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Enmeshed in a failing marriage and with two young children in tow, Joan Tewkesbury never stopped to consider her limitations, parlaying her experience as a stage director into work as a script girl for Robert Altman on "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" (1971). Her skills honed in the nurturing womb of New Hollywood, which rejected sexist prohibitions and encouraged collaboration, instinct and improvisation, Tewkesbury found fame at age 40, scripting Altman's Depression era crime drama "Thieves Like Us" (1974) and his Academy Award-winning masterpiece "Nashville" (1975). Suddenly a hot commodity in the film industry, Tewkesbury turned down more jobs than she accepted, ultimately bargaining her way into a bid as a first-time feature director with "Old Boyfriends" (1979), a collaboration with screenwriter brothers Leonard and Paul Schrader. The poor box office for Tewkesbury's directorial debut drove her back to the stage, and to television, where she earned high marks for her teleplays "The Tenth Month" (1979), "The Acorn People" (1979), and "Cold Sassy Tree" (1989). Proving herself a reliable director-for-hire, Tewkesbury helmed episodes of such acclaimed weekly series as "Northern Exposure" (1990-95) and...
Enmeshed in a failing marriage and with two young children in tow, Joan Tewkesbury never stopped to consider her limitations, parlaying her experience as a stage director into work as a script girl for Robert Altman on "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" (1971). Her skills honed in the nurturing womb of New Hollywood, which rejected sexist prohibitions and encouraged collaboration, instinct and improvisation, Tewkesbury found fame at age 40, scripting Altman's Depression era crime drama "Thieves Like Us" (1974) and his Academy Award-winning masterpiece "Nashville" (1975). Suddenly a hot commodity in the film industry, Tewkesbury turned down more jobs than she accepted, ultimately bargaining her way into a bid as a first-time feature director with "Old Boyfriends" (1979), a collaboration with screenwriter brothers Leonard and Paul Schrader. The poor box office for Tewkesbury's directorial debut drove her back to the stage, and to television, where she earned high marks for her teleplays "The Tenth Month" (1979), "The Acorn People" (1979), and "Cold Sassy Tree" (1989). Proving herself a reliable director-for-hire, Tewkesbury helmed episodes of such acclaimed weekly series as "Northern Exposure" (1990-95) and "Chicago Hope" (1994-2000) while contributing a cameo to former mentor Robert Altman's "The Player" (1992). Focusing on theatrical work in later life, Tewkesbury kept a hand in cinema by mentoring young filmmakers via workshops, proving herself less interested in making her reputation than in making a difference.
Joan Tewkesbury was born on April 8, 1936 in Redlands, CA. The only child of working class parents, Tewkesbury's father repaired office machines for the local Board of Education and her mother was a registered nurse. As with many young girls of her generation, Tewkesbury was groomed to emulate Shirley Temple, Hollywood's undisputed box office champion between 1935-38. When she was three years old, Tewkesbury was enrolled in dance school. With the divorce of her parents when she was 10, she commuted by bus from her mother's home in Alhambra to Los Angeles, where she studied with Ernest Belcher, Shirley Temple's dance coach and the father of future Broadway hoofer Marge Champion. Sent to an open call for the musical "The Unfinished Dance" (1947), Tewkesbury made her film debut alongside Danny Thomas, appearing unbilled in support of stars Cyd Charisse and Margaret O'Brien. Though she disliked being a chorus dancer, Tewkesbury was fascinated by the work that went on behind the scenes and kept a close eye on director Henry Koster.
Despite having little interest in pursuing dance as a career, Tewkesbury continued her studies with Eugene Loring at the American School of Dance. At the age of 19, she answered an open call for Jerome Robbins' 1954 Broadway revival of "Peter Pan," starring Mary Martin. Rejected initially because she was deemed too tall, Tewkesbury was eventually called back to serve as Martin's understudy for flying scenes, and appeared also as the Ostrich. The play was adapted for live television in 1955 as an installment of "Producer's Showcase" (NBC, 1954-57), and again for TV in 1960. Tewkesbury peppered Robbins with technical questions and was invited into the control room, where she saw co-director Fred Coe call the shots for the cameramen. Thinking she might make a career as a choreographer, Tewkesbury studied at the University of Southern California on dance and theatre scholarships, supporting herself through work as a nightclub dancer and an occasional bit player in films and on television.
