“You’re in a war,” says Don Mischer, arguably the most prolific and accomplished director and producer of live television events in the history of the medium, as we sit down at the offices of Hollywood Insight to record an episode of the ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast and he begins to describe what it’s like to put together a telecast of the Emmys (he’s done 14), Oscars (three), Tonys (three), Super Bowl halftime show (six), Olympics opening ceremony (two), presidential convention (one) or music/variety special (countless). “There’s something that happens chemically in your body,” he says of the feeling he gets when he’s sitting in a control room as the seconds tick down to airtime, when millions of people the world over will see the fruits of his labor. “It’s actually, in its own way, addictive.”
Across roughly 50 years in the business, the 77-year-old — who presides over Los Angeles-based Don Mischer Productions, which has six full-time employees but expands greatly for big jobs — has personally been awarded an astounding 15 Emmy Awards; 10 Directors Guild of America Awards (more than anyone else in history); the Producers Guild of America’s award for lifetime achievement in television; and a Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting. In short, he’s the gold standard. And one of his most recent undertakings, Taking the Stage: African American Music and Stories That Changed America — an epic celebration of the opening of the
Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., featuring artists of today highlighting and celebrating events and achievements of the past through song, dance and spoken word, which aired on ABC — is among his most distinguished yet.
Mischer was born and raised in San Antonio and became obsessed, as a child, with television, a medium about the same age as himself. He dreamt of becoming a TV cameraman, capturing images that would be projected out to the world, but initially pursued a more conventional path, securing his undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of Texas at Austin. While he was studying there, on Nov. 22, 1963, Pres. John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas while en route to Austin, and TV newsmen descended upon both cities. Mischer voraciously consumed much of the live TV coverage of the ensuing days and also saw up-close how it came together. “After that weekend,” he recalls, “I said, ‘I really want to try and make a living, one way or the other, in this medium.'”
Mischer secured a grant to work at Austin’s PBS station for a year, at the end of which execs wanted to hire him, but weren’t sure if they could afford to because a camera tube was in dire condition and might need to be replaced. They ultimately gambled and gave him the job, his first in TV; the light blew out a year later, and he keeps it encased in glass in his office to this day. Mischer eventually moved to Washington, D.C., where he made propaganda films for the U.S. Information Agency and political spots for three-time Oscar winner Charles Guggenheim, and ultimately began directing episodes of The Great American Dream Machine, a weekly satirical variety series, for PBS. Before long, he began to work on live TV, as well, quickly making a name for himself — first as a director, whose job in live TV is to implement the vision of the producer, and later as a producer, or director and producer.
Mischer has worked closely with many of the greatest artists of our time to create many of the most memorable TV moments — moments we all remember because, as Mischer says, “Live events are the last thing where families gather to watch something together.” On 1983’s variety special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, he broadcast Michael Jackson‘s reunion with his brothers and his first performance of “the moonwalk.” A decade later, he and Jackson re-teamed on the first modern Super Bowl halftime show; he later produced five in a row, from 2005 through 2009, featuring Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Prince (often identified as the greatest of all-time), Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. In 1996, he produced the Summer Olympics opening ceremony in Atlanta, where the crowd exploded when Muhammad Ali made a surprise appearance to light the Olympic torch; he also worked in that capacity with the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
On telecasts of the Tonys (1987, 1988, 1989), which had only been produced by one man before him, Alexander Cohen, he employed innovative new techniques to make the show accessible to a larger audience, like having not only scenes from musicals but also scenes from plays performed on stage. On Oscars telecasts (producer/director 2011, producer/director 2012, director 2013), he overcame the inherent hurdle of categories that viewers don’t care about by teaming with multi-talented hosts. And on Emmys telecasts (1993, 1994, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016), he rose to the challenge of creating great TV in front of an audience of experts at doing so.
“It’s a battle,” Mischer says of mounting those sorts of productions. “And then it’s all gone. It’s like skywriting. It just disappears. And one thing that you always feel — and all of us in this business feel this — is you really go through depression. It’s like post-partum depression, in a sense. You go through it because the battle’s over — you won or you lost — but the battle’s over.” The depression is at its worst, he says, when he feels something went wrong, as he did after the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, when he was caught on air saying the f-word after the balloons failed to drop at the end of nominee John Kerry‘s speech. But at its best, he emphasizes, there is no better job in the world.
Taking the Stage, which Mischer co-produced with Quincy Jones and which was recorded in front of a live audience in Sept. 2016 and then aired on ABC in Jan. 2017, is a production he unreservedly stands behind. “We’re extremely proud of this show,” he says. “You try to do things that have some meaning beyond just entertainment.” For Mischer, a “full year of work” went into the undertaking. As a white man asked to help tell the story of the African-American experience, he undertook a massive study of the contents of the museum. Then he worked to identify famous and overlooked events that the show should feature, and then to iidentify and secure the participation of current performers to help highlight them. And then he sought to find creative ways to make the show entertaining for not only the audience in D.C. — including President Barack Obama — but also for the millions who would be watching at home. If Twitter is any indication, he succeeded: the broadcast trended at #1 on the social media site for hours, which only drove more people to check it out.