Every artist needs to get their start somewhere, and many celebrated filmmakers began by working in the world of television. Today it is a lot more common to see filmmakers switch back and forth between the two mediums. Directors like David Lynch, Jean-Marc Vallée, and Park Chan-wook will happily dip their toes into the world of TV and then go back to movies. However, before the era of streaming and prestige TV, these directors used their TV credits to break into film.
Many directors who broke out in the ’60s and ’70s got their start on TV, as it was becoming an exciting medium to test out new talent. Sadly, this group does not include many women, as they were being gate kept from the directors’ chair for decades, and mobility between the mediums was much harder for them to achieve. While these filmmakers would go on to be known for their feature films, they all got their start in the world of TV.
10 James L. Brooks
Althrough his production company, Grace Films, James L. Brooks has always had a place in both TV and movies. Brooks is one of the key creative forces behind The Simpsons and recently produced the severely underrated Are You There God? It’s Me, Margret; however, he is best known for his directorial efforts like Broadcast News and Terms of Endearment. He is an acclaimed writer/director/producer, but by the time he made his first movie, he was already a household name due to his TV credits.
The Academy Award winner got his start writing for sitcoms like The Andy Griffith Show and The Doris Day Show before creating the massive hits Taxi and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Brooks’ sense of humor and incredible character work transitioned beautifully once he started directing films. Even after becoming a successful film director Brooks still help develop several classic sitcoms including The Tracey Ullman Show.
9 John Frankenheimer
The name John Frankenheimer isn’t often thrown out when talking about the best directors of the 20th century, but Frankenheimer was a steady hand, who was responsible for some of the most interesting films of the ’60s. Best known for his thrillers like The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds, and Ronin, this New York-born director got his start directing individual episodes of TV in the ’50s and ’60s. Frankenheimer had a sense of tension early on in his career as he helmed 26 episodes of the adventure anthology Climax!. Even after some of his biggest hits Frankenheimer regularly returned to TV even doing an episode of Tales from the Crypt.
8 Brad Bird
As a visual storyteller, Brad Bird has the talent to bounce around between mediums, excelling wherever he ends up. The Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol director got his start doing TV animation, directing the one animated episode of “Amazing Stories” and being an important voice in the early seasons of The Simpsons. From there, Bird directed some of Pixar’s best-animated movies, including The Incredibles and Ratatouille, before making the jump to live action. It’s been several years since the last Brad Bird project, and it would be a treat to get anything from him soon whether it’s on the big or small screen.
7 Sidney Lumet
Lumet actually first started working in the world of theater, directing Off-Broadway plays, but soon became a highly prolific TV director. He directed many filmed Broadway shows for TV, as well as individual episodes of shows like Mama, before making the jump to movies with 12 Angry Men. Lumet’s time in the theater and TV had a large influence on his feature films, as they would often be intimate character studies and small dramas. One of his best films, Dog Day Afternoon has the tension and detail of a TV playhouse, but the scope and budget of a feature film.
6 Ridley Scott
Over his decades-long career, Ridley Scott has done almost every kind of movie (from sci-fi horror like Alien to historical dramas like The Last Duel). This is true even going back to his TV work in the ’60s. From Gritty crime thrillers to wacky sci-fi adventures, Scott started by bouncing around British TV shows, until finally making his feature debut with 1977’s The Duellist. While Scott would still lend his hand to commercials and music videos, he hadn’t returned to the world of TV until recently directing the first few episodes of Raised by Wolves.
5 Richard Donner
With both the Superman and Lethal Weapon series, Richard Donner was a pioneer in serialized cinematic storytelling, as well as a beloved filmmaker. Before he made audiences believe a man could fly, however, Donner worked on countless TV shows for many years. From westerns to Gilligan’s Island to Perry Mason to some of the most iconic episodes of The Twilight Zone, Donner had a very successful and prolific filmography in TV well before he shot any of his first film. Donner continued to regularly direct TV and TV movies until The Omen propelled him into superstardom. Even after he still would do an occasional TV guest directing job.
4 Robert Altman
Among film fanatics, Robert Altman is one of the most celebrated names out there. His movies like Nashville, The Player, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller pushed the form of cinema to new heights, and he is one of the most beloved American filmmakers. Before he made his way to the big screen, however, Altman was directing countless episodes of TV westerns. Throughout the ’60s, Altman was pumping out TV episodes left and right. Ironically, his biggest contribution to television would come after he left it to go make movies, as his feature film MASH served as the inspiration for one of the longest-running TV comedies of all time.
3 William Friedkin
The late-great William Friedkin made bold and uncompromising films. The French Connection and The Exorcist pushed the boundaries of what could be accepted in a mainstream movie, while still being thoughtful works of art. While Friedkin didn’t do much work on episodic TV, he did get his start directing several TV documentaries and an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Friedkin’s experience in docu-television gave his genre films a sense of tangibility and realism that made them all the more intense. Friedkin was a once-in-a-generation filmmaker.
2 Michael Mann
Michael Mann is one of the greatest action directors Hollywood has ever put out. While his films are generally divisive upon release, movies like Thief, Heat, and Collateral stand the test of time and are endlessly rewatchable. Mann is an equally important figure in the world of TV as he got his start directing TV films, and episodes before graduating to feature films. Even after his huge success with Thief, Mann helped develop the ’80s action show Miami Vice, which he would later direct the film adaptation of.
1 Steven Spielberg
No name is more synonymous with filmmaking than that of Steven Spielberg. Perhaps the most recognizable director of modern times, Spielberg has broken records with some of his best movies. As detailed in his auto-biographical film The Fabelmans, Spielberg got his start in the industry by working on TV shows. He famously directed the first episode of Columbo, and his first full-length movie was a TV movie called Duel. Spielberg is industry royalty and has been involved with countless TV shows since, but he will forever be the director of the pilot for Night Gallery.