Emmy-Winning Director, Producer, & Author, Jeff Margolis On What You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career In TV and Film
…I believe a significant part of my success is rooted in kindness. I’ve maintained a principle of never raising my voice, yelling, embarrassing anyone, or losing my temper. On every show I work on, I focus on building a family-like atmosphere. I want everyone to feel involved and consider the project as important to them as it is to me. Collaboration is key for me. There are times when someone suggests an idea better than mine, and I happily use it, giving them full credit. Building a collaborative family where everyone feels valued and essential to the project’s success is important to me. By maintaining a kind and pleasant working atmosphere, I’ve found that people are more productive and less likely to make mistakes. This approach has become a part of my identity in the industry, known for being kind and fostering a family environment…
I had the pleasure to talk to Jeff Margolis. Jeff is an Emmy-winning director and producer with an extensive and notable career in television. His memoir, “We’re Live in 5: My Extraordinary Life in Television,” is set for publication on February 13, 2024, featuring a foreword by Billy Crystal and endorsements from notable figures like Whoopi Goldberg, Bruce Vilanch, and Quincy Jones.
Margolis’ career in television is marked by his direction of eight Oscar ceremonies, along with the SAG Awards, Primetime and Daytime Emmys, and over 150 award shows, specials, and variety series. His journey began with an opportunity provided by his uncle, Monty Hall, working on the Smothers Brothers show as a cue card guy. Leveraging his Bar Mitzvah money, he carved his own path into Hollywood.
Throughout his career, Margolis has worked with a plethora of renowned artists including Cher, Mary J. Blige, Dolly Parton, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Celine Dion, Carol Burnett, and Oprah Winfrey. He attributes his success to a close-knit family upbringing, where strong work ethics and values were instilled from an early age. His grandparents’ journey from Russia to Los Angeles and their subsequent success greatly influenced his life.
Jeff’s path diverged from the expected trajectory of a doctor or lawyer when he realized his passion lay in television. He transferred from USC to UCLA to join the only television school in the country at the time. His first professional opportunity in the industry was as a cue card company owner, which led to his role as an assistant director on the Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, eventually paving the way to his directorial debut with “Tony Orlando and Dawn” in 1974.
His book, “We’re Live in 5,” not only recounts his professional journey but also provides insights into his personal life and experiences. It highlights the importance of kindness and collaboration in his work, with an emphasis on creating a family-like atmosphere on set.
Yitzi: Jeff, it’s an honor to meet you. Before we dive in deep, we’d love to first learn about your background and your childhood origin story. Can you share the story of your childhood and how you grew up?
Jeff: Yes, I can. We’re discussing my book, We’re Live in Five: My Extraordinary Life in Television. I begin by talking about my upbringing and my family. I come from a very large and close-knit family. My grandparents were Orthodox Jews who cherished family gatherings. So, every Friday night, we had dinner at my grandparents’ place. My mom had two sisters, so all the cousins, aunts, and uncles would be there. Both my grandfathers, on my mom’s and dad’s sides, had an incredible work ethic. My maternal grandfather has a fascinating story. He fled the pogroms in Russia and eventually made his way from Winnipeg, Canada, to Los Angeles with a dream of being a tailor. But to make ends meet, he worked in a market in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood in Los Angeles popular with Jewish immigrants. While working behind the meat counter, he used to sketch building designs on wrapping paper when it was quiet. One day, a customer noticed his drawings and offered him a job as an architect. My grandfather went on to build over 150 apartment buildings in Los Angeles, becoming quite wealthy and generously donating to Israel, with buildings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem named after my grandparents. Their work ethic profoundly influenced me.
Growing up as a Jewish boy in West Los Angeles, the expectation was to become a doctor or lawyer. I enrolled in USC as a pre-med student, wanting to make my family proud. But halfway through the first semester, I realized I couldn’t stand the sight of blood and didn’t enjoy it. So, I met with a counselor and switched to film school, but I really wanted to work in television. Crosstown rival UCLA had the only television school in the country at the time so I transferred to what is now the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television.
