Busfield gets busy

Busfield gets busy

By Michael Pickard
July 18, 2023

The Director’s Chair

Thirtysomething and The West Wing star Timothy Busfield reveals how he has evolved from acting to directing and producing, discusses his creative partnership with Aaron Sorkin and explains why AI is a problem for the creative arts.

When DQ sits down with Timothy Busfield at the Monte-Carlo Television Festival, he jokes that he was only invited because of his wife, actor Melissa Gilbert, and the enduring popularity of her iconic 1970s western series Little House on the Prairie.

It’s a modest assertion from an Emmy-winning actor, writer and producer whose on-screen credits include The West Wing, Thirtysomething, Field of Dreams and Revenge of the Nerds across a career spanning more than 40 years. More recently, he has starred in crime drama For Life and Fox News biopic The Loudest Voice, and played opposite Mariska Hargitay in Law & Order: SVU.

Meanwhile, beginning in the early 1990s, Busfield’s work behind the camera includes more than 60 directing credits, most recently on comedy The Conners and dramas Law & Order, Chicago Med, FBI and FBI: Most Wanted.

The Michigan native’s interest in the craft behind making film and television stems from the stage manager role he adopted when he was at East Tennessee State University. Busfield had won awards for his acting, “but I didn’t just want to act,” he explains. “I knew there was a part of me that aspired to also write and direct.”

He started directing at a children’s theatre in Vermont, and became a professional director in 1980, the year after he became a professional actor at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, in Kentucky.

Timothy Busfield opposite Allison Janney in Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing

“It was all within four or five months that I was paid to direct and paid to act,” he recalls. “I directed a lot of plays and wrote a lot of children’s plays, and started the B Street Theatre in Sacramento, California, in 1986. I just didn’t want to sit. I would finish a job and then I’d wait and I’d say, ‘I’m not getting any better if I wait.’”

At the same time as he established B Street Theatre, Busfield was playing a lead role in a CBS medical procedural and M*A*S*H spin-off called Trapper John, MD, in which he portrayed Dr John ‘JT’ McIntyre, the son of the titular surgeon working in San Francisco.

When that show was cancelled, he moved straight on to Thirtysomething, about a group of friends in their 30s living in Philadelphia. Busfield played Elliot Weston, the role that won him a best supporting actor Emmy in 1991 and also gave rise to his screen directing career.

“On Thirtysomething, Peter Horton, who was one of the actors, was hired as an actor but they also gave him a directing slot in the first season because he was a director,” Busfield says. “That allowed us to say, ‘Well, if he’s if he’s directing, can we direct?’ I did three [episodes], and then I didn’t even look for TV directing work after that. I won the Emmy in the last year [of the show] and then Aaron Sorkin hired me for [ABC sitcom] Sports Night as a director because I had directed a play of his at my theatre.

“So my first five episodes were three Thirtysomethings and two Sports Nights, all Emmy-nominated shows, with really nicely written material. And then it was just one thing after another.

“Sometimes acting is enough and sometimes it’s not, and sometimes directing is too much and sometimes it’s not. It can be a lot. When you direct four or five episodes in a year, it’s wearing. And when you’re executive producing and directing, they’re big weeks. So I really like to mix them up and create a really nice environment.”

Busfield has both starred in and directed crime procedural Law & Order

When it launched on ABC in 1987, relationship drama Thirtysomething proved to be something of an outlier among the crime, legal and medical procedurals that dominated US network television at that time. “The number-one show was Murder, She Wrote, and the press hated us,” Busfield says. “They called us a soap. We were the first dramatic show that was a hit at night that wasn’t a cop show or a lawyer show or a doctor show, or about a family like The Waltons. It was a great show to be on.”

Busfield says the series empowered him “to make art” and connect to audiences in a new way through his character, whom he describes as a “man-boy.”

“I’m playing the worst side of men, men who are not taking responsibility or not wanting to accept their adulthood and make the stupid mistakes men make. It was mind-blowing every day to think I could bring something to this. It was an emotionally affecting show, versus ‘who’s the murderer?’”

Busfield says Thirtysomething, baseball classic Field of Dreams and Revenge of the Nerds all had particularly strong scripts. “Tom Hanks wanted to be in Revenge of the Nerds – everybody did, because the script worked. The story of revenge worked. We just needed to add a bunch of stupid to it,” he says.

He also praises the script for Sorkin’s stage play of A Few Good Men, which tells the story of military lawyers who uncover a conspiracy during the course of defending two US Marines accused of murder. The project started Busfield’s enduring relationship with screenwriter Sorkin, who would go on to adapt the play as a 1992 feature film starring Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson.

