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The Malibu Times
Melonie Magruder
August 13, 2008

Michael Preece, director, script supervisor, actor and all-round raconteur, spoke at the monthly Malibu Women in Film breakfast meeting last Friday about his more than half a century of work in the entertainment business. And if the attending industry professionals could have badgered yet another story out of him about his years in television and film production, he would still be there.

The journeyman director and Malibu resident cut his teeth as a script supervisor in the early days of television and went on to direct practically every notable episodic TV show of the '70s and '80s. "Dallas," "Baywatch," "The Streets of San Francisco," "Falcon Crest," and "The Bionic Woman" are just a few titles on his resume, and his work paired him with top industry stars, from Bill Cosby to Michael Douglas, Joan Collins and Chuck Norris.

"Actually, I wanted to be a baseball player when I was a kid," Preece said in recounting his journey from industry neophyte to one of the busiest directors on television. "But I happened to be available at a time when television really needed what I had to offer."

Preece was a freshman student at Santa Monica City College in the summer of 1955, when TV was "just coming in."

"They were desperate for script supervisors then," Preece said. "I learned the business in two weeks and got my first job. It paid $135 a week for unlimited hours and I just kept getting jobs. I never went back to school."

Those jobs took him all over the world and gave him plenty of opportunity to learn tricks of the trade.

"Sometimes, we would just be given post cards of certain locations and told to 'go get that shot,'" Preece said. "Once, while filming in Hong Kong, we were stopped and told we couldn't go into China to film. So we just set up the camera and got a series of exterior shots of some peasant working in a field with all his sweat and everything. It ended up in the title sequence."

He recalled his experience of working on "I Spy," a late 1960s action drama that daringly (for its time) teamed Robert Culp with Bill Cosby, breaking new ground for casting an African-American in a lead role.

"At that time, Bill was making a fortune on the club and college circuit," Preece said. "He'd come to me and ask me how much money I had made that weekend and I'd say 'nothing.' He'd give me a dig and point out that he made $50,000."

Working as a script supervisor tuned his sensibilities to efficient and effective television direction and he spent the '70s and '80s working steadily on episodic TV.

Preece was particularly adept at the evening soap operas that became popular with the debut of "Dallas." In knockoffs like "Falcon Crest" and "Knot's Landing," he kept audiences tuned in for years with slightly over-the-top characters and cliffhanger endings each week.

"You can't waste time shooting huge masters with these types of shows," Preece said. "You go with your close-ups and shoot some good, interesting coverage so that it looks like you've done a master."

Of television these days, Preece said he likes the series "Cold Case" and "House M.D."

"But I mostly watch sports now," he admitted.

Many of the Women in Film members at the breakfast wanted to know what he thought of that bane of professional writers and actors, reality TV.

"What's reality about it?" Preece asked. "Any of those productions have tons of crew surrounding them. Look at 'Survivor.' You think those people really just eat bugs? Are you telling me that if one of those pretty little girls wanted a cheeseburger, some electrician is not going to slip her one?'"

Preece also thinks the advent of new media is promising.

"It can only help," he said. "The Internet's a place where you can get inventive with lighting and angles. I saw a two-minute Internet show recently and it was great!"

Grant Turck, who represents Preece with Velocity Management, sees the Internet as a burgeoning player in the entertainment industry and the future distribution point of innovative content.

"Networks are struggling increasingly to keep their viewers engaged," Turck said. "The Internet doesn't have to deal with the unions. So only 3 percent of SAG actors are working now."

Preece continues to work and is looking forward to a network deal in development now, with characters based on those he knew from a bar in Malibu years ago. He has no intention of retiring.

"I remember when I was a young kid working on this movie called 'True Grit'," he said. "Henry Hathaway was the director and he was kind of old at that point. At the time I thought to myself, 'Jeez, what's with these old guys? Why don't they just quit?' Now, I look at the young guys coming up and think, 'Jeez, why don't these young kids just wait?'"

