FLORENCE — For years, television viewers have watched Jerry, Elaine and Kramer banter about the Big Apple, creating signature “Seinfeld” moments as only they could. The series, which in essence changed the comedic lexicon with its celebration of trivial pursuits and the minutiae of everyday life, was also landmark in the way it presented those moments.
That was due to its director/producer and Florence resident Tom Cherones and his unrelenting efforts to make the show look more polished and cinematic than the average single-camera sitcom. It was a groundbreaking approach that also matched the humor and quirkiness of the show's characters.
Cherones directed 80 episodes of the show's first five seasons. He also wore the producer's hat for the four-camera sitcom, which he advocated to be shot on film rather than video. He creatively used the sound stages on Studio City, California's CBS Radford lot, judiciously shooting scenes outside and having them edited quickly so he could play complete episodes back for the audience at the next show to get their actual responses and authentic reactions rather than a canned laugh track.
“We had such a good laugh track, we more often than not had to take laughs out so you could hear the lines,” Cherones said.
Cherones, who worked for 10 years before he landed a directing job in Hollywood, won a Directors Guild of America Award for the 1992 episode “The Contest.” That's among his other awards, which included a Golden Globe and an Emmy. The native Alabaman who has also taught a film production course at the University of Alabama for years was also inducted into the Alabama Stage and Screen Hall of Fame. A lieutenant in the U.S. Navy during his younger years, he is also known for his directing work on “News Radio,” “Ellen” and many other TV shows.
In terms of his directing approach, Cherones never questioned it even when the nay-sayers — including Jerry Seinfeld and writer Larry David — were skeptical.
“We're in Hollywood ... we can do anything,” Cherones said. “You write it. I'll shoot it.”
But what viewers also didn't know then and now is that the director behind the camera of one of America's most popular shows had a strong Oregon connection. While Cherones has residences in both Los Angeles and New Mexico, he has long considered Florence his home.
When asked why he chose to live in the sleepy coastal town, he simply points outside his window.
“Look at it,” he said. “It's beautiful.”
Cherones first discovered Oregon when he worked on the 1986 Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie “Promise.” The film, which starred James Garner and James Woods, was filmed in Corvallis, Salem and at Triangle Lake. Described as one of the most honored films in TV history, it garnered a Peabody Award, Humanitas Prize, Christopher Award and Golden Globe.
But Cherones has done more than just make Florence his home in the past and with his current wife Carol. He and his late wife Joyce significantly contributed to the community through Florence's Habitat for Humanity and a project dubbed “Keener Place,” named after Cherones' late wife and local artist Joyce Keener, who died in 2006. The couple enabled the development and design of a 10-lot planned unit development to be possible through the donation of local land. Additionally, those who ultimately ended up with a new home built on the land were gifted with one of Keener's original paintings.
“He was very generous to make property available at the same price that they paid for it and put us in contact with those who owned the adjoining property so we were able to buy it, too,” said Kate McBroom-Redwine, Florence's Habitat for Humanity executive director. “He's really brought a sort of sense of panache to one little Habitat community, and to have the paintings of an artist is very unusual and quite typical of Mr. Cherones' flair.”
Cherones, who besides living in Florence, now divides his time between his homes in New Mexico and Los Angeles with his wife, has also added the title of author to his pedigree. He's almost done with his second in a series of books titled “The Hardly Boys,” a take on the “The Hardy Boys” teen mystery novels created in the late 1920s by Edward Stratemeyer. Cherones' stories are a whimsical rendition based on the stories of men stuck in the bodies of 70-year-olds with the minds of 17-year-olds.
“I wrote it like I was telling a story to my daughter when she was a kid in the style of Stratemeyer from the late 20s,” Cherones said.
He is currently pitching the book project with his brother-in-law, screenwriter John Richards.
In terms of his favorite Seinfeld episodes, Cherones said “The Parking Garage” where the gang wanders endlessly around in a parking garage was the most fun because he took total control over the shoot. He, along with the show's production designer Tom Azzari, made a 20,000-square-foot studio look like an entire parking garage.
“I was the only one that looked through the camera and knew what the pictures were going to look like,” Cherones said.
In terms of favorite people he's worked with he noted James Caan, Phil Hartman and Shirley Jones.
“Hartman was good, a lot of fun and a big help to me,” Cherones said.
Cherones also certainly has enough Hollywood tales to last a lifetime. They include the time he met John Wayne with David Newell (Mr. McFeely on the “Mr. Rogers” show) at Hollywood's Stage 51 and Elizabeth Taylor when she sent him out for a strong whiskey/vodka concoction when he was working as a production manager on the Academy Awards in 1976.
“But she didn't offer me a drink,” Cherones quipped.
And even if after five years, which by Hollywood standards is a good run, his time on “Seinfeld” came to an end, the days working with Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander and the rest of the gang were no doubt a game-changer in Cherones' career.
“I enjoyed everything I ever did in TV. It's very gratifying to be recognized as a show by so many people. It frees up what you do,” Cherones said. “It was fun — to go to work all day and laugh all day and come home. That's a good way to go.”