For a time, it appeared that Tim Van Patten’s most significant contribution to television wold be playing a baller named Salami. Instead, the former “White Shadow” star has become HBO’s most successful director — and arguably the greatest visionary in TV and film.
“When I see director Tim Van Patten’s name on a show, I know I’m about to see something beautifully staged,” tweeted “Walk the Line” filmmaker James Mangold last month. “People compliment TV shows saying they look like a movie. I think that does not suffice on shows Van Patten directs. They feel like they were made by a master.”
Van Patten’s latest masterpiece is “Perry Mason,” the highly stylized prequel to Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels that showcases its main auteur’s ability to transport viewers to a different time and place — in this case, 1930s Los Angeles.
“You live and die by the details,” said Van Patten, who helmed five of the drama’s eight episodes, including Sunday’s season finale. “The sunlight, the shadows, the imperfections. Visual storytelling is just as important as the narrative. You want to take the audience, as well as the actors, on a journey, like they’ve stepped into a portal.”
Van Patten’s fingerprints can be found on numerous HBO classics over the past two decades, including “The Wire,” “Deadwood,” “Rome” and “The Pacific.” In addition to helming 20 episodes of “The Sopranos,” including the one in which Adriana meets her maker, he came up with the story line for “Pine Barrens” that had Pauly and Chris losing a Russian in the snow-covered woods. TV Guide named it the fourth-best episode of the 21st century.
Van Patten also directed 20 hours of “Boardwalk Empire,” a series ripe for re-appreciation in semi-quarantined times. During a break in shooting “Boardwalk,” HBO execs asked their go-to ace to “fix” a troubled pilot that had just lost its original director, former Minnesotan Thomas McCarthy. It was called “Game of Thrones.”
“Fantasy is just not what I do,” Van Patten said in a phone interview last week. “I tried to get into the book. It’s great, but it was a hard read. But I went in as a good soldier, not really knowing what was going to happen. I had no idea what was going to happen with that show.”
Despite his mind-blowing credentials and experience on screen, you won’t see Van Patten make appearances in his own work. Even with the success of CBS’ basketball drama “The White Shadow” (1978-81) and subsequent roles, he realized that he was on the wrong side of the camera.
“One day I realized I just wasn’t getting enough action,” he said. “I felt like a right fielder as opposed to a catcher, who touches the ball on every play and calls the pitches. I wanted to be more involved.”
One of his earliest assignments was CBS’ uplifting “Touched by an Angel,” about as far away in tone from HBO dramas as one can get.
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” said Van Patten, who would end up directing more than 30 episodes of the CBS drama. “I didn’t go to college. That was my film school. I would get panic-stricken in those old days. I would lose sleep. Now, it’s second nature. I can just focus on the minutiae.”
Despite all his success, Van Patten still hasn’t tackled a feature film.
“I get offered a lot of things, but I’m under almost exclusive contract with HBO, which is a privilege,” he said. “But I’d like to do one before I go to the motion picture rest home.”