Following an early marriage and the birth of two children, Tewkesbury continued to study theatre and dance, traveling under the aegis of USC to the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, where she immersed herself in all aspects of production. Returning to California, she directed on the workshop level, and through her friendship with actor Michael Murphy, was introduced to film director Robert Altman, fresh off his success with "M*A*S*H" (1970). Bold enough to ask Altman for a job, Tewkesbury was offered the position of script girl for Altman's upcoming "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" (1971), a job she accepted with some trepidation. Divorcing her first husband, Tewkesbury threw herself into the low-paying job and packed herself and her children off to the Vancouver location, where she would remain, absorbing the craft of the film director, for six months. During filming, Tewkesbury confided to Altman her interest in directing a film.
Counseled by Altman that no studio would entrust her with directing a feature film unless she had first written the script, Tewkesbury set about fictionalizing her own divorce. With Altman's promise to produce the finished screenplay, Tewkesbury set about casting, meeting with actors Geraldine Chaplin and Bruce Dern. The project never materialized but Altman instead marshaled Tewkesbury for work on his next feature, "Thieves Like Us" (1974), an adaptation of the Edward Anderson novel previously filmed by Nicholas Ray as "They Live By Night" (1949). Tewkesbury shared a screenwriting credit with novelist Calder Willingham. Starring Keith Carradine and Shelly Duvall, the film was selected as one of the Top Ten films of 1974 by the National Board of Review. Shooting for six months in Mississippi - with occasional breaks in shooting due to financing difficulties - Altman invited Tewkesbury on a side trip to the neighboring state of Tennessee, which would become the location of his next feature film.
An ensemble piece about life, love, politics, corruption, obsession, and death on the American country music scene, "Nashville" (1975) was a critical darling at the time of its theatrical release and racked up six Academy Award nominations. Not among the Oscar nominees, Tewkesbury nonetheless profited from her sole screenwriter credit, with nominations for Best Original Screenplay from the Golden Globes, the Writers Guild of America and the BAFTA awards. Due to Tewkesbury's elevated visibility and an uptake in Hollywood's interest in films focusing on women, Tewkesbury was able to realize her dream to direct a feature film. Reversing the gender point-of-view of a Leonard and Paul Schrader script about an adult male revisiting the girlfriends of his youth, Tewkesbury fashioned "Old Boyfriends" (1979), starring Talia Shire as a divorced psychologist whose healing process involves looking up former flames Keith Carradine, Richard Jordan and John Belushi.
The cool critical reception to, and negligible box office returns from, "Old Boyfriends" found Tewkesbury turning to television, where she wrote and directed the CBS telefilm "The Tenth Month" (1979), starring Carol Burnett in the straight role of an older, unmarried woman having a go at maternity, and "The Acorn People" (1979), an adaptation of the fact-based book by Ron Jones about an unemployed teacher (Ted Bessell) who takes a job as a counselor at a camp for handicapped children. Tewkesbury drew on her experiences as a nightclub dancer for "Ladies Night," retitled "A Night in Heaven" (1983) by its producers and fobbed off as a "Flashdance" (1983)-type film; critics and moviegoers were again unkind. Scattershot work followed, penning and directing an episode of the revamped "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (1985-89) and the 1989 teleplay "Elysian Fields" for "CBS Summer Playhouse" (1987-89).
Shot on location in Georgia, "Cold Sassy Tree" (TNT, 1989), an adaptation of the Olive Ann Burns novel, afforded Tewkesbury her best cast in Faye Dunaway, Richard Widmark, and a young Neil Patrick Harris. In the ensuing years, she helmed episodes of such critically acclaimed TV series as "Doogie Howser, M.D." (ABC, 1989-1993), "Northern Exposure" (CBS, 1990-95), "Picket Fences" (CBS, 1992-96), and "Chicago Hope" (CBS, 1994-2000). Tewkesbury contributed a cameo to Robert Altman's bracing Hollywood satire "The Player" (1992). Following the CBS movie-of-the-week "Scattering Dad" (1998) with Olympia Dukakis and Andy Griffith, Tewkesbury directed and produced episodes of the CBS courtroom drama "The Guardian" (2001-04), starring Simon Baker. In later years, Tewkesbury kept busy as a university lecturer at USC, UCLA, Bard College and other schools, while serving as a mentor to young artists at the American Film Institute and the Sundance Film Lab and continuing to stage challenging, original productions for the Oregon Ballet Theater, Manhattan Theatre Source, and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
By Richard Harland Smith
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Tewkesbury has taught dance and drama at the following schools: American School of Dance, Los Angeles (1959-69); Immaculate Heart College, Los Angeles (1960-63); USC, Los Angeles (1966-69). She also taught film writing at UCLA in 1986.
From 1965 to 1968 Tewkesbury was involved with both the USC Repertory Company and the London and Edinburgh Arts Festivals as choreographer, director, and actress.
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