By Tania Fisher
So how does the son of a mailman, from a small town near Pittsburgh, end up directing more live network television than anyone else in the history of the medium–and being one of the most versatile and experienced directors in the television industry today?
Actor/Writer Tania Fisher sits down with Don Roy King to find out exactly how it all happened.
Mr. King is about to embark on his 14th season as director of Saturday Night Live (“SNL”), and he couldn’t be happier. He’s experienced network assignments that have taken him to 20 countries and 38 states and has a lengthy resume that incorporates productions for nine networks that include directing morning shows, documentaries, telethons, sporting events, concerts, and musicals.
But when he talks about “SNL,” he can’t help but grin.
With 10 Emmy’s (and 28 nominations) and 5 Directors Guild Awards, it’s an understatement to say that Mr. King is a vastly experienced producer, director, writer, and composer.
In addition, Mr. King is the creative director for Broadway Worldwide, a venture that brings theatrical events to theaters and international television. The company has produced four major productions, all directed by Mr. King.
For those who have never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. King in real life; he is small in stature, but big on work ethics and generous with his advice for those entering the industry. In fact, it was his father who taught him to use his small frame to his advantage; sitting his eight-year-old son down one day, he explained, “You’re probably going to be short. I’m short. Your mom’s short, but you don’t know how lucky you are. Why? For some reason people in general expect less from short people, and when you play ball, the coach will put the tall kids in first, and the teacher won’t call on you first to answer questions. But when they find out you can run as fast and throw as hard as the others–and when the teachers find out you can answer the questions, everyone will be doubly impressed.” Mr. King says he has never been bothered by his size ever since.
Growing up in the tiny little town of Pitcairn, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, he was always an active athlete, as well as doing lots of acting, and directing his fellow classmates in small plays. He is a graduate of Pennsylvania State University, with a degree in Broadcasting, and he has been honored with an Alumni Fellowship, in 2001, and a Distinguished Alumni Award, in 2017.
He was blessed to have loving and supportive parents, which is evident in his self-worth and attitudes about growing up. Case in point: I asked him (what I thought was going to be a lighten-the-mood, insert-of-humor type of question), “What did you want to be when you were growing up?” Expecting the standard response of fireman or doctor or astronaut, I was pleasantly surprised with his response:
“I felt I was going to be somebody important; like playing center field for the Pittsburgh Pirates or President of the USA. I just knew I wanted to be someone important and do something valuable. I was the all-American kid. As I was growing up, there was always the thought that I’d go to West Point. Dad was in the Army Reserves all his life, and he kind of encouraged that aspect, and I really felt I was headed to West Point right through high school.” Mr. King finished top in the state and entry seemed certain, until a medical exam found something wrong with his back, and they couldn’t take him: “In retrospect I’m glad they didn’t.”
Mr. King explains that he went to Penn State and studied Theater and Broadcasting, but he really didn’t have the guts to move to NYC and become an actor. “Penn is where I discovered I had a talent for TV directing, and I thought I’d get in the back door that way; to get to my dream of being an actor.” Mr. King became a director at a local station, then at a bigger station, and then another bigger station in Pennsylvania.
Interest in his theatrical affinity began when he was in the eighth grade. He was in The Curtain Call Club, run by Miss Boden, and Mr. King fondly recalls, “This club was her whole world, and she devoted her life to these little productions.” Miss Boden took the young Mr. King under her wing and every Easter vacation she would take a few of the students to New York to see shows. Mr. King convinced his parents it was worth going, and they somehow scraped together the money to send him to New York to see The Miracle Worker and The Sound of Music. As it turns out, Miss Boden had written to Mary Martin, and they went backstage to meet her. “I was this little eighth grade boy who subsequently developed a crush on New York City. I flew home thinking: I can’t wait to get back here. I’ll do anything I can to get back here! There’s such an electricity, and wonderful artists and productions, which changed lives every night.” But Mr. King confides that as deep as the dream was, he still didn’t have the guts to try it as an actor in New York.
In fact, he explains that the reason he became a Broadcasting major was because he didn’t have the guts to tell his parents he wanted to be an Acting major! “They had allowed me to go to New York. Dad was a mailman; they couldn’t afford that weekend trip to NYC and yet they found a way.” Mr. King proudly tells me that his parents always showed interest and went to everything he did–whether that be football or theater, “I’d be at a junior track meet at the away team, and Dad would rush his mail route to see my 50-yard dash. They were so supportive. Mom was strict, and we had chores to do and were encouraged to get good grades and all of that, but they were just so supportive. I was blessed.”