The Dallas Morning News

Allan Peppard

November 23, 1997

The Southfork Ranch, once home to TV's fictional Ewing clan, is now a destination for tourists and conventioneers. But on a recent rainy Texas morning, J.R., Sue Ellen and Bobby Ewing were back at the ranch. And thanks to the magic of television (as well as a canopy, mops and arc lights), it was dry and sunny on the back patio, where the trio ate their breakfast and jockeyed for control of Ewing Oil. Normally, the Ewings take orders from nobody. But on this morning, their alter egos, actors Linda Gray, Larry Hagman and Patrick Duffy, were delighted to let veteran TV director Michael Preece captain the ship for The War of the Ewings, a two-hour movie slated to air next spring on CBS.

In the more than 10 years that Dallas was in production, Mr. Preece set the record for most episodes directed. During those years, he filmed Mr. Duffy's famous soapy scene, the one where Bobby Ewing's wife, Pam, finds him in the shower and has her epiphany: The entire previous season, including Bobby's death, had all been a terrible dream.

When the producers wanted to ensure that no one knew who shot J.R., they had Mr. Preece film a take of each member of the cast firing the gun.

And when CBS sent down an order this year for another Dallas movie to follow up last year's well-received J.R. Returns, Mr. Preece was the go-to guy for the director's job. (Longtime Dallas producer Leonard Katzman directed J.R. Returns but died of a heart attack before it aired.) Mr. Preece wasn't hard to find. For the last four years, he has been splitting his time between his home in Malibu, Calif., and his job in Dallas, where he directs CBS' Walker, Texas Ranger, starring Chuck Norris.

"Larry and Patrick felt that he was the best one to direct the movie," says Rich Heller, who along with Mr. Hagman and Mr. Duffy is an executive producer of War of the Ewings. "There was never any other choice but Michael. Unfortunately, he was not available [he was directing Walker]. But he was good enough to create a window [in his schedule] to do this. " With his muscular legs and burly chest, Mr. Preece looks like a former middleweight boxer who's given and received plenty of blows.

The tough-guy look conceals a graceful and sensitive man who never eases up on the accelerator that maintains forward momentum on the set. His precision and pithy directorial style elicit high marks from actors.

"He's like a great dancer, like Baryshnikov," says Mr. Duffy of the director. "You don't see any of the technique at all. Michael has no pretensions about what a director should be like, so he's just Michael. But at the end of the day, you realize he's just shot seven or eight minutes of terrific-looking film. That's a great way to go to work every day. " "He knows actors," adds Ms. Gray. "He's almost like a therapist or a wise parent. He'll come to you in a very sweet way and say, `How do you feel about this? ' He's encouraging in the creation.

That's what I love about Michael. " Perhaps that's because Mr. Preece has had every job on the set, from actor to errand boy.

"When Michael became a director, I was glad for him because what he had done was pay all the dues," says actor George Kennedy, who won an Oscar for Cool Hand Luke. In The War of the Ewings, he plays J.R. Ewing's nemesis, Carter McKay.

"Michael had taken all the bumps all along the road," Mr. Kennedy says. "All that knowledge - this is a very complicated business - if you can accumulate all that knowledge and put it to use, you're way ahead of the game. " Bitter beginnings Those bumps along the road came early for Mr. Preece, who grew up in the 1930s and '40s in Los Angeles, where his father was a salesman for a cigarette and cigar company and his mother, Thelma Preece, was a script supervisor for the movies. With two othe r women, his mother formed the first script supervisors' union, the Script Clerks Guild, in 1936.

"There's actually a book about her and the script supervisors," says Mr. Preece. "They'd keep notes on the set and make sure that if the actor walked in in a blue suit through one door, when you shot the next scene a month or two months later, they opened the door with the same hand and had a cigarette or whatever. " The young Mr. Preece attended a private military academy called Blackfox (from which an older classmate by the name of Larry Hagman was expelled). But sports called Mr. Preece to Hamilton High School in west Los Angeles. "I was a baseball player, and I wanted to play in the public school system, where there was better baseball," Mr. Preece says. "I met this girl Paula in the 10th grade and we went steady. " His teenage idyll ende d abruptly his senior year in high school.

