Director/producer/actors are rare in television—so rare that Timothy Busfield can’t think of any. “There’s not even many director/producers,” he says. “I don’t know anybody who’s done all three on a show.” Other than himself, that is. Busfield—who’s best-known, depending on one’s age and taste, as Thirtysomething’s Elliot Weston, The West Wing’s Danny Concannon or Revenge of the Nerds’ Arnold Poindexter—is that rare TV triple threat. He is co-executive producer on CBS missing-persons drama Without a Trace, for which he has directed eight episodes, and plays a recurring role as Senior Agent Jack Malone’s divorce lawyer.
Busfield, 48, will continue to wear three hats when he leaves Trace to join the cast of Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, about a fictional Saturday Night Live-esque sketch-comedy show.
Busfield wasn’t a directing novice when he jumped behind the camera to direct episodes of Thirtysomething in the late 1980s. In 1986, he started the B Street Theater in Sacramento, Calif., and has put on more than 100 plays.
“My theater background was huge,” he says. “That made it a natural jump.”
Learning to work with directors
He went on to direct episodes of other series, such as Sorkin’s Sports Night and kids show Lizzie McGuire, before becoming an executive producer and occasional director on drama series Ed.
Stepping even further behind the camera wasn’t without its challenges, Busfield says.
“The hardest thing was, as a producer, learning how to work with directors,” he says. “I got in their way at first.”
To strike a balance, Busfield draws on the successful ensembles he has been a part of, such as Thirtysomething and Sorkin’s Broadway production of A Few Good Men, and tries to re-create the vibe that made those shows work.
“You aspire to the higher quality of the people around you, and you want the environment you’re working in to run like those great shows,” he says. “The hardest part is trying to find that element and get everyone on the same page.”
Another challenge he faces as a producer, says Busfield, is the FCC, which recently zinged Without a Trace with a $3.6 million fine. While Busfield insists the ruling won’t change the marching orders he gives the show’s directors, he concedes that the commission’s ever watchful gaze hinders broadcast TV’s efforts to be authentic.
“It’s frustrating that people on network TV cannot speak the way people actually speak today,” he says. “Your audience slips away to cable. We have to speak their speak and walk their walk, or it becomes impossible for the audience to take the journey with us.”
While Studio 60 is likely to get the FCC’s attention with its edgy humor, Busfield won’t dwell on the indecency police.
“It’s Aaron’s show,” he says. “I’m not worried.”
Given his various roles, Studio 60 looks an awful lot like Timothy’s show, too. In addition to joining an ensemble cast that includes Matthew Perry and Amanda Peet, Busfield will direct and produce for showrunner Thomas Schlamme, who is glad to have him on the team.
“It’s very, very rare to find a guy who can do all those things well; they’re very different disciplines,” says Schlamme. “My head would explode if I had to step in front of the camera while directing, but Tim is a multi-tasker who can compartmentalize. He’s also one of the really good guys on the planet.”
Sorkin agrees. “Tim never hits a false note,” he says. “Ever.”
Indeed, Busfield is a quintessential team player, and the sports metaphor is apt: He played semi-pro baseball for decades, until just a few years ago. An undersize pitcher who got by on smarts, not a blazing fastball (à la Chicago Cub Greg Maddux), he compiled a 30-12 record over the course of his career.
“I had a pretty good run,” says Busfield, who, after decades on the West Coast, still roots for his home-state Detroit Tigers.
His ball skills helped Busfield land a part in theatrical release Field of Dreams years ago, a gig he was reminded of recently when he saw an ad for new baseball movie Benchwarmers.
A nerd with a 'Dream’
The tagline for the new film, “Build it, and nerds will come,” was a tip of the cap to the famous “If you build it, he will come” line from Field of Dreams, which starred Kevin Costner. The “nerd” part, of course, conjured memories of Busfield’s role as über-goober Poindexter in 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds.
“When we saw the ad, my kid said, 'Dad, you’re the only one in the world that applies to,’” says Busfield. “'You’re the only one in both movies.’”
His three children have shown an interest in following in Dad’s footsteps. And that’s just fine with Busfield, who seems to have nothing but positive memories of his colorful career.
“My kids grew up in our theater, collapsing on the couch next to whatever actor was there,” he says. “They grew up in a world where our family traveled and did plays; we’re all a bunch of carnies.”