After college, Mr. King kept his focus on New York City. He maintains he used his TV career to get back here as soon as he could. He worked at a bigger station in San Jose, and then went back to an even bigger station in Pittsburgh, finally getting an option to direct at Channel 5 in New York: “Maybe I got here too fast but it worked here. Getting to NYC was a dream come true.”
What led him to become the Director for Saturday Night Live?
Mr. King explains that by this time he’d had thirty-seven years of experience as a TV director behind him, although he still enjoyed work on morning shows: “But they were more about what to wear, or a cooking segment, and there were moments when I felt like I’d sold out on my dream; that this wasn’t really show business.” Then, out of nowhere, he received a call from a man he’d worked with way back when. His friend had gone on to be the Associate Director of “SNL” and the woman who had been directing the show for ten years was moving on, and so his friend asked him if he was interested. His immediate response was: “There is no show I’d rather direct! I’d always had great respect for what seemed like a difficult production to do, especially because it’s live. But once I got involved, I was even more shocked.”
Even though Mr. King had directed every type of program, he admits that he’d never directed sketch actors, and he couldn’t believe they’d take a chance on someone who hadn’t done that type of thing before. But he met with them, and sure enough, they were looking for someone who had done comedy and had sketch comedy experience. Then on Labor Day, in 2006, while he was standing in line at Disney World with his daughter, he received a call telling him that Lorne Michaels wanted to meet with him and could he be back in NYC in two days? “So my daughter and I flew back and I met Lorne. I sat there for about an hour just listening to him talk about how he didn’t want to start over again with a new director, but that he had no choice. As I recall, I’m pretty sure the only words I uttered throughout that entire meeting were at the start, when I said nice to meet you.” But a telephone call the next day clarified everything for Mr. King, when he was told they’d take a chance on him and give him six shows to see how he handled it. “It was an incredibly steep mountain to climb. I started to question myself. I was comfortable, successful, why take this risk? I hadn’t had butterflies in my stomach for a long time; why take this risk?”
The answer soon became evident. “What I realized is that regret is a wasted emotion. I thought to myself; if I don’t do this, if I don’t try it, I’ll regret it. I can always come back, and if I fail, I fail, and you don’t know until you try.” Three weeks after that meeting he was directing his first “SNL” show. Indeed a steep mountain to climb! “I found myself saying I don’t know how to do this, how do I set this up? Which camera where? I really struggled.” But Mr. King insists he is glad he took that challenge, claiming he’d never had more fun climbing a mountain, or received more reward or exhilaration from doing what he’s always dreamed: “The show is designed to make people laugh and clap and think. I play a small role in that and I’m proud and thrilled to be a part of that–working with brilliant people and telling stories that offer healing and hold people accountable. I’ve never had a job that is as rewarding and important and as close to that dream I had as an eighth grade boy.”
Mr. King was fifty-eight years old when he finally made that childhood dream a reality.
He laments that there is a panic in college kids nowadays to make a definite decision about their careers: “The fact is you don’t have to decide today what you’re going to do for the rest of your life. Your passions can change; you can find a whole new set of challenges much later down the track. I was so glad I took that risk late in my career or I wouldn’t have what I have now, which is pure satisfaction of a professional life worth living.”
And though it’s true that many young people starting out in this industry think it’s not what you know, it’s who you know and contacts, Mr. King advises, “It’s not a race; there is no reward for getting that first big job early–if you get it before you’re ready you might not be prepared and fail. You know, even if you can’t be working in your desired field and you work at Pinkberry, you’re still developing other skills that will make you ready–work ethics, dealing with people. It’s all valuable experience.”
What about living and working in New York City and all those awards?
“I love the magic of the city, the electricity, the sense that on this tiny little island so much art is being created and so much money is changing hands and news is being created, and at the same time you can stay home and do nothing if you want, just like everywhere else. I still have as much excitement about being a part of this place as I did as a kid.”