"My sister, who was two years older than me, she went to Brigham Young University," says Mr. Preece. "She was on her way back after Thanksgiving and got killed in a car accident. She died right after Thanksgiving holiday 1952. Two weeks later, my father died from a heart attack, probably caused by my sister's death. He was 50. " Fate had another card to deal. "On Nov. 30th my sister died; on Dec. 17th my father died," says Mr. Preece. "And then almost immediately, I found out that Paula was pregnant. That was a bad year. I sort of had to grow up real quick. " The couple were married and Paula Preece gave birth to a son, Don. "I was 18 and she was like 161/2, almost 17," says Mr. Preece.

"I had to go to work, which is one of the reasons I don't have a tremendous amount of formal education except for high school and one year of college. " Next came son Jon-Michael (now a producer on the network show Millennium), then another son, Gary, and daughter, Gretchen. After 16 years of marriage, Paula and Michael Preece divorced in 1969 and both remarried.

Their oldest son, Don Preece, died in a motorcycle accident in 1980 (leaving behind a 2-year-old son). Paula died more than a decade later from cancer.
"Those are things that happen to a person almost never," says Mr. Preece's daughter, Gretchen Newman, "yet he had a whole series of deaths. Don's death took a big part out of him. I don't think at the time it happened he was able to express it, and it closed off a part of him. I can't imagine the pains he must have felt. He was really close to Don. " "It's made his heart hurt," says his wife, Evelyn, of the tragedies. "But ultimately he appreciates the life he does have more than he would have before. " Perhaps what he appreciates most are his five grandchildren.

Daughter Gretchen is married to composer Randy Newman (besides his hits such as I Love L.A., Mr. Newman has scored films such as The Natural, Toy Story, Parenthood and Awakenings). According to Mrs. Newman, her children, 4-year-old Alice and 6-year-old Patrick, are the recipients of much grandfatherly attention from Mr. Preece.

"He calls them on the telephone and talks to them," says Mrs. Newman, who lives in Los Angeles. "We just came to Texas a couple weeks ago. It would be easy for him to take a step back and let us do the parenting. But if one has to go to the bathroom, he's there to take them. That's the thing kids notice about a grandparent, when they're not just patting them on the head, but they're involved. " Learning the biz But 45 years ago, after his sister and father died, Mr. Preece's highest priorit y was a paycheck to support his new family.

Enter show business. Mr. Preece became a doorman and marquee changer at the El Rey Theater on Wilshire Boulevard. It was at the El Rey that he first grasped the mechanics of movies as he watched the same films over and over again. But bigger things beckoned.

"Because my mother was head of the script supervisors' union," says Mr. Preece, "I got in in 1955. I was a script supervisor for 20 years. " Today, Thelma Preece is 93 and lives in Malibu at a retirement home half a mile from her son's California house.

"They've got a swimming pool, a tennis court and a view of the ocean," he says. "She's well taken care of. " And the current incarnation of the union she founded pays for her medication.

Mr. Preece readily confesses that once he became a script supervisor, he started globe-trotting with movie crews and found himself in environments that were not conducive to a healthy marriage. Like the time he went to the South Pacific to be a script supervisor on Mutiny on the Bounty with Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard.

"There were a lot of Tahitian girls and I sort of fell by the wayside," Mr. Preece says.

One Tahitian woman named Anna took a fancy to him.

Unfortunately, she was also dating Mr. Brando.

"One night she showed up at my little hut on Bora Bora," says Mr. Preece. "We ended up spending some time together that night. .
. . The next morning, I'm standing knee-deep in the ocean and Marlon comes up and he hits me as hard as he can in the arm.

`What's that for? ' I asked. " Mr. Brando accused Mr. Preece of sleeping with the actor's girlfriend. Mr. Preece replied: "You're a famous movie star - why would I do that? " Mr. Brando said, "She told me you did. " "Then," recalls Mr. Preece, "he hugged me. . . . He was always testing women to see if they were faithful. I think that's how Marlon and I became friends. " That friendship endured for many years through several pictures they worked on together.

Jack of all trades Mr. Preece's vast experience as a script supervisor on films like Mutiny on th Bounty and How the West Was Won paved the way for his rise to the director's chair.

