Don Mischer is in Control

Sep 15, 2003  •  Post A Comment

On Emmy night, about two hours into the three-hour show, America will be watching commercials while producer Don Mischer is in a control room adjacent to the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Lit by a bank of color monitors, he will page through a bound script looking for cuts, while glancing at a “back time” program on a computer screen that will tell him the running time of the show and precisely how many minutes remain. Depending on what he decides, changes will be made on the spot-comedy routines could be scraped, songs left unsung or elaborate tape packages left unaired.
“By the time we get to the last hour we have all kinds of contingency packages,” Mr. Mischer explained last week while preparing to produce his eighth Emmys in 12 years as well as his first “Reality Awards” show. “I have many cuts marked in the script, and if we have to make them, we make them. It may be that a presenter will want to come out and tell a story about something on their show or whatever, and we simply say, `No. We’re sorry. You have to go right to the nominations.”’
There are taped segments for different contingencies. “We have what we call a `desperation package,’ which is simply listing the names in that category,” said Mr. Mischer. “You can do that in like 15 or 20 seconds. Then you have a `medium-length package’ that not only identifies the nominees but also gives you a sense of the show in a few lines, a short scene. … And then you have `long packages,’ which can have longer scenes that sometimes are wonderful. They can show you the gut-wrenching aspects of these series and how good the television is.”
Mr. Mischer knows good television and how to bring a show in on time. His “worst” Emmys ran 45 seconds over, compared with an hour or more for other past Emmy producers. Doing it right and on time has earned Mr. Mischer a sterling reputation and an office full of awards. His collection includes 13 Emmys, an amazing nine Directors Guild Awards, three NAACP Image Awards, a Peabody and the Golden Rose of Montreux.
His numerous producing credits include the Tonys, the Kennedy Center Honors, Barbara Walters specials, dozens of series and specials (often with temperamental talents such as Barbra Streisand and Michael Jackson), ABC’s 50th anniversary, the 1989 Presidential Inaugural Gala and the 2002 Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Winter Games in Salt Lake City-viewed by 3 billion people.
“Some have compared [producing the Olympics Opening] to playing Russian roulette with a couple of bullets in the chamber,” Mr. Mischer said. “There is always something that can go wrong.”
That is exactly why Don Mischer is so in demand. “He’s like a great plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills,” said veteran personal manager Bernie Brillstein, who along with associate Brad Grey has represented Mr. Mischer for two decades. “People are waiting for him. People wait for Don. He gets many, many more offers than what he does.”
Mr. Brillstein compares him with the great old “reliable, tasteful producers,” adding: “He has the ability to make everyone look beautiful and he’s a gentleman. And that’s rare today. People in the old days were trained to do their jobs. That’s how he came up.”
He grew up in San Antonio. His dad was in the insurance business and dreamed his son would be an actuary, because he had a keen mind for math. Then the young man, who played guitar in a local country band and was finishing a master’s degree in sociology at the University of Texas, had an epiphany. At a football game that was being televised, he found himself more interested in “where and how they were placing cameras than the football game.”
He abandoned plans to pursue a Ph.D. and went to work at a PBS station in Austin, Texas. “That’s how I learned the craft of television,” he said. “I learned by hanging lights and pulling cable and working in the scenic shop and becoming a cameraman, an assistant director, all in a year.”
His road took him to Washington to work for the U.S. Information Agency, and to New York, where he directed TV, beginning with the PBS show “The Great American Dream Machine.” After a dozen years in the Big Apple, producer George Schlatter brought Mr. Mischer to L.A. to revive “Laugh-In.” He never stopped working after that.
His father forgave him not becoming an actuary and was proud, said Mr. Mischer, but “never pulled me aside and said, `Man, you’ve really made it,”’ even as he got major network assignments and won several Emmys. “Until I worked with Bob Hope,” he added. “I directed Bob Hope’s 80th birthday in 1983 at the Kennedy Center in Washington. After that my dad said, `You have really made it. I am really proud of you. You’ve worked with Bob Hope.”’
Now Mr. Mischer has his own loving family, including two grown daughters who occasionally work with him, and a son and daughter still in school. He works long hours, but each new project seems to energize him more as he approaches the end of his sixth decade. “I just love what I do,” Mr. Mischer said. “If you produce something that moves somebody and makes people think in some way they didn’t think before, or you create a moment, like Muhammad Ali holding the torch with the fire on it in Atlanta [to open the 1996 Olympics], then that’s part of history and it’s worth all of the aggravation and pressure.”