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Choosing to work behind the scenes

Fans of the '90s TV show Homicide: Life on the Street will remember Clark Johnson as Meldrick Lewis, the funky, porkpie-hat-wearing detective who had a way with a laid-back one-liner. They might also note that they haven't seen much of him since the show left the air in 1999.

That's because Johnson has been busier behind the camera. The actor has become a director, responsible for such quality TV as the premiere of The Shield and episodes of The Wire, Soul Food and The West Wing.

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This month, Johnson stepped up to the big screen - oddly enough, with a movie based on a TV show. Johnson is the director of S.W.A.T., the Samuel L. Jackson-Colin Farrell movie inspired by the 1975-76 TV series. It's a Hollywood cliche that what actors really want to do is direct, but many of them - Kevin Costner, Warren Beatty, Mel Gibson - stay in front of the camera on their own movies, while others (Robert Redford comes to mind) keep active as movie stars.

Johnson, on the other hand, is representative of legions of actors who made their names on TV series, then took the less visible job of directing. Some who have made the move - Ron Howard, Penny Marshall, Rob Reiner - are now A-list directors. But many lesser-known character actors are gathering clout by first directing episodes of their own TV series, and then deciding that ... well, what they really want to do is direct.

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Using free association, which inevitably will leave some people out, here's a look at some TV actors besides Johnson who've turned to directing, and some of the journeyman work they've done.

Peter Bonerz

In front of the camera: Bonerz was Jerry, the lascivious dentist on The Bob Newhart Show. Bonerz's first directorial credits are on that 1972-78 show.

Behind the camera: Bonerz has become one of the busiest sitcom directors in the biz, with work on Friends, Murphy Brown, Home Improvement and more than two dozen other shows. Also in his filmography, although he might wish it weren't: Police Academy 6: City Under Siege.

Paul Michael Glaser

In front of the camera: He's best known as Starsky of Starsky & Hutch. He also played a key role in the film Fiddler on the Roof.

Behind the camera: Although he still occasionally acts, Glaser has become busier as a director both of TV episodes (Miami Vice, Judging Amy, Mister Sterling) and theatrical films (Band of the Hand, The Running Man, The Air Up There). According to the Internet Movie Database, he slid a "cameo" for the old Starsky & Hutch red-and-white Gran Torino into an episode of The Agency that he directed.

David Soul, Glaser's former onscreen partner, also has done some TV directing, but remains much busier as an actor.

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Kevin Hooks

In front of the camera: Probably best-known as Morris Thorpe, one of the basketball players on the 1978-81 inner-city high school drama The White Shadow.

Behind the camera: Hooks' most recent directing job was on the 2003 TV-movie Sounder, a remake of a movie he appeared in as a teen-ager in 1972. He has been directing since 1982, when he did episodes of Fame and St. Elsewhere.

Hooks has also done episodes of Without a Trace, Soul Food, NYPD Blue and Homicide. Theatrical credits include the entertainingly junky Wesley Snipes flick Passenger 57 and the unentertainingly junky Patrick Swayze vehicle Black Dog.

Eric Laneuville

In front of the camera: Laneuville played a student for a couple of seasons on Room 222 and an orderly during the entire run of St. Elsewhere.

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Behind the camera: Laneuville has directed episodes of L.A. Law, Quantum Leap and ER. He has worked on more than a dozen TV movies, including the recent under-the-radar NBC film Critical Assembly and TNT's more heavily hyped America's Prince: The John F. Kennedy Jr. Story.

Ken Olin

In front of the camera: Olin played Michael Steadman on ABC's thirtysomething, that late-'80s ode to yuppie angst. He remains active as an actor, although his most recent series - the critically acclaimed EZ Streets and the less fondly remembered L.A. Doctors - didn't stick around long.

Behind the camera: Olin has directed several episodes of Alias (he's an executive producer on the show, and his wife, Patricia Wettig, has a recurring role as a shrink). Olin's other credits include Freaks and Geeks, The West Wing and Felicity.

Thirtysomething, by the way, is a "What I really want to do is direct" phenomenon unto itself. Co-stars Melanie Mayron, Timothy Busfield and Peter Horton each have several directing credits under their belts.

Joe Regalbuto

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In front of the camera: Played Frank Fontana, the down-to-earth investigative reporter on Murphy Brown.

Behind the camera: Since 1995, Regalbuto has been busier as a director than as an actor. Murphy Brown was the start; since then, he's worked on Friends, Veronica's Closet, Greetings From Tucson and others.

Betty Thomas

In front of the camera: Probably best-known as Officer (and later Sgt.) Lucille Bates on Hill Street Blues.

Behind the camera: Thomas more or less dropped out of acting after 1989 to focus on directing. Her TV background might explain her affinity for such pop culture-related material as The Brady Bunch Movie, The Late Shift, Private Parts and the Dr. Dolittle remake. She also directed Sandra Bullock's 28 Days and the ill-fated I Spy remake featuring Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson.

Timothy Van Patten

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In front of the camera: Another White Shadow alum (he played Mario "Salami" Pettrino), Van Patten hasn't acted onscreen regularly since the 1989 cop show True Blue.

Behind the camera: Catch last Sunday's episode of HBO's The Wire? Van Patten directed that. He has also directed many episodes of The Sopranos, as well as writing what might be the series' best episode, "Pine Barrens," a funny and chilling story in which Paulie and Christopher botch a hit in snowy New Jersey woods. Van Patten has also worked on Touched by an Angel and its short-lived spinoff Promised Land.

Sources: Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com); The Complete Director to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows 1946-Present, by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh


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