Happily enrolled at UCLA, I got a job thanks to my grandpa. Grandpa went to my uncle and asked if he would help me. It so happened that my uncle was Monty Hall, the host of “Let’s Make a Deal.” Uncle Monty opened the door for me in the industry by introducing me to a guy who did cue cards for the show. I worked for him for about six months. I used my bar mitzvah money to start my own cue card company. Tommy Smothers became my first client, hiring me to do cue cards for “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” which was a huge hit at the time.
While doing cue cards, I learned a lot about production by watching what went on in the studio and control room. Before long, I became an assistant director on the “Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour,” and then I started directing with my first show, “Tony Orlando and Dawn,” in 1974. I’ve been producing and directing ever since.
I share a lot of behind-the-scenes and candid moments in my book. These are stories people have never heard before. I hope people have as much fun reading about these experiences, as I had living them.
Yitzi: So in the introduction to your book, you write that your father had a tradition of sending you a wine cork for every live show. Can you explain?
Jeff: I dedicated the book to my dad, who was my biggest supporter.
When I directed my first live show, America’s Junior Miss (now called Distinguished Young Woman), I received a surprising gift from dad. We broadcast from Mobile, Alabama. An hour before the show, a production assistant handed me a box sent from my dad in Los Angeles. Inside was a ring box with a “cork” and a note jokingly suggesting I use the cork to avoid bathroom breaks during the live show. From that moment, for every live show I did, I received a box with a cork, each marked with the date and name of the show. It became a great tradition between us.
At my dad’s funeral, after the rabbi invited the family to say goodbye, I placed a cork with a date on it in my dad’s hands, thanking him and expressing my love. It was a deeply emotional moment for me, and I like to think he’s still holding that cork.
Yitzi: So it’s clear that your father was very humorous.
Jeff: Dad had a great sense of humor. Yeah, we had a good time. There is a backstory to “the cork”. When I was a kid, I always had to use the bathroom after meals. I thought it was a funny, lovely thought.
Yitzi: So, you probably have many amazing experiences and memories, and I’m sure it’s very hard to single anything out. Many of them are in your book. But for our readers, can you share one of your favorite memories or stories from your career? Meeting all these amazing people, doing amazing things. Can you share your favorite story?
Jeff: I wrote the book with a talented woman named Loren Stephens. When we started putting the book together, she had a great idea for the chapters on the specials I’ve done. Loren wanted to write something as a lead-in to the first chapter. She asked me, “What’s your most favorite special you’ve ever done?” After a moment of silence, I asked her, “Loren, you’re a mother, right? How does a mother pick a favorite child?” She started laughing, and I said, “A mother loves her children equally. She can’t tell you a favorite, so it’s hard for me to answer your question.” I’ve had so many wonderful experiences but not all of them have been wonderful. There are times when you have to turn around and count to ten. But I’ve traveled the world and had so many experiences.
I went to Russia for the Academy Awards and to Beijing for a David Copperfield magic special. I’ve traveled the world and had incredible experiences. Let me give you a couple of examples. I did a show called “Michael Jackson: One Night Only” for HBO (now MAX). It was meant to be Michael’s comeback special. He faced many allegations at the time, so his management and record label wanted to do this special as a way to remind the public who he was as a great entertainer.
We worked on it for four months in New York. The day before we were to tape, Michael collapsed on stage and was rushed to the hospital. His doctor flew in from Los Angeles. He worked himself so hard during the months of preparation. He wasn’t eating or sleeping properly. Then I was told that the special was canceled.
I gathered the crew in the theater and told them that the show wouldn’t happen due to Michael’s condition. As I broke the news, I started to cry. It was heartbreaking, and I was worried about Michael. Everyone hoped he would recover. That’s one of the most heartbreaking experiences I’ve had. I call it Michael Jackson’s “One Night Only: The Special That Never Happened.”
