, and Oscar winner Linda Hunt ("The Year of Living Dangerously").

"The Good Wife" (Tuesdays, 10 PM ET) stars Emmy and SAG winner Julianna Margulies ("ER"), two-time Tony winner (Rumors, The Real Thing) Christine Baranski, who's also an Emmy and SAG winner, and Golden Globe and SAG nominee Chris Noth ("Law & Order," "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," "Sex and the City").

NBC

Chevy Chase is in "Community", which starts Thursdays at 8:30 PM ET, and switches to 8 PM ET when "30 Rock" returns.

"Parenthood" (Wednesdays, 8 PM ET) stars Maura Tierney ("ER"), Peter Krause ("Six Feet Under," "Dirty Sexy Money"), Bonnie Bedelia ("The Division"), and Craig T. Nelson ("Coach," "The District").

FOX

"Glee" features Broadway's Matthew Morrison and Lea Michele, and R&B singer Eve signed for two appearances.

"24" begins its new season Jan. 17, 2010, with a two night, four-hour premiere (9-11 PM ET). New to the cast: Katee Sackhoff ("Battlestar Galactica"), Mykelti Williamson (Bubba in "Forrest Gump"). Bob Gunton fans will be happy to know that he returns with a new job.

Showtime

Michael C. Hall, "Dexter," returns for Season Four, on Sept. 27. Six months have past, and Dex and Rita (Julie Benz) are parents. Off-screen, Hall married Jennifer Carpenter, his TV sister. The new nemesis for "Dexter," this season, is two-time Tony winner (The Changing Room, Sweet Smell of Success) John Lithgow.

"Nurse Jackie" is new to Showtime (Mondays, 10:30 PM ET; On Demand), starring Emmy, Golden Globe, and SAG winner Edie Falco. It made a debut at the beginning of June and has already been picked up for a second season. A regular on the series is two-time Tony nominee (A Moon for the Misbegotten, The Homecoming) Eve Best. On last week's episode, the guest star was nonpareil nonagenarian Eli Wallach. It was great seeing the 1951 Tony winner (The Rose Tattoo) in a guest turn, with the gifted Lynn Cohen as his wife.

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Various and Sundry

Tony winner Donna McKechnie (A Chorus Line) choreographs and Richard Jay-Alexander directs Guys and Dolls, which sets up shop at the Hollywood Bowl for three nights (July 31-Aug. 2), with a stellar cast.

Brian Stokes Mitchell, a Tony winner (Kiss Me, Kate) whose TV background includes regular roles on "Trapper John, M.D.," "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air", is Sky. Jessica Biel ("Easy Virtue"), Sarah; Scott Bakula ("Star Trek: Enterprise"), Nathan; and Ellen Greene ("Pushing Daisies"), Miss Adelaide.

Arvide is Beau Bridges, whose father, Lloyd Bridges, played Sky several times. Three actors reprise their Broadway roles: Ken Page (Nicely-Nicely, in the 1976 revival), Ruth Williamson (Gen. Cartwright, in '92), and Herschel Sparber (Big Jule, '92).

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Season Three of "30 Rock" will be released on DVD, Sept. 22.

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Looking forward, the 2009-10 Broadway season will welcome (or welcome back) some movie and TV stars.

  • Roundabout's After Miss Julie (September-December, at the American Airlines Theatre) marks the debuts of two Brits who share a surname. Sienna Miller ("Alfie," "Interview") and Jonny Lee Miller, no relation to his co-star. Once married to Angelina Jolie, he played TV's "Eli Stone," and on PBS, in October, he co-stars with William Hurt in "Endgame."

  • Carrie Fisher brings her solo show Wishful Drinking to Studio 54, in September. This is her fourth Broadway turn. Daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, and Princess Leia of "Star Wars" fame, she made her debut as a teen in Irene, starring her mother, followed by Censored Scenes from King Kong and a replacement stint in Agnes of God.

  • Best known to the younger generation as the title character's Aunt May in the "Spider-Man" movies, Rosemary Harris is an eight-time Tony nominee.

    A winner for The Lion in Winter, Harris portrays matriarch Fanny Cavendish in a September Broadway revival of The Royal Family, the 1927 George S. Kaufman-Edna Ferber parody of the famed Barrymore theatrical family. In 1976, Harris was Tony-nominated as Julie Cavendish, based on Ethel Barrymore, and Eva Le Gallienne played Fanny.

    A year later, most of the cast appeared in a PBS telecast, for which Le Gallienne (1889-1991) won an Emmy. Noel Coward directed the 1934 London production, entitled Theatre Royal, which starred Laurence Olivier as Tony Cavendish, based on John Barrymore.

    Filmed in 1930, as "The Royal Family of Broadway," starred Fredric March as Tony, a role he reprised, 20 years later, on a 1954 TV version, co-starring Claudette Colbert as Julie, and Helen Hayes as Fanny. Actually, Hayes was three years younger than March, and three years older than Colbert. (Oh, those scandalous theatre folk!)

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    Guest stars on upcoming episodes of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" (Sundays, USA, 9 PM ET). June 28, a double header: On the Jeff Goldblum (8 PM ET) special showing are Eric Balfour ("Six Feet Under," "24") and Shawn Hatosy ("Southland"). Following, at 9 PM ET, is a Vincent D'Onfrio entry featuring four-time Tony nominee Raul Esparza. July 12: Will Chase.

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    Linda Lavin, a Broadway Bound Tony winner, returns to Broadway next April in Collected Stories. Lavin starred in a 2002 TV presentation of the two-character drama, with Samantha Mathis (33 Variations). The play was produced, August 1998-February 1999, at Off-Broadway's Lucille Lortel Theatre, and marked the last New York stage appearance of Uta Hagen. Prior to the opening, the actress-teacher told me, "It should be titled Collected Stories: The Play. "People think I'm doing a reading."

    Stage to Screens is Playbill.com's monthly column that connects the dots between theatre, film and television projects and people. Contact Michael Buckley at stagetoscreens@aol.com.