A producer and director known as much for the love and loyalty of his famous friends and family as he was for his groundbreaking and progressive TV work, Bruce Paltrow struck an exemplary balance between his public and private lives. His work on shows such as “The White Shadow” and “St. Elsewhere” influenced a generation of television dramas. More recently, he became known as the beloved father of Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who has credited him for crucial personal and professional support.
Bruce Paltrow was born in Brooklyn , New York on November 26, 1943 . He studied painting at Tulane University , but later moved back to New York , where he became interested in theater. As a young producer, Paltrow won a Tony Award for Butterflies are Free and produced several other plays on and off Broadway.
It was in rehearsals for one of those productions, the 1969 play Someone’s Comin’ Hungry, that Paltrow met actress Blythe Danner, whom he married in 1970. Danner became his partner in art and in life—and Paltrow’s anchor when things got rough or heady. In a 1970 interview quoted in his New York Times obituary, Paltrow compared himself and Danner to celebrity couples of the time, saying, “We’re not Andy Hardy types, but we’re also not Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero… We’re more like Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman.” Danner’s loving correction: “Oh no, honey. We don’t even know those people. We’re just us.” Perhaps the pair’s combination of dedication and level headedness served as a foundation for their long marriage, which was known to be one of the most solid in Hollywood .
In the 1970s, Paltrow and Danner—by then the parents of Gwyneth and Jake—moved to Southern California , where Paltrow began working at Screen Gems, a division of Columbia Pictures. His first success there came with the TV movie Shirts/Skins, a sports comedy in which a group of six businessmen turn their weekly pickup basketball game into an increasingly wacky treasure hunt.
Paltrow continued the sports theme with the 1978 television series “The White Shadow,” starring Ken Howard as a white NBA pro who becomes the basketball coach at a mostly black inner-city high school. In its three years on the air, the show—which Paltrow wrote, directed, and produced—won two Emmy nominations and earned Paltrow a reputation for smart, socially conscious TV.
In 1982, Paltrow directed his first feature, A Little Sex, starring Tim Matheson and Kate Capshaw. Though the film, which explored marriage and infidelity in the post-sexual revolution/pre-AIDS era, didn’t do well with critics or audiences, that same year Paltrow returned to television to create his biggest hit, the popular medical drama “St. Elsewhere.”
In its six years on the air, “St. Elsewhere,” which followed the staff of St. Eligius, a run-down Boston teaching hospital, as they faced work and personal challenges, won four Golden Globes, three awards from Viewers for Quality Television, and 13 Emmys (out of a staggering 63 nominations). The show, which launched the careers of actors Denzel Washington, Ed Begley Jr., and Mark Harmon, is seen as the forerunner of modern medical dramas such as “ER,” “Chicago Hope,” and “Presidio Med” (the latter of which starred Paltrow’s wife Danner).
Along with Steven Bochco’s “Hill St. Blues,” which was written just one flight up at the MTM building in Studio City , “St. Elsewhere” set a new standard for television. Combining drama and comedy, the shows featured multiple interwoven plot lines in each episode. Though network executives were unsure how audiences would respond to complex, character-driven work that blended drama with black humor, the show was a hit.
And Paltrow pushed his writers to do the best work they could, on time and on budget. In an interview for the Writer’s Guild of America magazine Written By, Lydia Woodward remembers Paltrow’s advice: “Don’t dumb it down. The audience is smart and gets what you are doing.” Steve Lawson remembers Paltrow’s response to his first script: “A key is how many pages