February 28, 2020

Legendary Director Joel Zwick Takes on a Hollywood Play

A scene from “The $5 Shakespeare Company.” Photo by Karianne Flaathen

A career spent shuttling between film, TV and live theater is bound to have its zigs and zags, and director Joel Zwick’s is no exception. From his training at New York’s La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club to directing more than 650 episodes of television, to his creative partnership with actor and writer Hershey Felder (“George Gershwin Alone”), Zwick has covered a lot of ground and generated a lot of laughs. 

His credit list is exhaustive, ranging from 33 episodes of “Laverne & Shirley” under the stewardship of Zwick’s comedy mentor, Garry Marshall, through “Bosom Buddies,” starring a then largely unknown Tom Hanks, through “Webster,” “Perfect Strangers” and “Full House,” plus Disney Channel favorites including “Shake It Up” and “Girl Meets World.”

When you’re that prolific, you get some unexpected assignments. There was a time in the 1990s when Zwick was, in his own words, the “go-to black director in TV” despite being the son of a cantor, the nephew of a rabbi and related to Chasidic Jews on his father’s side. 

“Somehow, because I was out of the streets of Brooklyn and had seen a black person somewhere in my life, they thought maybe I could do better directing these things because there weren’t black directors out there to give a shot,” the 78-year-old director who is directing the new play “The $5 Shakespeare Company” in North Hollywood, told the Journal. “It doesn’t make me proud. In the course of my doing ‘The Jamie Foxx Show’ and ‘The Wayans Bros.’ and ‘Family Matters,’ I could basically understand what they were doing and who they were and what they needed to do. So that worked out well for me.”  

He added, “But I built up some African American assistant directors who turned out to be quite good directors. So there’s a whole lineage of people who have watched me work and, theoretically, learned what I was doing. That makes me feel good.”

Over lunch with Zwick at a Woodland Hills eatery, the word “legacy” comes up more than once. Although he retired from sitcom directing two years ago after completing an episode of “K.C. Undercover,” Zwick isn’t ready to bring the curtain down just yet. He is scheduled to reteam with Felder for the world premiere of “Anna & Sergei” about composer Sergei Rachmaninoff in April at the Laguna Playhouse. He routinely checks in on the progress of solo shows he has directed for performers Deborah Ehrhardt (“Cock Tales”) and Annie Abbott (“Giving Up Is Hard to Do”).

“I do understand the drive and the need of people to be expressing themselves because they’re not going to get the jobs right away off-Broadway or jobs on Broadway.” — Joel Zwick

As for his current project, Zwick said, “This may be turn out to be the best thing I’ve done. Its potential is that good.” Produced by 6th Act and written by the company’s co-artistic director, Matthew Leavitt, “The $5 Shakespeare Company” tracks the foibles of a ragtag Hollywood-based classical company looking to stage a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at one of the city’s multiple 99-seat venues. The mandate to keep prices down, combined with Los Angeles’ much-debated [Actors’] Equity waiver provision that basically forces artists to work for free, is the play’s inspiration. The production runs through March 8 at Theatre 68 in North Hollywood.

A longtime family friend of the Zwicks, Leavitt was delighted when Zwick attended a reading of the play and asked to direct a future production. “It was the last thing in the world I expected,” Leavitt recalled. “ ‘Wow, Joel Zwick wants to direct this? Yeah, Joel Zwick will direct this!’ He works so fast and so efficiently. It’s just a dream. There’s absolutely no wasting time. It’s tremendous.” 

Running a company in Los Angeles, Leavitt said his 6th Act members certainly understand the world of “$5 Shakespeare.” Zwick’s own theater resume, which includes a Tony Award nomination in 1975 for his choreography for “Dance With Me,” has a different frame of reference. Nonetheless, having worked in theaters across the country, Zwick said he fully gets the urge to perform at all costs, or lack thereof.  

“I do understand the drive and the need of people to be expressing themselves because they’re not going to get the jobs right away off-Broadway or jobs on Broadway,” he said. “I trained at La MaMa, and if you were in New York, forget about TV and movies. In those days, it just wasn’t happening, so there was something else driving these exceptionally talented people who got the chance to say what they wanted to say artistically that nobody else was giving them the chance to do.

“This is a 10-character play,” he continued. “Can you name another company in Los Angeles that would produce a 10-character play? It can’t be done. The only way you can do it is in one of these Equity-waiver houses, and so I decided I had to get behind this.”

There were other enticements. Zwick and Leavitt had been friends for more than 30 years. “The $5 Shakespeare Company” had a plum role for Zwick’s son, Jamie. And Zwick managed to persuade longtime friend and La MaMa classmate Andy Robinson (“Dirty Harry,” “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”) to take a role, fulfilling a pact that the two men would reunite creatively. 

“It’s been 50 years since we worked together,” Zwick said. “We’ve been promising and promising it, and now the promise is there. Andy and I were lost souls in the ’60s. We were in trouble and we had to figure out who the hell we were as people, never mind as artists. La MaMa gave us that chance.”

The other part of Zwick’s legacy is “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” the 2002 sleeper hit about a young Greek woman and her crazy family, which remains the highest-grossing romantic comedy of all time. In the early 2000s, Zwick was getting discouraged with TV and wanted to try his hand at a feature film. He called up former “Bosom Buddies” pal Hanks and asked whether he would look over a script Zwick was considering. Hanks sent him back Nia Vardalos’ script for “Greek Wedding” and asked him to direct it. 

“I would have directed the phone book if Tom had said, ‘Will you direct the phone book for me?’ ” Zwick said. “We spent the next nine months cutting and shaping it, and all he ever said to me was, ‘You remember how you used to play with us on “Bosom Buddies”? That’s what you have to do [here]. Let these people play.’ ”

Asked whether the “let them play” approach applies to live theater, Zwick said, “To me, it does.” Extensive stage direction and looking into subtext can bog things down, he said. Zwick likes to get his actors on their feet and let them figure everything out later.

“When the actors have enough information to be able to question what you’re doing, that’s when the thing starts to lift up and you start to play.”

“The $5 Shakespeare Company” plays through March 8 at Theatre 68, 5112 Lankershim Blvd. Visit the website.