Getting There: How Longhorn Joan Darling Became One of the First Female Television Directors

When Joan Darling began her television career in the early 1970s, the directors yelling “action!” and “cut!” on her sets were invariably male. Her success behind the camera helped change that trend.

In 1975 the Boston native made her directorial debut with the hit series Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a satirical soap opera that explored consumerism and the desperation of American housewives. That year Darling directed the Mary Tyler Moore Show episode “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” artfully blending death and comedy in what TV Guide called the greatest 30 minutes in television.

Darling’s credits include a 1976 classic M*A*S*H episode titled “The Nurses,” and episodes of Phyllis, Rhoda, Taxi, Magnum P.I., and Doogie Howser, M.D., among other television shows and feature films. Her efforts earned four Emmy nods for outstanding direction, making her the first woman nominated for the award. In 1985, Darling won an Emmy and a Directors Guild of America Award for “ABC Afterschool Specials,” a series of educational programs.

Darling, 83, details the rules she followed on her journey to stardom for the Alcalde.

Change Course

In 1957 Darling transferred from the rigid Carnegie Institute of Technology to UT for a more relaxed and supportive theater education, and to study under Ben Iden Payne, a world-renowned Shakespeare expert. “I wanted to be a Shakespeare actress, and Payne offered classical training like no one else,” she says. “Now I’m probably one of the only people left in this country who really knows how to teach Shakespeare.”

Stretch a Budget

At UT, Darling quickly embraced Willie Nelson, Tex-Mex and Austin’s small-town vibe. Yet she was an atypical undergraduate student. She had already married and was going through a divorce. Darling was also broke—one semester she borrowed $65 from a Jewish organization to pay her tuition. “I lived in my car, showered at a friend’s house, and got my hair cut in a barber shop,” she remembers. When other girls wore skirts and blouses to class, Darling wore jeans. “I was a rebel,” she says.

Darling left UT in 1958, lacking funds to finish her degree. Next she moved to New York City, where a group of former UT students shared an apartment that served as a weigh station until newcomers could find jobs. “You just had to hope for the best,” she says.

Catch a Big Break

Darling caught a break in 1960 when she successfully auditioned for a part at The Premise, the first improvisational theatre in New York. “The show was a huge success,” she remembers. “Over time, Tom Aldredge, Gene Hackman, and Ron Leibman were in it—Dusty Hoffman tried out but he couldn’t get in, so he became a coffee maker and dishwasher at the Premise instead!” Darling received terrific reviews for the show, and the experience helped her land off-Broadway and Broadway roles before she moved to Los Angeles for film and television gigs.

Find a Mentor

In 1975, Darling was writing TV scripts in LA when legendary producer Norman Lear asked her to direct two pilot episodes of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Lear—producer of All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and Sanford and Son—wanted to bring women into the business of directing and knew Darling had a strong reputation as an acting teacher. “Norm believed in me,” she says, “so I figured I would try for one year to establish the idea that a woman could direct.” Darling’s early episodes set the tone for both seasons of Mary Hartman. The show became a cult classic, and Darling, a desired director.

Embrace Your Success

“The press labeled me the first female director,” Darling recalls. “It’s not completely accurate, but there was no other female getting up every morning going to work as a director at that time. The fact that I was there and doing it, well, I was a role model.”

Ignore Your Critics

In 1966 Darling received a scathing review from The New York Times for her portrayal of Viola in “Twelfth Night.” The harsh words stung for months, but Darling learned not to waste time on critics. “I didn’t read another review for 10 years,” she says. “Pay no attention to the noes. You can cry in your pillow at night, but you get up the next morning and move forward.”

Learn to Collaborate

“My sets were fun places to work,” Darling says. “I respected people. If someone had an idea that was better than mine, then I wanted to hear it, and I would happily use it. I was good at creating situations where everyone could contribute.” Darling also knew how to stay focused. “I was so busy telling stories that I didn’t have time to worry about whether people respected me. It was their problem if they didn’t.”

Find Your Passion

“Strangely enough my biggest triumph has come from my hobby: teaching,” says Darling, who has lead acting and directing workshops worldwide, often in collaboration with the Sundance Directors Lab and the American Film Institute. “Teaching seems to touch people’s lives in a lasting and positive way,” she adds. Many of Darling’s teaching initiatives have supported women in film. “Investing the time to open doors for women directors is something I’m very proud of.”

Value Humor

Darling lives in Kennebunkport, Maine, with her husband, playwright and screenwriter Bill Svanoe. The two entertainers married 52 years ago and see a movie together once a week. “We like each other,” Darling says. “In our family, laughs come first.”

Do It Yourself

“Don’t wait for somebody to give you a job. The most important thing is to be an artist and to keep doing it. Get together with friends and put on plays yourself—in the street if you have to. If you’re a director, it’s so inexpensive to get a camera and shoot. Be resourceful and improvise. There’s no inspiration like desperation.”

 

 
 
 

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