A prolific director for television for over four decades, James Frawley was behind the camera for countless series, from "The Monkees" (NBC 1966-68), "Columbo" (NBC 1968-1978) and "Cagney and Lacey" (CBS 1981-88), as well as the occasional feature film, the best known and loved of which was "The Muppet Movie" (1979). Frawley was initially an actor, appearing on Broadway and with the iconic improv group The Premise. The latter would prove instrumental in his subsequent career as a director: producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider sought out his comic skills for "The Monkees," while Jim Henson saw in his comedy and technical background the perfect choice to helm "The Muppet Movie." The success of these and other projects kept Frawley busy for nearly a half-century as a director for television, garnering an Emmy win and three nominations along the way before his retirement in 2009. Frawley's vast body of work and impact on some of the most popular television series of the late 20th century virtually ensured his status as one of the medium's most prolific and influential directors.
Born September 29, 1936 in Houston, Texas, James Frawley began his career in entertainment as an actor. He earned a degree in drama from Carnegie Mellon before relocating to New York, where he worked in summer stock while honing his talents with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre and private classes with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. Roles in Off-Broadway productions led to his Broadway debut in the Tony-nominated "Becket" (1960) with Laurence Olivier and Anthony Quinn. Supporting roles in Broadway productions of "Anyone Can Whistle" (1960) with Angela Lansbury and "Arturo Ui" (1963) with Christopher Plummer soon followed, as did membership in The Premise, an esteemed improvisational group formed by writer/director Theodore J. Flicker that counted such major talents as Buck Henry, Gene Hackman and George Segal among its members. Frawley earned his first screen credit with The Premise when it was tapped to provide sketches for an ABC variety special titled "The Seasons of Youth" (1961) with Paul Anka. He worked steadily as an actor in the early 1960s, appearing in several series including "Gunsmoke" (CBS, 1955-1975) and "The Outer Limits" (ABC, 1962-64). He also acted in the occasional feature, most notably Frank Perry's harrowing "Ladybug Ladybug" (1963), about the devastating effects of an alleged nuclear threat on a small community, and "The Troublemaker" (1964), an offbeat comedy directed by Flicker and co-starring numerous members of The Premise.
During this period, Frawley developed an interest in photography and filmmaking. With a camera provided by fellow actor-turned-director Sydney Pollack, he directed and edited two short 16mm films that attracted some attention at film festivals. More importantly, the films would aid Frawley in landing his first professional job as a director on "The Monkees." While performing with The Premise in Los Angeles, he met aspiring producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, who were looking to make their name in Hollywood. After learning of Frawley's background in improvisational comedy and directorial experience, they hired him to serve as the main director on "The Monkees," a comedy-music series about a fictional rock and roll band. Frawley helped the four members of the group - actors Mickey Dolenz and Davy Jones and professional musicians Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork - hone their on-screen personas while also delivering the producers' vision of a program that combined comedy, music and avant-garde/underground film tropes like quick edits, free-form narratives and frequent breaking of the fourth wall. Frawley's work on the series not only earned him a 1967 Emmy for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy, but also had a profound influence on the look and style of both music videos and sketch comedy series.
With the success of "The Monkees," Frawley left behind acting to move exclusively into directing for the better part of the following decade. His knack for offbeat comedy and understanding of the counterculture led to a variety of assignments, from frothy sitcoms like "That Girl" (ABC 1966-1971) to feature films like "The Christian Licorice Store" (1969), an offbeat look at fame with Beau Bridges as a tennis star tempted by the excesses of Hollywood and a supporting cast that included singer Tim Buckley. Frawley continued in this vein throughout the early 1970s, helming episodes of "Paper Moon" (ABC 1974-75) and various TV features while overseeing left-of-center theatrical efforts like "Kid Blue" (1973), a Western satire with socio-political overtones with Dennis Hopper as a train robber who attempts to lead a lawful life, and "The Big Bus" (1976), an absurdist parody of disaster movies about the world's first nuclear-powered cross-country bus. In 1979, he was approached by Jim Henson to direct "The Muppet Movie," the first big-screen vehicle for the puppeteer's anarchic creations. Henson had been a fan of Frawley's work on "The Monkees" and thought his improvisational background would be well suited for the Muppets' brand of humor. The picture was fraught with technical challenges - the Muppet performers had never performed their characters in actual outdoor settings, and the script required them to operate real cars and bicycles - but Frawley managed to deliver a humorous and heartfelt adventure that appealed to both children and adults. "The Muppet Movie" would later be regarded as a beloved classic and helped to spawn the franchise's long movie series.
Following the release of "The Muppet Movie," Frawley returned to a steady schedule of directing for episodic television, as well as the occasional made-for-TV feature. As before, he provided the same professional approach to every project, from mundane or forgettable series like "The Devlin Connection" (NBC 1982) to critically acclaimed fan favorites. He briefly returned to feature directing for "Fraternity Vacation" (1985), a harmless teen sex comedy that featured an early performance by Tim Robbins, but for the most part, Frawley was a staple of episodic television for the next two decades. In 1997, he earned a second Emmy nomination for directing the pilot for "Ally McBeal" (Fox 1997-2002) and dabbled that same year in producing for the USA Network drama "The Big Easy" (1996-1997).
He would later serve as co-executive producer on several other short-lived programs, including "Vengeance Unlimited" (ABC 1998-99), before landing a third Emmy nomination for directing the pilot episode for "Ed" (NBC 2000-04) the same year he helmed the biopic "The Three Stooges" (ABC 2000) for producer Mel Gibson. Frawley continued to direct in the new millennium, with multiple episodes of "Ghost Whisperer" (CBS 2005-2010), "Private Practice" (ABC 2007-2013), "Grey's Anatomy" (ABC 2005- ) and "Judging Amy" (CBS 1999-2005), a series on which he also served as executive producer. He would complete his final assignment as a television director with a 2009 episode of "Anatomy," after which Frawley retired to the Palm Springs area. In subsequent years, he became a regular guest at various screenings of his work, most notably revivals of "The Muppet Movie."
Director (Feature Film)
Cast (Feature Film)
Cinematography (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Director (TV Mini-Series)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Broadway debut in "Becket"
Founding member of The Premier improv group with Buck Henry
First television appearance in the special "Seasons of Love" (ABC)
First feature film, "Ladybug Ladybug" for director Frank Perry
Makes television directing debut with "The Monkees" (NBC
Directs his first feature, "The Christian Licorice Store"
Director, "The Muppet Movie"
First of 12 episodes of "Cagney and Lacey" (CBS, 1981-1988
Directs pilot for "Ally McBeal" (Fox, 1997-2002
Executive producer on "Judging Amy" (CBS, 1999-2005)
Final directorial effort on "Grey's Anatomy" (ABC, 2005- )