11 acclaimed directors who got a start on television

Big screen legends like Spielberg, Altman and Peckinpah crafted some brilliant episodes for the small screen.

Some directors are fortunate enough to jump straight from the ranks of film school and indies to Hollywood. Others sharpen their skills in commercials and music videos. However, a good number of big screen legends got a start on the small screen. Which is fortunate for us, as we can watch fantastic episodes of Columbo helmed by Academy Award winners.

Here is a list of big time directors who cut their teeth making episodes in the golden age of TV. Keep your eyes peeled for these gems, which are proof that artful, innovative television is hardly some modern invention of HBO and AMC.


1. Steven Spielberg

Columbo
"Murder by the Book"

The two-time Oscar winner steered the first episode of Peter Falk's detective series. Martin Milner guest stars, and the mystery opens with a gripping sequence that uses nothing more than the clattering sound of a typewriter, which is echoed in the musical score.

2. Jonathan Demme

Columbo
"Murder Under Glass"

Six seasons later, the Silence of the Lambs man would direct a memorable episode featuring our favorite disheveled detective cooking a lovely meal.

3. Sam Peckinpah

The Rifleman
"The Marshal" and more

Peckinpah wrote a script for Gunsmoke that was deemed a little too intense. Thankfully, that script became the pilot for this gritty but moral Western. Peckinpah would direct a handful of early episodes, but his dark tone was better suited to the big screen. He upped the violence significantly in classics like The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs.

4. Robert Altman

Bonanza
"Silent Thunder" and others

The man who brought M*A*S*H to the silver screen featured dozens of television credits on his resume (though, oddly, no episodes of M*A*S*H). Altman helmed several installments of Combat!, Bus Stop, Troubleshooters, The Millionaire, U.S. Marshals and more. We are particularly fond of his first Bonanza, in which Little Joe teaches sign language to the beautiful deaf daughter of a sheepherder.

5. Sidney Lumet

Kraft Television Theatre
"Three Plays by Tennessee Williams" and more

Like Altman, Lumet has a resume far too lengthy to list here. Some of his strongest work came on Kraft's dramatic anthology series, where the director, hot off 12 Angry Men, led adaptations of Williams, All the King's Men and more. Previously he worked on early series such as Danger and You Are There.

6. William Friedkin

The Alfred Hitchcock Hour
"Off Season"

Before The French Connection and The Exorcist, this Chicago native directed the final episode of Hitch's suspenseful Hour, with a script written by crime master Robert Bloch. It would be one of Friedkin's few TV credits.

7. Sydney Pollack

The Alfred Hitchcock Hour
"Diagnosis: Danger" and more

Before he turned Dustin Hoffman into Tootsie and sent Meryl Streep Out of Africa, Pollack racked up a slew of credits on series such as Ben Casey and Shotgun Slade. He booked a couple tales of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour, too, including the anthrax thriller "Diagnosis: Danger."

8. Alfred Hitchcock

The Alfred Hitchcock Hour
"I Saw the Whole Thing"

While on the topic of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, we would be remiss if we did not mention the man himself, who popped in for one final scripted suspense tale on television with "I Saw the Whole Thing." Yes, clearly he was well established at this point and deep into his career, but his TV work remains overlooked. The master cranked out far more outings of his Alfred Hitchcock Presents — 17 — as well as an episode of Startime and Suspicion here and there.

9. Richard Donner

The Twilight Zone
"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" and more

With Superman, The Goonies and Lethal Weapon, Donner delivered action blockbusters with a comedic touch. It's no wonder his TV credits range from scaring the heck out of William Shatner on an airplane to Gilligan's Island, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Perry Mason. His early career is loaded with notable Westerns. Heck, the jack-of-all-trades even directed some bits for The Banana Splits Adventure Hour.

10. Michael Mann

Police Woman
"The Buttercup Killer"

Though well known for his Miami Vice, the noir stylist surprisingly never directed an episode of the 1980s action series (only the cinematic reboot). Mann did, however, get some early cop work in 1977 with this Angie Dickinson show. Four years later, he exploded on the big screen with Thief.

11. Tim Burton

Faerie Tale Theatre
"Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp"

Why, yes, that is Leonard Nimoy playing an evil Moroccan magician. A year after Pee Wee's Big Adventure, and two before Beetlejuice, Burton brought his unique vision to the long-running children's series hosted by Shelley Duvall.

 
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