A former public school art teacher, actress Betty Thomas turned a side job as waitress at Chicago's Second City improv club into an acting career that brought her an Emmy on "Hill Street Blues" (NBC, 1981-87) as dedicated officer Lucy Bates. Thomas later found even greater success as a director for television and features, including such top-grossing films as "The Brady Bunch Movie" (1995), "Private Parts" (1997) and "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel." If critics occasionally dismissed her movies as lightweight fluff, there was no denying that they brought audiences to theaters and drew sizable profits, which in turn made Thomas one of the most accomplished female directors in Hollywood.
Born Betty Thomas Nienhauser in St. Louis, MO on July 27, 1948, Betty Thomas received her start in entertainment through a circumlocutious route. After graduating from Ohio University, she worked as an artist and taught art in the Chicago public school system. Hoping to earn extra money for a trip to Europe, Thomas took a job as a waitress at The Second City, Chicago's famed improvisational theater. There, she was encouraged to try out for the troupe, and subsequently joined the company, where she was praised for her brassy and outspoken performances. When The Second City opened a Los Angeles branch, she moved West, where she began landing bit parts in low-budget features like "Chesty Anderson, U.S.N." (1976) and Robert Zemeckis' "Used Cars" (1980), as well as sketch comedy films like "Tunnelvision" (1976) and "Loose Shoes" (1980), the latter of which featured her Second City classmate, Bill Murray.
In 1981, Thomas was cast as New York City patrol officer Lucy Bates on "Hill Street Blues." Initially, Bates was an experienced rookie who depended on her partner, Office Joe Coffey (Ed Marinaro) for support. Over the course of the show's six-year tenure, Bates developed into a capable police officer and eventual sergeant, one who could function as "one of the boys" but also possessed a confidence about her own femininity. For her work on the series, Thomas received seven Emmy nominations, and took home the award for Best Supporting Actress in 1985.
While working on the series, Thomas developed an interest in directing, and spent many hours on the set observing the episodic helmers at work. Producer Steven Bochco refused to allow her to direct an episode of "Blues," but gave her plenty of work on his other shows, including "Hooperman" (ABC, 1987-89) and "Doogie Howser, M.D." (ABC, 1989-1993). By the end of the decade, Thomas was working steadily behind the camera on series like "Mancuso, F.B.I." (NBC, 1989-1990) and John Sayles' "Shannon's Deal" (NBC, 1990-91). Thomas' final acting role was in the misbegotten Shelley Long flick, "Troop Beverly Hills" (1989), in which she appeared as the over-zealous leader of an ersatz Girl Scouts troop.
Thomas made her feature film debut with 1992's "Only You," a wan romantic comedy with a hapless Andrew McCarthy attempting to decide between sexy Kelly Preston and sweet Helen Hunt. The film was not a success, so Thomas returned to television, where she struck pay dirt with several episodes of HBO's "Dream On" (1990-96), one of which earned her a second Emmy for direction in 1990. Though she had established herself largely in comedy, Thomas received an Emmy nomination for the thoughtful drama "My Breast" (CBS, 1994), which starred Meredith Baxter as a woman struggling with breast cancer.
In 1995, Thomas returned to features for a low-budget film adaptation of the cult TV series "The Brady Bunch" (CBS, 1969-1974). With no name actors and a $12 million budget, the prospects for success were limited, but the film's approach - which envisioned the Bradys trapped in their 1970s incarnations while living in the present day - was a colossal hit among young audiences. Its box office take, in excess of $60 million, made her one of the most financially successful woman directors, placing amongst such accomplished company as Penny Marshall and Penelope Spheeris. Her next effort, "The Late Shift" (HBO, 1996), which depicted the real-life battle for Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" (NBC, 1962-1992) chair, received mixed reviews but brought Thomas a Directors Guild Award and another Emmy nod for this high-profile project.
An impressed "Late Shift" producer Ivan Reitman tapped Thomas to helm the film version of Howard Stern's self-parodying biography, "Private Parts" (1997), the resulting film was praised for its balance of bawdiness with the gentle interplay between Stern (who played himself) and screen wife Mary McCormack. Its success elevated Thomas to the director of choice for big screen comedies, though her subsequent efforts were a largely mixed bag. "Doctor Dolittle" (1998) was a broad, updated take on the classic children's novel, with Eddie Murphy as the physician who can understand animals. Though the gags were strictly middle of the road, the film's seamless integration of human and animal actors with CGI and mechanical creations remained impressive.
The light drama "28 Days" (2000), with Sandra Bullock as a party girl undergoing rehab, was a capable if unremarkable effort, while "I Spy" (2002), with Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson as the 21st century version of Bill Cosby and Robert Culp, was a total misfire. Its failure sent Thomas back to television for the next few years, where she worked on pilots for several unsold series, including a project or comedian Ron White. She returned to features for the listless sex comedy "John Tucker Must Die" (2006), which attempted to cement "Desperate Housewives" (ABC, 2005- ) shirtless lawnboy Jesse Metcalfe as a screen star. Her career eventually rebounded with "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel" (2010), which netted an astonishing $443 million in ticket sales worldwide. Thomas did not sign on for the sequel, preferring instead to attach herself to a big screen adaptation of television's seminal primetime soap, "Dallas" (CBS, 1978-1991).
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Producer (TV Mini-Series)
Acted in four features, "Jackson County Jail", "Chesty Anderson--USN" (re-released in 1984), "Tunnelvision" and "The Last Affair"
TV debut as regular, "The Fun Factory" (NBC)
TV-movie acting debut, "Outside Chance" (CBS)
Helmed premiere episode of the ABC series "Doogie Howser, M.D."
Acted opposite Shelley Long in the feature "Troop Beverly Hills"
Directed episodes of "Hooperman" (ABC)
Directed pilot and premiere episode of "Arresting Behavior" (ABC)
Feature directorial debut, "Only You", a direct-to-video release
TV-movie directorial debut, "My Breast" (CBS), earned Emmy nomination
Directed feature, "The Brady Bunch Movie", reteaming with Long, who played the role created by Florence Henderson
Helmed "The Late Shift" for HBO; earned Emmy nomination
Directed Howard Stern in film adaptation of his memoirs "Private Parts"
Signed to direct "Male Pattern Baldness" from a Joe Eszterhas script
Directed the non-musical remake of "Dr. Dolittle", starring Eddie Murphy
Helmed the rehab-set comedy-drama "28 Days", starring Sandra Bullock
Directed feature film adaptation of TV hit "I Spy," reteaming with Murphy who co-starred with Owen Wilson
Produced the comedy "Surviving Christmas" starring Ben Affleck
Directed "John Tucker Must Die" a comedy about three high school girls who seek revenge on their cheating ex