By Jim Udel
Among the realm of Hollywood’s below-the-line icons,Abby Singer is a member in good standing. His claim to fame inHollywood history is supported by terminology synonymous with thenext-to-the-last shot of a production day – the Abby Singer.
“It wasstarted as a joke in the late fifties by two young ADs at Universal,”Singer recalled, “and it just stuck.” When asked if it was connectedwith leaving early, he shook his head and said, “No … I was alwaysthere to the bitter end.”
The ageless assistant director legend (89for those keeping score) began his storied career after service duringWWII as a chief yeoman in the Sea-Bees. Tipped by a pal about a job atColumbia Pictures, Singer landed his first Hollywood gig in 1946, underthe old studio system, as the personal secretary to the head ofproduction, Jack Fier. At a time when 99.9% of all secretaries werefemale, I asked how he managed to get the gig. “He was too tough for awoman secretary,” Singer admitted with a half smile, “so I got the job.”
Duringhis decade at Columbia with Fier, Singer started by fielding phonecalls from biz biggies like John Ford, Charlie Vidor and StanleyKramer. Within four years, he was cutting his assistant director teethon early TV efforts like John Derek’s Rogues of Sherwood Forest andfeatures like the Fredric March-driven Death of a Salesman in 1950.Throughout his time at Columbia, Singer continued to perfect his ADcraft on such fare as The Three Stooges, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin,and features like The Calvary (with Randolph Scott), Blake Edwards’ HeLaughed Last and the Ronald Reagan submarine saga, Hell Cats of theNavy. Singer made a name for himself, which led him to his nextten-year tenure – doing television at Universal.
Hired by productionhead Paul Donnelly, he worked on everything from Wagon Train to ItTakes a Thief. When asked about directors from those days, Singerreplied, “Earl Bellamy was my favorite. He was a terrific director anda really nice man.” Once he departed Universal, Singer took a step upto production manager with Arness Pictures on Gunsmoke. The TV Westernkept him in groceries until he reunited with director Earl Bellamy forthe Doris Day Show. After Day was done, UPM Singer joined MichaelCimino in 1974 to do the Eastwood-Bridges hidden-loot buddy flick,Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. “Cimino offered me Deer Hunter,” Singersaid, “But all the money in the world couldn’t get me to spend moretime with that guy.”
Abby Singer’s next twenty years were spent inthe service of his favorite employer, Mary Tyler Moore. Working oneverything Moore produced, Singer held positions on Rhoda, The BobNewhart Show, Lou Grant, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, The WhiteShadow and, of course, the Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Ultimatelyretiring in 1998 from the fourteen-hour shifts of six-days-a-weekproduction work, Singer now teaches film and television production atAFI. When prompted for advice for the next generation of film folk, heoffered, “Treat everyone else the way you wished to be treated … withdignity and respect.”
From his early days on Playhouse 90, to themodern age of Remington Steele and Columbo, Abby Singer was a gold-chipplayer in the institution of entertainment production. Hiscontributions will be remembered every time his name is called as eachproduction day nears its end. The Abby Singer shot – one more to themartini shot, then everyone gets to go home – until tomorrow that is.
Written by Jim Udel