Malibu resident Michael Preece talks about his work in television that has spanned more than five decades.
By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times
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?'”