During the time that Mr. King was directing The Mike Douglas Show, there was a lot of traveling involved, and they would occasionally do a week in LA. “Mike wanted to move to LA, but I didn’t want to go, and I was offered a new show: America Alive, in NYC. So I thought I’d rather live in NYC than go to LA, and it’s a brand-new show that I’ll get to create from scratch.” Mr. King thought this would be a perfect opportunity to stay where he wanted to stay. The program was similar to a midday version of Good Morning America, with the same concept; a group of reporters and correspondents. “That show lasted only eight months! It flopped, and I was out of work for the first time in my life. I thought, O.K., this is a sign from God, my TV career has skidded to a halt–it’s time for me to follow my dreams and go back to acting.” Mr. King was only 27 or 28 years old, and he immediately enrolled in acting classes. He recalls that he jumped in with his usual fervor and passion, but what was great was that he was no longer a desperate actor saying please pick me. “I was a professional director who had an Emmy, and I was comfortable and wasn’t desperate in auditions, which I’m sure worked to my advantage.” Around that time Mr. King was receiving offers to direct independent projects on the side, but then he was given Good Morning America: “The acting dream died again. At that point I’d had the sense of now what and how to pay the rent? I’d had this comfortable lifestyle. It was unsettling.”
When Mr. King directed The Mike Douglas Show in Philadelphia he was only twenty-five and, as he describes it, “way too young to be directing it–we had all the big names: Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, Milton Berle, Bob Hope–I didn’t appreciate the fact that I was getting to work with them and see them off camera.” Mr. King won an Emmy, in 1977, for the show with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire appearing together for the first time and talking about the industry. “I became a jerk the very next day. Everyone treated me differently, and I treated people differently; I was just full of myself,” he recalls. Not long after that, Mr. King was asked to serve on one of the Blue Ribbon Panels for the Emmys, and he says it’s then that he realized how hard it is to make a judgment: “You watch a great show, but how do you know if it was well directed? I realized it’s such a subjective decision, and it’s a flawed system.”
He has since appreciated the degree to which his profession is a collaborate effort: “The statues I’ve gotten since . . . if it weren’t for Lorne Michaels making “SNL” the best it can be and hiring brilliant set designers and writers, and all the best people in their fields, then my directing would have no chance of being pointed out for my directing awards, so I’m much more humble about receiving them. It’s the good fortune of working with brilliant people.”
Is there another skill set you possess that hasn’t been explored that you’d like to explore?
“I don’t think I’m going to be the center fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates! But I grew up thinking I could do anything. But still, I’m seventy-one, and I may not get a chance to live out all my fantasies.” Mr. King has recently done public speaking, mainly at colleges, where he talks about the industry. “But I still have the acting bug!” Mr. King also consults on movies, like 2010’s Morning Glory (with Harrison Ford), where he ensured that the TV scene was depicted accurately. He played the role of Merv, the Director, in that same film. Mr. King also played himself in 2018’s A Star Is Born.
What were some of your favorite TV shows growing up?
Mr. King remembers that he grew up with many kids who were TV fanatics who went to see tapings of live TV shows and even had souvenirs from TV shows. He claims he was not one of those kids. He reminisces that he and his brothers watched the TV show Superman with George Reeves. “Here’s the thing,” he tells me, “We had a black-and-white TV, and I wasn’t allowed to read comics. So when Mom made us Superman costumes for Halloween, we wore black shorts, white T-shirts, and some kind of grey cape things. Then, when I went to see the first Superman movie with Christopher Reeve, I was shocked and thought they had changed the colors of the costume! All that time I’d had no idea it was in color!”
Any general advice for those entering the industry?
“There’s an overriding cliché maxim that lots of kids hear, and that’s just get your foot in the door. Some think it’s a good idea to find a place you’d like to work and get in at an entry-level position, like becoming a receptionist at “SNL” or writing cue cards for The Tonight Show–then people get to know who you are and see that you’ve got a great work ethic and you can move up through the operation. But I say be wary of that. Every network I’ve worked at is filled with young, talented, frustrated kids who get stuck in those entry-level jobs. So this doesn’t always work. They will hire the people with experience.” Mr. King cites the example that networks are not going to let, say, a receptionist, have a go at something else because in that position they are not really being exposed to the other position that they want to eventually do. “So my advice is go where you can get the kind of work you want to do; go to a small station or production company, doing that position. You’ll get the experience and learn what you need to and be able to keep moving up to bigger and better positions.”
Mr. King adamantly expresses that while it’s valuable to be bubbling with passion and new ideas and, as with many young people starting out, wanting to be the smart kid on the block, what should always come first is work ethic: “It’s so much more important that you show up on time and you do the best you can and you don’t complain–people are always more likely to hire this type of person.”
And what does Mr. King like to watch on his own TV set?
Baseball and football, of course. Go Pittsburgh Pirates and Pittsburgh Steelers!
Copyright © 2019 by Tania Fisher. All rights reserved.
Photo credits: AARP. All rights reserved.