One of America’s most prolific television directors, Mr. D'Elia is currently executive producer and director of “How to Get Away with Murder” starring Viola Davis. He recently directed Patrick Stewart in the sitcom, “Blunt Talk.” Mr. D’Elia was an executive producer/director of “Chicago Hope,” “Boston Legal,” “Ally McBeal,” “Harry’s Law,” “Monday Mornings,” “The Crazy Ones,” and the co-creator of “Judging Amy.” A successful director of television commercials in the 1980’s, in 1989, he independently produced and directed the film, “The Feud,” based on the 1983 novel by Thomas Berger. Mr. D'Elia has also directed episodes of television series including “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” “Northern Exposure,” “Glee,” “The Practice,” and “The West Wing.” Mr. D'Elia has been nominated for a total of eight Emmy Awards, four as a director and four as an executive producer.
I understand the late well-known acting teacher, Robert Modica, played a large role influencing you at an early point in your life.
While I was in high school I was interested in the arts but I was very nervous and shy. I was fifteen years old and my father was a very blue collar guy; the arts was not something in his mind that a guy did.
I took a drama class in high school and it was the one year that Robert Modica taught at a high school. He was also the director of the school play, which that year was “You Can’t Take It With You,” and I wanted to be in it and audition. I remember I’d pass the flyer hanging up on the wall in the hallway, and I’d think about being in the show. But I hesitated, and the play was cast.
One day in class Robert had all of us doing exercises. We had to create a pantomime and I was so nervous I made sure I went last. I did it and after I finished, the very first thing I hear is: “D’Elia, why didn’t you try out for the school play?” I stammered and tried to say I didn’t really want to. He said: “You’re coming to rehearsal today!”
So I get there and everyone’s rehearsing. He stops rehearsal, comes over, puts his arm around me, and announces to everyone: “This is Bill D’Elia, and in this play we have three G-men who come in, now there’s four!” He puts me in the play; I have one line and have to come in to arrest someone. I said my one line pretty much to the wall. But that was all because of Bob, and I wound up being in two plays!
He ‘opened that door’ for me. I had a love of theatre but he was such a fantastic presence. I didn’t have any inkling then that I wanted to be a director. But he so strongly influenced me. It was the things he did, they are such a part of me. I use some of the things in his teaching in my directing.
In what ways would you say he has influenced your work as a director?
He was all about behavior. As a kid in class I’d watch the way he’d observe what the other students would do in class. Basically he was teaching the Meisner technique, but I was really unaware of what that was at the time. For me, it was ‘his eye,’ the way he’d comment on the behavior he’d see from the students in a scene they’d do. And how he’d influence their behavior to get what he wanted.
I’ll never forget the moment when we were rehearsing “The Diary of Anne Frank.” I played Mr Dussell, the guy who comes up from downstairs, and I was watching the other students rehearse who played Peter and Anne. There’s a tender moment when he kisses her on the cheek. I was intent on listening to everything he would say, and watched his direction. At one point, he said to the two students, Susan and Donald. “Hold on. Instead of giving her a kiss on the cheek, I want you to really kiss her on the lips and don’t stop kissing until you hear me say stop!” He was saying this to teenagers.
Well, they get to the moment in the scene when he kisses her, and awkwardly they begin kissing and keep kissing and keep kissing and he wouldn’t say stop. They so forgot where they were. Everyone’s jaws were dropping in the room, and they’re really making out and all of a sudden he yells out: “Stop!” They break apart and their faces are all red, and he says to Donald: “That’s what you feel when you kiss her on the cheek!”
And every night when that moment would occur in the scene, it would be electrifying. I think some version of that is always present in my mind. In a way it may occur in the way I try to coax someone on the set. Of course, I don’t have to do things like that, I’m working with professionals. But sometimes you get people with an attitude or who are just not present enough, so it’s there when I need it.
How have you learned to keep yourself focused, expanding, stretching yourself creatively?
I love what I do so much; I even love it when I’m complaining about it. It can have the most stressful moments; I can have the most difficult times but I’m having a great time. I can’t believe what I get to complain about sometimes. There’s always one or another challenge. I spent the last two seasons writing, and as the director and producer of “How to Get Away with Murder” with Viola Davis, and from the very start it’s been challenging. It’s not the kind of show I’ve usually done. I would do shows with some humor, but this is a straight-out melodrama, a ‘page turner.’ I finished it in February, and then I just spent the last two weeks directing Patrick Stewart in a comedy, “Blunt Talk,” which has it’s own completely different challenges. Again I’m stretching muscles in a different way.
Bill D’Elia with cast of How to Get Away with Murder
With everything going on in the world, how would you describe the impact the work you do and those who work with you have in helping us be more accepting of one another?
I think I’m constantly aware of that as a storyteller, particularly with the show, “How to Get Away with Murder.” We know that within the lines that are drawn, that we’re still able to touch on some real issues which can be thought-provoking. They can be stories which can get people angry, and I’m very aware we’re reaching millions of people, so I’m always aware of trying to be as true to the characters’ behavior of the people in the drama. And hopefully, without sounding poetic, ‘shine a light on the human condition.’
In television there’s so much pressure to get the next show out; there’s always another episode. But I came into directing sideways in a way. I didn’t have the burning desire to be a director like a lot of other directors may have had. I think perhaps a lot of it may have come from Bob’s influence. I don’t think of the same things, like getting the coolest shot. I’ve learned to watch people. I still find people’s behavior fascinating. Why do people behave the way they do – and I think it all started with Bob (Modica).
Did you reconnect with Robert Modica later in life?
Well, after not seeing him at all since those teenage years, I found myself in New York City walking past Carnegie Hall one night. It was around 1997 or ‘98. I walked into the lobby and asked the guard if Mr. Modica still had classes there. He said: “Yes,” and allowed me to go up.
I stood in the doorway of Bob’s class and watched him on the phone with his back to the students. Class hadn’t started yet and they sat in silence behind him.
He glanced up at me and said to the person on the phone, “I gotta call you back.” He stared at me, jumped up, and ignoring his students, gave me the biggest hello. He recognized the kid in me. He knew who I was.
I was floored that he did. He kept saying “Look at you! You’re a man!” “Look at you!” I told him what I was doing for a living, he was very happy.
And then I thanked him. I told him I never would have become this but for his teachings and the experience of being in his orbit as he directed. I told him he changed my life. He had tears in his eyes as we said goodbye. And we stayed in touch after that. In fact, I spoke to him just days before he died.
What a great thing to be able to do. To be able to go back one last time meant so much to me, to let him know, and to say thanks. It was quite special and meaningful to us both.