The son of legendary sitcom writer Bob Schiller, writer-director Tom Schiller created some of the most eccentric and intriguing short subjects seen during the classic early seasons of "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ). Intrigued by vintage movies and an avid amateur filmmaker as a teenager, Schiller learned about the business by apprenticing for a documentary specialist before his first solo credit, "Henry Miller Asleep & Awake" (1975). Longtime friend Lorne Michaels invited him to create shorts that could run between the live material on "SNL" and Schiller responded with such memorable efforts as "Don't Look Back in Anger" (1978) and "La Dolce Gilda" (1978). His love of black and white photography, Golden Age Hollywood, and offbeat satire all came together beautifully in Schiller's feature debut "Nothing Lasts Forever" (1982), which proved too unusual for its distributor to handle and was never widely released. Schiller returned to "SNL" to produce more wonderfully odd interstitials for the program before exploring new careers as an instructor at the New York Film Academy and a producer of commercials that frequently made use of his unique sensibilities. One of the most original contributors to "SNL" in both writing and directing capacities, Schiller's offerings possessed the sort of daring and exuberant creativity that allowed them to stand the test of time better than much of the program's more topical material.
Born circa 1949, Tom Schiller was encouraged to be creative by his parents from a very young age. The family owned a 16mm projector and camera, so Schiller was able to both view a steady diet of movies and create his own. Boasting titles like "The Door" (1962), "Dos Chodos Ray" (1965) and "Supra Market" (1966), each of these mini epics was made with the aid of school friends. The boy's father, Bob Schiller, was a very successful television comedy writer, with such classic shows as "I Love Lucy" (CBS, 1951-57) and "The Carol Burnett Show" (CBS, 1967-78) prominent among his credits. That inside track provided his son with unique access to both the entertainment world and the manner in which such programs were produced and edited.
Now interested in pursuing filmmaking as a career, Schiller served as an apprentice to documentarian Robert Snyder, whose credits included "The Henry Miller Odyssey" (1969). Schiller's duties as soundman on the production allowed him to meet and befriend the controversial author, which led to Schiller's first effort, "Henry Miller Asleep & Awake" (1975), a 35-minute short that he wrote and directed. The shooting and editing process proved to be a pleasing and creatively invigorating experience for the young director, who soon traveled to Europe in hopes of establishing himself as an artist. That journey of self-discovery - complicated mightily by the fact that Schiller had no idea just what sort of artist he aspired to be - proved less than fulfilling, but upon returning home, he was invited to join the writing staff of the new late night comedy program "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ), the vehicle that would provide Schiller's work with its greatest exposure.
"SNL" producer Lorne Michaels previously toiled as a junior writer for Schiller's father and the two young men had struck up a friendship. Schiller was present during the development of the show and also occasionally took small parts in sketches. Looking for something different to run in between the live bits, Michaels had Albert Brooks and Gary Weis direct a series of shorts for the first two seasons. When they left, Schiller was invited to take over the job in 1977. The humor in his mini productions was invariably offbeat and the filmic approach was inspired in part by Schiller's love of classic European cinema. He also intentionally aged some of the celluloid with scratches and other damage, well before the "retro" vogue of the 2000s made such an approach commonplace among cult movie creators. Known collectively as "Schiller's Reel," they included such gems as "The Acid Generation: Where are They Now?," "Bar Mitzvah 5000" (1977), and "Sushi by the Pool" (1978).
One of Schiller's most famous and tragically prophetic pieces for the program, "Don't Look Back in Anger," aired during the 1977-78 season. Set sometime in the future, it featured an elderly, near recognizable John Belushi musing on how he had managed to outlive all of his "SNL" co-stars and it ended with him dancing a jig on their graves. The moody, black and white short unfolded in the "Not Ready for Primetime" cemetery and took on added poignancy when the troubled actor died of a drug overdose in 1982, the first of the cast members to pass on. In later years, Schiller cited the send-up/homage "La Dolce Gilda" (1978), in which the comedienne and other cast members performed an amusing three-minute send-up of Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" (1960), as one of his absolute favorites from the period. In all, he created a dozen shorts before departing in 1980-81, a time of creative tumult for the program that almost led to its cancellation.
Schiller's "SNL" writing duties had also continued during that period and he was responsible for developing several classic sketches, including Belushi's beloved samurai character, first seen in "Samurai Hotel." Michaels eventually branched out and was instrumental in securing Schiller's feature directorial debut via the ill-fated "Nothing Lasts Forever" (1982). Presented in the style of something from the 1940s, the black and white/color picture grew out of the love that Schiller had developed for old films from many a late night television viewing. Set in an alternate, future version of New York City ruled by the Port Authority in the style of a fascist state, "Nothing Lasts Forever" functioned simultaneously as a satire of American consumerism, 1950s science fiction, and SoHo artist culture. It also offered the whimsical, good-natured wish fulfillment fantasy of vintage cinema and celebrated the wisdom of senior citizens in witty fashion. Filled with clips from Golden Age movies and newsreels and featuring "SNL" veterans Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray in supporting parts, the project was about as unusual as one could imagine from a major studio.
After a poorly received test run in Seattle during the fall of 1984, distributor MGM cancelled their plans to release "Nothing Lasts Forever" and consigned it to the vaults. Positive word of mouth still managed to sneak out and the picture even received a pair of invitations from the Cannes Film Festival. Nonetheless, MGM would not allow it to be screened in an apparent attempt to ensure that the movie could not generate any level of success. Even with that subsequent scarcity, "Nothing" developed a certain cult status in the years that followed, but music clearance and other rights issues prevented it from receiving a DVD release. Schiller took it all in stride, stating that the continued suppression merely added to the film's mystique. In addition to creating additional short subjects for cable broadcast, including "From Here to Maternity" (Cinemax, 1985) and "Teri Garr in Flapjack Floozie" (Cinemax, 1988), Schiller also worked for a time on "Not Necessarily the News" (HBO, 1982-1990), the irreverent cable incarnation of the legendary British series "Not the Nine O'Clock News" (BBC, 1979-82), and directed an episode of "Baby Boom" (NBC, 1988-89), a short-lived TV spin-off of the 1987 Diane Keaton film.
Rejoining "SNL" in 1988, Schiller's new shorts came to be known as Schiller Vision and featured such contemporary Not Ready for Primetime Players as Kevin Nealon, Dana Carvey and Chris Farley. While often amusing and offering some clever creative touches, they generally failed to make the lasting impression of their finest 1970s predecessors. He ended his association with the program in the mid-1990s and during his "SNL" tenure, Schiller won three Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy-Variety or Music Series. He turned his attentions towards teaching and served as an instructor for a time at the New York Film Academy. In 1998, he developed a successful new career, directing several hundred humorous commercials for clients like Pet Smart, Budweiser, and the United States Mint via his SchillerVision production company.
By John Charles