Think about some of the most iconic moments in modern TV history, and there’s a good chance Don Mischer was in the control room.
Michael Jackson performing the Moonwalk for the first time on “Motown 25.” Muhammad Ali making a surprise appearance to light the Atlanta Olympics opening ceremony torch. Prince pulling off arguably the most lauded Super Bowl halftime show ever, in the pouring rain. President Obama’s historic inauguration.
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Mischer was behind all those events — and too many more to mention, including three Oscar telecasts. Each one has a story, and as Mischer recalls, the behind- the-scenes drama was often harrowing. Ask him about the time he got into a fight with authorities in China, leading his team to prep a van in case they had to flee for the U.S. Embassy. Or the time he and Barbara Walters got dangerously close to offending the shah of Iran, which would not have been good for their safety.
Or you can read about those moments instead: Mischer finally decided to write it all down in the memoir “:10 Seconds to Air: My Life in the Director’s Chair,” available Nov. 14.
“I really found it satisfying,” Mischer says of chronicling his career, which is marked by 15 Emmys, 10 DGA Awards, a Peabody and even a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “Just having a record of a lot of the stuff that I’ve been lucky enough to experience.”
That includes hairy moments like that Prince halftime show, which could have turned into a disaster. “He was playing four live guitars. He had his two dancers, wearing 8-inch spiked heels on a very slippery Mylar stage. And when it started raining I just said, ‘Damn, here we go. This is going to be terrible. What happens if one of the girls falls down? Will his guitars short out?’ Prince turned to me and said, ‘Can you make it rain harder?’ He clearly saw it as an opportunity. It lifted him up and made him deliver. It was him against the rain.”
At the 1996 Olympics, Mischer kept secret the appearance of Ali — who had difficulty moving due to Parkinson’s disease — by meeting with his reps in garbage rooms three stories below Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Stadium. They pulled it off, but it wasn’t without peril. “It’s a high risk business because had Muhammed Ali dropped that torch, he would not have been able to pick it up. Had he dropped it straight down and lighted himself on fire, there was nothing we could do,” Mischer recalls.
The producer also doesn’t shy away from his most embarrassing moments, particularly the time CNN broadcast him screaming profanities over a private communications line during the 2004 Democratic convention, which he directed. “I got up the next morning basically feeling I had destroyed my career,” he says.
Of course, he hadn’t. But now, at 83, Mischer has pulled back and only works on a handful of projects each year. He also concedes that the appetite for awards shows, once his bread and butter, has diminished. “People are tired of them,” he says. “I think of my kids. I have one in their 20s and one who just turned 30. They’re just not interested in awards shows; they’re not interested in the Oscars. It’s different times.”
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