As a high school student, it was the heat of Houston that first drew Thomas Schlamme to enter the drama department—the classroom was air-conditioned. And though the director and executive producer of ABC’s new period drama, Pan Am, was not naturally drawn to the business, he was encouraged to explore the field by his drama teacher, Cecil Pickett.
“It was a strange…little moment in time that there were a lot of people waiting to, I think, find somebody who could help them redirect their lives. And Cecil served that purpose,” Schlamme says, referencing an A-list of performers who were also taught by Pickett: Dennis and Randy Quaid, Brent Spiner and the late Trey Wilson.
Schlamme’s first foray into the business was, like many young drama students, as an actor; he shifted his sights to directing after enrolling at the University of Texas, which he entered on a theater scholarship that “lasted for about six or eight hours,” Schlamme says. After a brief stint in New York following graduation, Schlamme returned to Houston and worked at an ad agency creating 16mm industrial films for oil companies until he was able to return to New York.
While there was no “big break,” Schlamme says Bette Milder proved instrumental in launching his career. After working together on Cinemax’s 1984 Album Flash, Midler asked Schlamme to direct her HBO concert special, Bette Midler: Art or Bust. That helped Schlamme break into variety which, although not necessarily an interest of his, was a way for him to establish himself in the business.
From there, Schlamme dabbled in both film and television, directing several ABC Afterschool Specials in 1986, and his first movie, MissFirecracker, in 1989. Working in both film and television gave Schlamme the opportunity to find the “best storytelling.”
“The truth of it is, in what [my opportunities were] 15 years ago, working with people like David Kelley, Steven Bochco and Aaron Sorkin was so much more exciting. I had so many more opportunities in that world than finding really incredible movie scripts,” Schlamme says.
Following an Emmy nod for his work on HBO’s Tracey Takes On…, Schlamme first collaborated with Sorkin on the ABC comedydrama series Sports Night. The show taught Schlamme that doing a show the “safe” way was not always the better way, after he acquiesced to more seasoned executives’ decisions in regard to shooting the pilot.
“If this means that we don’t get on television because we did it the way we think is right, that’s the better way to do it. That’s the better way to achieve success,” he says. “It’s not that I regretted it for Sports Night. It was just a part of the process— not necessarily your failures, but the decisions you make. That’s the way you get better.”
Sports Night ran for two seasons and earned Schlamme an Emmy for his directing in 1999, and another nomination in 2000.
Immediately after Sports Night, Sorkin and Schlamme collaborated on The West Wing, arguably Schlamme’s most recognizable show, which ultimately earned him two Emmys for directing, in 2000 and 2001. Schlamme departed the show after the fourth season, and it continued to run for a total of seven.
Since then, the director’s long list of credits includes The WB’s Jack & Bobby in 2004 and ABC’s Invasion in 2005, as well as ER, The Larry Sanders Show, Ally McBeal and Boston Public. He worked with Sorkin again when he executive produced and directed NBC’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which starred Matthew Perry (with whom Schlamme also worked on ABC’s 2011 comedy Mr. Sunshine) and also earned him an Emmy nomination for directing in 2007.
For NBC’s Parenthood, Schlamme worked with creator and executive producer Jason Katims on the pilot for the series and embraced the difficult task of introducing the 13 lead characters in one hour. Schlamme notes that the pilot is much different than the current show, which is praised for its free-form quality; as the director of that pilot, it had been his responsibility “to anchor it.”
“It was such an honor to get the chance to work with Tommy, one of the finest television directors, period,” Katims says. “He is a fiercely intelligent director who always has spot-on instincts about every aspect of the process. I learned so much from the experience.”
Schlamme’s latest work is Pan Am, ABC’s drama about the 1960s-era airline Pan American World Airways and the stewardesses aboard the flights. As showrunner, Schlamme had a strong vision of what the series should look like, keeping in mind “The World’s Largest Photograph,” Kodak’s 1950s Colorama display, and the large, backlit transparencies used as advertisements at Grand Central Station in New York. Schlamme drew on these images as the inspiration for the setting of the series.
“Cinematographer John Lindley and I went through a book of all these old photographs and went, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could translate that feeling—what America felt like, the iconographic images of that, in the show about these men and women traveling the world?’” Schlamme recalls.
When examining Schlamme’s resume, it is difficult to find a theme running throughout— his work includes film and television of all genres. Schlamme attributes his understanding and world view to his viewing of the film Bonnie and Clyde—watching it, he couldn’t decide whether or not he should laugh.
“Journeying through life being a Jew in Texas named Thomas Schlamme, who played a lot of sports—I never quite knew if my life was comedy or tragedy,” says Schlamme, who has been married for nearly 30 years to Oscar-winning actress Christine Lahti. “It was such a combination of all those things, and that’s the way I saw the world, and the way that I best express the world.”
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