"He just has an incredible history as a script supervisor," says Mr. Duffy. "He worked on Old Man and the Sea with Spencer Tracy and [Ernest] Hemingway was there. " Of that shoot, Mr. Preece says, "The only thing I ever saw Spencer Tracy and Ernest Hemingway do was smoke cigars and drink rum and Coke - with very little Coke. " Mr. Preece's first shot at any kind of direction behind the lens came in the mid-'60s when he was hired as a script supervisor on a new TV show starring a couple of up-and-comers named Bob Culp and Bill Cosby.

"The best job I ever had was on I Spy," Mr. Preece says of those years. "For the first location they said, `Do you have a passport? ' We went to Hong Kong. Later, we shot in Tokyo, Mexico and Spain.

Another year we went to Marrakech in Morocco and then Greece.

Another time we went to Italy. " Sheldon Leonard, the show's executive producer, was ready to give young Michael Preece a chance, albeit a small chance, behind the camera.

"We were in Hong Kong and Sheldon gave me a stack of postcards," says Mr. Preece. "Postcard photographers will go all the way around the Eiffel Tower or wherever and get the best angle. Sheldon said, `Go there and make stock shots so we can cut them into I Spy. ' I did it in every city we went to: Rome, Florence, Venice, Madrid.

Sheldon would buy the postcards and say, `These must be the shots. ' " Then there was acting. He first got paid for acting in bit parts on I Spy while the crew was overseas and short on English-speaking actors.

While Mr. Preece worked as the script supervisor on The Getaway with Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw, his director friend Sam Peckinpah put him in front of the camera to play a detective. "Sam gave me a medal that I still have that says `Actor of the Year Award,' " says Mr. Preece.

Not all roles were award-winners. On Gilligan's Island, he played an island native opposite the show's dream girl, actress Tina Louise, a.k.a. movie star Ginger Grant.

"I went on the set and the makeup people put rubber bands around my hair, a wig on me and a bone on my nose. I had to talk what we called `ooga booga' dialogue. My job was taking everybody captive and I was holding Tina Louise. We were rehearsing and I took her by the arm softly and she said, kind of rudely, `Don't touch me unless we're filming. ' " Taking direction After one season as script supervisor on The Streets of San Francisco TV show, Mr. Preece got his directing shot courtesy of the show's stars, Michael Douglas and Karl Malden. "They said, `We got all these guys we didn't like as directors - why don't you start directing? ' " says Mr. Preece.

The show's executive producer, Quinn Martin (who was a '70s TV titan with shows such as FBI, Barnaby Jones and Jake and the Fat Man), gave Mr. Preece his first directing job with one admonition.

"Directors are a dime a dozen," Mr. Martin said. "Good script supervisors are hard to find. " Mr. Preece and his second wife, Evelyn, scraped together the $2,500 needed for him to join the Directors Guild. "We came up with the money somehow and I did my first episode with James Woods as a guest star. " Even then, Mr. Woods lived up to his now-legendary reputation for hammy performances. "He played a wild sailor and his buddy dies and he went crazy," says Mr. Preece. "Back then, I didn't know to say, `Jeez, calm down. That's overacting. ' " Later Universal Studios put Mr. Preece under a directing contract to fill in wherever they needed him - for directors who got sick or on projects that were stalled.

"I did everything," says Mr. Preece. "I did Richard Boone's show Hec Ramsey and an episode of Shirley Jones' show Shirley. It was just a great learning time. " Then he held the same post for Quinn Martin, directing episodes of Most Wanted and Barnaby Jones and movies of the week. "At that time, there was a lot of Quinn Martin stuff going on," he explains.

Out of the blue, Mr. Preece got a call from Leonard Katzman, who was producing a new show called Dallas. He wanted Mr. Preece to direct the nighttime drama.

"There was a series called The Runaways that Quinn Martin was making," says Mr. Preece. "But Leonard asked me to come direct Dallas. . . . I told him, `I want to do a successful story like The Runaways where we have really good stories and good acting. ' I think we did 13 episodes of The Runaways, and nobody ever saw it and nobody even remembers it. " (Later in the interview, Mr. Preece himself has trouble recalling the name of the series.) "Anyway, here's what I told Leonard about Dallas: `I don't want to work on this piece of [expletive] nighttime soap opera,' " says Mr. Preece with a laugh. "So I turned him down. He said, `I don't know - this Dallas might make it. ' And I told him, "I don't think so, Leonard. I'm staying with The Runaways. ' " After The Runaways folded, Mr. Preece ate crow and packed his bags for Southfork.