“From page one of A Few Good Men, I said, ‘Oh, I know how to do it. I know how to say every line in this. Oh my God, this is great.’ That [show] bonded Aaron and me, and then we did a play at my theatre. Then he brought me into Sports Night and then, of course, West Wing and [Saturday Night Live-inspired] Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. And we’re still great friends.”

He also acted in crime drama series For Life

Notably, the stage play would also bring together Busfield, Bradley Whitford and Joshua Malina, who would go on to star together in Sorkin’s acclaimed political drama The West Wing. But Busfield recalls upsetting Sorkin when he was first given the scripts for The West Wing and Sports Night.

“So I read them and I said, ‘Sports Night’s great. The West Wing’s maybe the best thing I’ve ever read.’ And he goes, ‘You don’t like Sports Night?’ I said, ‘No, I said it’s great.’ His wife called me and said, ‘You got Aaron mad!’”

Across The West Wing’s seven seasons, Busfield starred in 28 episodes as Washington Post journalist Danny Concannon, who is often found sparring – politically and romantically – with White House press secretary CJ Cregg, played by Allison Janney.

“What I loved about it was that Danny was a wake-up call to the administration,” Busfield says of his character, who was friendly with the White House staff while never being afraid to hold them to account. “He’s like, ‘You’re my fourth administration. I’m over it. I’m over the romance. I’m here to tell the American people whether you’re fucking up or doing it right.’ That point of view of an outsider was so nice.”

Busfield had originally read for the part of White House communications director Toby Ziegler, a role subsequently made famous by Richard Schiff. But it was the undeniable chemistry with Janney that set him up as Danny.

“I came in in episode three [in season one] and was there for the final readings. Allison was there and I recognised her, but I could tell automatically, she was like ‘Oh my god, that’s Elliot [from Thirtysomething]’ and we became great buddies,” he says.

Fox News biopic The Loudest Voice

“Aaron told me there could be a possible romance [between our characters] so immediately in the very first scene in that third episode, I’m flirting with her. Allison loved it because CJ was one of the boys, except when Danny was around. It was a great part, just because he didn’t care. It wasn’t a magical experience [for Danny] when he’d go into the Oval Office and do scenes with the president [played by Martin Sheen].”

Busfield is currently on hiatus from his role as executive producer on Fox crime drama The Cleaning Lady, owing to the ongoing Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike, which began on May 2. The writers have since been joined on the picket lines by members of SAG-AFTRA, after the actors union’s own talks broke down with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

However, one group that has secured a new agreement with producers is the Directors Guild of America (DGA), which drew criticism from some quarters for settling too quickly and for not enough money.

“The increases in money were massive because we earned [more] paid days,” counters Busfield, a member of the DGA. “We were never paid for post-production editing, and that’s a lot of work. When I wake up in the morning when I’m doing post, I spend the first three or four hours in the morning working on my cut, get it to LA to the editor with my notes by 11am, and then the editor outputs it that night. And then I look at it and I’m back up at five or six in the morning to spend another four hours on it. We were never paid [for that], and directors ended up just letting the cut go. Now we’re picking up money in post, which is great because it keeps us creatively in the process until the end.”

“There has been some criticism,” he continues, “but it was agreed on by the board, and I’m on the eastern board [of the DGA] and I really like it.”

The use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the creative arts has been at the heart of negotiations with the WGA and SAG-AFTRA, which recently revealed studio demands to use AI to replicate background actors.

“AI’s a problem – not for the directors, because somebody is going to have to orchestrate all of that stuff anyway – but for the writers, because you can say, ‘I need a Law & Order script,’ and they’ll put it out,” Busfield says, speaking before the actors went on strike. “So AI is going to be a problem, but I don’t think they can solve that now. I don’t know if it’s at a point right now where it’s sophisticated enough.”

However, the actor does think writers such as Mike White (The White Lotus) and Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) should be able to create series on their own, rather than having to work within a writers room structure with minimum staffing requirements depending on a show’s episode count, as the WGA has called for.

“Things are changing,” he says. “This is like pro sports. If you’re not performing, there’s nothing where a pro soccer team should say, ‘We’re going to keep you. You can’t score anymore and you’re terrible at defence but we owe you for seven years so we’re going to keep you.’ No. If you’re not performing and you’re not killing it, you shouldn’t be getting opportunities just because you want them. Not in our business.”

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