Peter Horton entered the TV Zeitgeist as an actor, playing the tall, shaggy-haired Professor Gary Shepherd on that seminal study in yuppie angst, thirtysomething, from 1987 to 1991. Nearly two decades later, Horton is riding the wave of another primetime phenomenon, as an executive producer and director of ABC's Grey's Anatomy. “The idea of being involved in two of them is overwhelming,” he says. “I feel very blessed in that way.”
Indeed, Horton's transformation from fresh-faced actor to successful TV director and producer took off with thirtysomething. A one-time classical pianist who turned to acting and appeared on episodes of The White Shadow and St. Elsewhere before starring in 1984 horror film Children of the Corn, he had already decided to leave acting behind when thirtysomething creator Edward Zwick offered him the role.
He even turned it down three times: “I changed my mind when Ed Zwick said I could direct six episodes and promised to kill me off after four years.”
Blossoming behind the camera
Zwick kept his word. In early 1991, Horton's character—the fun-loving best friend of lead Ken Olin's Michael Steadman—died in a car accident.
Horton continued to act, but his career behind the camera blossomed when two pilots he directed—Class of '96 and Birdland—were picked up for series. He also contributed segments to (and co-starred in) 1987 sci-fi film spoof Amazon Women on the Moon and directed a 1995 feature called The Cure, about a boy with AIDS.
In 1998, Horton produced and starred in Brimstone, a short-lived Fox series about a cop resurrected to do Satan's work. While appearing in another short-lived series, The Geena Davis Show, he reunited with Zwick and thirtysomething co-creator Marshall Hershkovitz to direct episodes of their post-divorce drama Once and Again. More recently, he has directed episodes of FX's The Shield.
Horton joined Anatomy when executive producer Mark Gordon, a friend since they worked together on a 1983 after-school special, sent him the pilot script. He praises series creator and executive producer Shonda Rhimes for providing the vision that has made the sex-and-surgery drama ABC's top series. But he also credits the network's Entertainment President Steve McPherson with positioning the show so successfully, including scheduling a two-part, Horton-directed episode behind this year's Super Bowl.
Still, Horton admits to some trepidation over McPherson's decision to move Anatomy to Thursdays this fall. “When something is working so well,” he says, “it's hard to change.”
How much time he'll devote to Anatomy going forward depends on the outcome of another Rhimes pilot he'll direct for ABC: a midseason drama about the lives of female TV correspondents that begins shooting in September.
And he'll soon be back in front of the camera for a brief turn on ABC's new fall series Brothers & Sisters. His friend Olin, an executive producer and director on the show, persuaded Horton to play a romantic interest of star Calista Flockhart in the pilot. (When ABC picked up the program and told him that Horton had too much work to be a series regular, Olin relished the idea of telling his friend, “I have to fire you.”)
But Horton admitted to Olin that he found the experience “appealing,” a sentiment Olin, having taken a similar path from acting to directing and producing, understands himself.
“We are much more fulfilled now by what we're doing,” Olin says. “But at the end of some days, you just say, 'God, acting would be really nice.'”
Advice to Anatomy stars
Horton still intends to act occasionally, but he knows that the odds of landing on another thirtysomething or Anatomy are slim. In his long career, he has learned that opportunities like that don't come along often, a lesson the fiftysomething veteran tries to get his younger Anatomy colleagues to understand.
Says Horton, “Not that they listen to me.”