During one Oscars, I worked with producer Gil Cates. Each year, we’d come up with a theme, and that year it was “Movies Around the World.” We highlighted the importance of movies, most of which were made in Hollywood. Our plan was to send big stars to five global locations. One of these locations was Moscow, where we sent Jack Lemmon to present the winner for Actor in a Leading Role, which most people know as Best Actor.
The day before the telecast, which is broadcast live and watched by a billion people worldwide, I devoted an hour to each location to ensure the satellite, audio, and video were working. Everything went smoothly until I reached Russia. There, I communicated with the Moscow team through an interpreter. We could see Jack Lemmon but couldn’t hear him. Despite changing his microphone, the audio would cut out as soon as the picture came on.
With my hour up and the live show the next day, I was worried. We had a dress rehearsal the morning of the Oscars. Again, we faced issues with Jack Lemmon’s segment. The picture was fuzzy, and the audio was inconsistent. I realized this unpredictability is partly why people love watching the Oscars. Live broadcasts are imperfect, and it adds to the excitement. So, we went live, hoping everything would work out.
When we cut to Russia, everything was perfect. The picture and sound were flawless. Billy Crystal was hosting the show, and he was ready to announce the nominees and the winner. Luckily, he never had to step in, as everything went smoothly. Jack read the nominees and announced the winner. The accounting firm had sent a sealed envelope to Moscow, which was only opened live on air, and it all worked out perfectly. These are the kinds of situations that are really nerve-wracking.
Yitzi: So you’ve been blessed with so much success. Looking introspectively, can you share a few character traits that you think were instrumental to your success?
Jeff: In my book, I outlined 11 rules of the road. My first, fifth, and eleventh rules are all about being kind.
I believe a significant part of my success is rooted in kindness. I’ve maintained a principle of never raising my voice, yelling, embarrassing anyone, or losing my temper. On every show I work on, I focus on building a family-like atmosphere. I want everyone to feel involved and consider the project as important to them as it is to me. Collaboration is key for me. There are times when someone suggests an idea better than mine, and I happily use it, giving them full credit. Building a collaborative family where everyone feels valued and essential to the project’s success is important to me. By maintaining a kind and pleasant working atmosphere, I’ve found that people are more productive and less likely to make mistakes. This approach has become a part of my identity in the industry, known for being kind and fostering a family environment.
I’m known for letting people speak up when they have an idea. I’ve never operated a camera before. When I talk to a camera operator, I might request a specific shot, like a two-shot of two people singing a duet. Sometimes, the camera operator might suggest an alternative, showing me something I might like. When they do, I often find their suggestion better and go with it. I have a clear vision in my mind, but they have the technical expertise. They understand the capabilities of the lens, the potential movements of the camera, and all the technical aspects. So, at times, their suggestions can enhance the scene beyond what I initially imagined.
When I direct award shows and other events in theaters, I always position myself in the fifth-row center. I direct the show as if I’m seated there, aiming to present the show to the home audience just as the theater audience experiences it. It’s crucial to remember that these shows are primarily for the millions watching on television, not just for the live audience in the theater. My goal is to immerse the TV audience, making them feel like they’re right there in the action. For example, when someone is singing, and I go for a close-up, I always choose a direct, head-on shot. Some directors prefer profile shots from the side, but I don’t do that. It’s not the view you get from the center of the theater. When you’re watching a singer, you’re looking at their face straight on, and that’s what I want to convey to the viewers at home.
Yitzi: You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Jeff: What I’d really like to do is what I know best and love, which is bringing people together, entertaining them, and ensuring they’re having fun and enjoying life. There’s a sense of peacefulness people experience when they’re having a good time. Listening to good music has a way of uniting people. I’d like to organize a live event on television that brings together people and music from around the world. Let’s give the people of the world three hours to unite, forget their problems, have fun, enjoy the music, and feel peaceful. Is that too much to wish for?
Thank you for this fantastic interview Jeff!
Emmy-Winning Director, Producer, & Author, Jeff Margolis On What You Need To Create A Highly… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.