Shooting on schedule During his 10-plus years on-and-off with Dallas, Mr. Preece secured a growing reputation as a director who could do great work in record time. "He just puts you to work and you have to keep up with him," says Mr. Duffy, who has also directed many episodes of Dallas.

"A television crew is heavy machinery. If it's not coordinated properly, it takes more time. " Time was something in short supply in the early '90s on the Dallas set of Walker, Texas Ranger. "It's not just the average show," says actress Sheree J. Wilson, who plays Alex Cahill on Walker. "With all the action scenes, stunts and special effects, we were having 14-, 16-, 18-hour days every day. " As she endured the Bataan-like shooting schedule, she thought back to her days playing ingenue April Stevens on Dallas when she worked regularly with Mr. Preece.

According to Ms. Wilson, "I would tell the people on Walker, `There is only one person who can do this job, I promise you. I know him. His name his Michael Preece. ' When we had our first 21-hour shooting day, I said, `When are you guys going to listen to me?! ' " Mr. Norris, the show's star and executive producer, finally did listen. He put out the call for Michael Preece to come direct an episode of his show.

"Michael came down and we wrapped the first shoot in 10 hours," says Ms. Wilson. "The crew dropped to their knees and started doing the wave. He looked at us like, `What's the big deal? ' Even Chuck went, `Gulp. ' " Currently, Mr. Preece directs every other episode of Walker, Texas Ranger.

The right stuff Mr. Hagman, who has directed episodes of Dallas, thinks that Mr. Preece's competence, knowledge and humor are his best assets.

"When I'm directing, I always go to the photographer and say, `What have you never done before that you'd like to do now? ' " says Mr. Hagman. "And they always shoot it and then never use it. When Michael's directing, he'll say to me, `Let's do another take. ' I'll say, `Why? ' And he'll say, `Because you can do it better. ' He's right, of course. He's always right. " "He goes out of his way to make sure that even when he requests you to do something that the request comes in a proper way," adds Mr. Kennedy. "Michael makes sure that he doesn't sound like a director. " "I like to avoid any kind of confrontation because it just doesn't help," says Mr. Preece. "A lot of directors will get angry and yell at people. I try to avoid that. It hurts the performance later. Then they're thinking about the argument rather than thinking about their work. You don't want to be weak. You don't want them to run over you. But they are the ones whose picture is up there, not mine. " According to Ms. Wilson, there's little need for yelling on a Preece-run set. "He knows exactly what he needs," she says. "He doesn't mess around and waste any time, and he tells wonderful jokes the whole time. " He's also unflappable. "Michael never gets rattled," reports Ms. Wilson. "We could have a location set up, haul everything out there and then suddenly it all blows up. Michael would look at us and say, `OK, fine. We move the cameras over here. ' I'm not sure what his special magic is. " "Michael just loves to work," s ays wife Evelyn, "and I'm proud of him for that. " "Everybody loves my dad," adds Gretchen Newman. "When I was in high school, my girlfriends loved my dad. He was very handsome and he knows how to be with whomever he is with. He's comfortable around 14-year-olds and he's comfortable around my grandfather. You know that if you're talking to him, he's listening to you. " Typical of his disposition, Mr. Preece looks at the bright side of his job. "The pay's pretty good," he says. "It doesn't pay as wel l as being J.R., but then, what does? "

PHOTO(S): (1. - 3. PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID WOO) 1. Michael Preece, who directs every other episode of Walker, Texas Ranger, returned to the cast of Dallas this fall to shoot a sequel to the Ewing family saga. 2. Michael Preece gets a group hug from the Ewing family. From left: Larry "J.R." Hagman, Patrick "Bobby" Duffy and Linda "Sue Ellen" Gray. Mr. Preece is admired by the Dallas cast for his nurturing style. 3. Chuck Norris (right) jokes with Michael Preece on the set of Walker, Texas Ranger. Mr . Preece was suggested as a director for the new series by cast member Sheree J. Wilson who had worked with him on the set of Dallas.

Copyright 1997 The Dallas Morning News Company