For anyone in television, achievement isn’t just measured by the Nielsen ratings, or even by winning an Emmy. Instead, the pinnacle of small-screen genius is that magic little moment of a show that everyone remembers and talks about years, or even decades, afterward.
Case in point: William Asher, the prolific TV writer-director-producer of the 1950s and 1960s who was involved in an array of classic sitcoms, from I Love Lucy, Our Miss Brooks and The Patty Duke Show to Bewitched, for which he won an Emmy for best director in 1966. (The show also catapulted his then-wife, actress Elizabeth Montgomery, to stardom.)
But of all his work, Asher, who passed away July 16 at age 90 in Palm Desert, Calif., will surely be best remembered for a single scene in the first episode of I Love Lucy that he directed — the one in which (Lucille Ball) and Ethel (Vivian Vance) have a frenetically disastrous run-in with the conveyor belt in a chocolate factory.
In a 2001 interview, Asher recalled the scene as one of his most challenging directorial assignments ever:
“It was complicated with the girls doing the candy bit. It was extremely hard to time the conveyor belt, building up speed, stuffing candy in their mouths, their blouses.”
In a business that cultivates yes-men, Asher also was known for resolutely standing up to stars when he had to. During his first week on the show, he found out that Ball was trying to direct other actors from behind the stage. He confronted her, saying that she could either fire him or let him be the sole director. Ball rushed off the set in tears, and Desi Arnaz began screaming at him in Spanish, he recalled, until Asher was able to explain what had happened. “He said I was absolutely right,” Asher recalled in the interview.
When he wasn’t making classic TV shows, Asher wrote and directed the string of classic beach-party movies of the 1960s that starred Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. He also was a friend of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and other members of the famed Rat Pack. Asher’s son Bill recalled that his father would sometimes fly with the actors on Sinatra’s plane from L.A. to Las Vegas for a night on the town, and then rush back in time to be on the TV set at 5 a.m. “Those guys were living life big,” he explained.