By John Calhoun
Early 2004 was significant in the career of production designer Roy Christopher. His 11-year stint as the designer of the award-winning NBC sitcom Frasier came to an end when the last episode was shot in late March. On February 29 his record-breaking 15th set for an Academy Awards telecast put in its appearance before a worldwide audience of more than a billion. And on Valentine’s Day, the Art Directors Guild presented Christopher with a Lifetime Achievement Award, only the second time the body has so honored a designer who’s worked primarily in television.
According to Guild president Thomas Walsh, “Roy is a master among equals in terms of his contribution to four-camera and live performance such as the Oscars. It was more than overdue to put the spotlight on him.”
Christopher’s nearly 40 years in the business has earned him seven Emmy Awards out of 32 nominations and three competitive Art Directors Guild Awards.
“While I’m very flattered and honored, I’m not one given to looking back very much,” he said “This has caused me to have to look back, and one thing I’m finding is, where did I find the balls to do that?”
One of his early decisions, not to have any Oscars on the set of his very first Oscar show in 1979, he now concedes was rather arrogant. He designed the entire set around the 100-piece orchestra, with revolving triple turntables and a bridge of strings 40 feet in the air.
“It was a Busby Berkeley freaking extravaganza,” he laughs. “I probably wouldn’t do that today. I’d take a more tasteful approach. Also, as the years have gone by, I’ve fallen in love with the Oscar as an icon, so I’m eager to feature it in as many different kind of design ways as possible.”
For this year’s show, his stage set featured nine oversized versions of the statuettes, ranging from 18 to 30 feet in height. He says he lives by the motto, “When in doubt, be bold—boldness has magic and greatness in it.”
Christopher is known for much more than his Oscar sets. His credits encompass everything from variety series and specials starring the likes of Andy Williams, Jack Benny, Carol Burnett, Lily Tomlin, Mary Tyler Moore, Shirley MacLaine, Richard Pryor, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, to such dramatic specials as The Last of Mrs. Lincoln and Our Town, not to mention the occasional theatrical production at L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse and on Broadway. In the 1980s, he designed Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the Ceiling” music video, which was directed by Hollywood musical great Stanley Donen. And he has created and maintained the design for a number of long-running sitcoms, including Chico and the Man, Welcome Back Kotter, Murphy Brown, Wings, Becker, and of course, Frasier.
But it’s in the area of live variety-style event and awards programming like the Oscars, the Emmys and the Tonys, as well as salutes and tributes and network anniversary celebrations, that Christopher has made his greatest mark.
Lighting designer Bob Dickinson, who has worked with the designer on dozens of such shows, says, “I know this is said a lot, but the man is truly an artist. A production like the Oscars is almost the only time a designer sits down in front of blank piece of paper, with no condition superimposed by the script. It’s a frightening task. But his vision is overall, it doesn’t stop at the stucco. And he always encourages me to go out there and take risks.”
Besides all of the awards and design accomplishments, another source of pride to Christopher is the many up-and-coming designers he has mentored. “You can’t underrate that,” says Walsh. “When I started out as a scenic artist at NBC, he was truly generous with his time, looking at people’s portfolios, giving advice very freely, being a guiding figure for a lot of designers.”
Christopher estimates he has employed about 18 of these art directors as assistants over the years, and many were in the audience at the Beverly Hilton Hotel Feb. 14 as he accepted his Lifetime Achievement Award. “They really are my extended family,” says the designer. “I have a very passionate, strong feeling towards them. And they seem to think I’m OK—they laugh at my jokes.”
By John Calhoun