Though never a household name, TV director William Asher was largely credited as one of the key figures in the development of television sitcoms through his work on such acclaimed series as "I Love Lucy" (CBS, 1951-56), "Make Room for Daddy" (ABC/CBS, 1953-1964) and "Bewitched" (ABC, 1964-1972). Asher's talent lay in his seamless orchestration of uproarious moments, like star Lucille Ball's famed miming with guest star Harpo Marx or Ball and Vivian Vance fighting a relentless conveyer belt of chocolates. He would later translate this knack for broad screwball comedy into a series of popular teen films starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, including "Beach Party" (1963), "Bikini Beach" (1964) and "Beach Blanket Bingo" (1965). Perhaps the highlight of his career came with "Bewitched," which starred Asher's then-wife, Elizabeth Montgomery as a mischievous witch, a ratings hit and an enduring favorite in reruns for decades thanks to its fizzy, offbeat humor and superior cast of guest stars. When the series ran its course in 1972, Asher returned to directing episodic television with "Alice" (CBS, 1976-1985) and "The Dukes of Hazzard" (CBS, 1979-1985), and oversaw several more as a producer. He retired in 1990, after which he served as a living link to the Golden Age of television comedy until his death in 2012. Rarely celebrated for his exceptional body of work, Asher's greatest tribute was perhaps the generations of TV viewers who were entertained by his work growing up.
Born on August 8, 1921 in New York, NY, Asher was the son of film producer Ephraim M. Asher, whose credits included James Whale's "Frankenstein" (1931), and actress Lillian Bonner, who relocated the family to California in 1930. Asher's older sister, Betty, would later work in the entertainment business as Judy Garland's publicist at MGM. Their early childhood was an idyllic one, often spent accompanying his father to the studio. But Asher's parents split when he was 11 years old, precipitating a return to New York with his mother. There he was forced to contend with his mother's alcoholism and the subsequent rages that resulted in physical abuse. He dropped out of school and joined the Army Signal Corps at 15, falsifying his age in order to pass the entrance exam. Having escaped a draconian environment with his mother, Asher found it difficult to live by the rules and regulations of military life, and often found himself at odds with his commanding officers. Making matters worse was the sudden death of his father in 1937. Asher soon left the Army and headed for Hollywood, where he worked in the mailroom at Universal Studios while teaching himself to write short stories.
After publishing several stories in leading magazines, Asher co-produced and co-directed a low-budget boxing drama called "Leather Gloves" (1948) in an attempt to gain entry into the film business. However, he found more consistent work writing short interstitial stories for ABC's dramatic shorts program in 1952, which led to his first directorial assignment with a series called "Little Theater" (ABC, 1952-53). That same year, Asher was hired to direct the pilot for "Our Miss Brooks" (CBS, 1952-56), a television adaptation of the long-running radio comedy series. He soon became the director of choice on "I Love Lucy," helming over 100 of the show's 170 episodes, including the legendary "Birth of Little Ricky" and "Job Switching," in which Lucy (Lucille Ball) and Ethel (Vivian Vance) found themselves at the mercy of a conveyor belt in a candy factory. During this period, Asher also directed numerous episodes of other Desilu series like "Make Room For Daddy," as well as a trio of low-budget features, including the crime thrillers "Mob, Inc." (1956) and "The Shadow on the Window" (1957), and the sci-fi flick "The 27th Day" (1957).
After helming episodes of "The Thin Man" (NBC, 1957-59), "Fibber McGee and Molly" (NBC, 1959-1960) and "The Twilight Zone" (CBS, 1959-1965), Asher began a long tenure with the low-budget production company American International Pictures, which hired him to helm a series of youth comedies set on California's beaches, beginning with "Beach Party" (1963). The films, which featured teen idols Frankie Valli and Annette Funicello, as well as a host of pop and rock acts and older performers under contract to AIP, were a fizzy mix of slapstick and light sex comedy, making them irresistible to young moviegoers. While helming these pictures, which soon included "Muscle Beach Party" (1964), "Bikini Beach" (1964), "Beach Blanket Bingo" (1965) and "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), Asher branched out and directed "Johnny Cool" (1963), a crime thriller starring character actor Henry Silva as an icy hitman. His co-star was Elizabeth Montgomery, daughter of actor Robert Montgomery, who soon began a romance with Asher that led to marriage that same year and the birth of their first child, future director William Allen Asher, in 1964.
That same year, Asher began producing and directing "Bewitched," starring Montgomery as a witch who marries a mortal (Dick York and later Dick Sargeant), much to the dismay of her large family of fellow spellcasters. The series proved exceptionally popular, residing in the Top 10 highest rated programs for over five years, and earned him an Emmy for directing in 1966. Also at the time, he helmed a number of episodes of "Gidget" (ABC, 1965-66), which failed to survive past its inaugural season, but lived on for subsequent generations in perpetual syndication. Meanwhile, as "Bewitched" finished its run in 1972, Asher's marriage to Montgomery also came to an end, with both parties amicably divorcing soon after. Asher returned to his prolific career as a sitcom director while producing such shows as "The Paul Lynde Show" (ABC, 1972-73) and "Temperatures Rising" (ABC, 1972-74), which underwent a complete transformation in its second season, replacing nearly its entire cast with former Asher collaborators like Lynde and Alice Ghostley. He also directed multiple episodes of "Alice" (CBS, 1976-1985), "Private Benjamin" (CBS, 1981-83), and a curiously offbeat and disturbing horror film called "Night Warning" (1982) with Bo Svenson and then-teen idol Jimmy McNichol.
Asher's long career wound down in the mid-1980s following the release of the failed showbiz comedy "Movers and Shakers" (1985), written by and starring Charles Grodin. His final turn as producer came with the short-lived medical drama "Kay O'Brien" (CBS, 1986), while his last directing effort came just four years later with "Return to Green Acres" (CBS, 1990), which reunited most of the rural comedy's original cast. Asher married twice after his divorce from Elizabeth Montgomery: first to actress Joyce Bulifant from 1976 to 1993, after which he married Meredith Asher in 1996. Asher's long career received only scant praise from the entertainment community, relegated largely to a 2003 star on the Walk of Fame in Palm Springs, where he resided until his death at his home on July 16, 2012 from Alzheimer's disease. He was 90 years old.
By Paul Gaita
Director (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
First film as director