Part II: The Final Ascent
Randy Cordray (BA, 1975) is an avid outdoorsman living in a remote part of Oregon under the pretense
of retirement. He is also an in-demand Hollywood television producer with movie-star
charm, the enthusiasm of a recent college graduate, and an incomparable knack for
storytelling. Cordray's life journey, which eventually led to the helm of television's
The Office, is an epic tale of perseverance and determination which is as inspiring as it is
A few weeks ago, between backcountry skiing expeditions, Corday shared his story with me over a couple of extended Zoom sessions. What follows are the highlights of the second of half of our conversation about how he clawed his way through the Hollywood television industry into the role of producer for major network sitcoms such as Dharma & Greg and The Office. If you have not yet read the previous article, Part I: From Slopes to Sitcoms, I would suggest doing so before continuing.
So, you completed your apprenticeship at KTLA and joined the staff?
Yeah. KTLA was such an amazing training ground. I worked on Norman Lear shows, I did quite a few Mary Tyler Moore (MTM) Productions. They would rent our soundstages and we would get to work on their shows. And within two years, I became a full-time stage manager. I loved it. It was like directing on the floor.
KTLA had a special contract, but at all the other studios in Hollywood the stage manager position was under the jurisdiction of the Directors Guild of America (DGA). If I wanted to go freelance and work at Paramount or Warner Brothers, I had to be in the DGA. So, that was my next goal. One day I drove down to the DGA and I just walked in and I said, “I'm looking to join the guild.” I've never not been ballsy about things.
Did it work?
No. It's a catch 22. You've got to be hired by a DGA signatory, but you can't take the job unless you're in the guild. This is this is how Hollywood stacks the deck against newcomers. I left there a little crestfallen. Then, a couple months later I got a call from a director named John Tracy who said I could come work with him on a pilot for Warner Brothers if I could join the guild by Monday. I immediately called my contact at the DGA who was able to meet with me the next morning. Somehow, by the end of the day they allowed me to provisionally join through an industry experience clause. And, just like any union, once you're in, you're in.
This is 1981 at MTM Productions. We did the pilot. It didn't get picked up, but eventually, I ended up working on Newhart. Back in that era, shows were either shot on videotape or film and the jurisdiction of the DGA was split. Videotape shows were under a separate jurisdiction than film.
Yeah. Bizarre, isn't it? So, I was a videotape stage manager, and the whole first season of Newhart I was the key stage manager. At the end of that season, Bob Newhart decided he didn't like the way he looked on tape and demanded that the show be shot on film. Now, the corresponding job to key stage manager in film is called first assistant director (AD). I appealed to the DGA, but they wouldn't let me do the crossover.
Oh, man. Yeah. They denied it. But I did have the credentials to become a second AD. At first, I was disgruntled, but I learned there was a lot I did not know about film. I knew videotape backwards and forwards, but I didn't know film. I didn't know the terminology or how things operated. So, for the next two years I operated as the second AD and I learned a lot.
You worked on Newhart for three years?
That's right. I had done one year on tape and two years on film. Now, I wanted to run a movie set, but I needed more single-camera experience. So, at the end of season three, I resigned. And, you know, you don't resign from a successful show. It's kind of like bad form. But I had to chase my dream. I had a production manager friend over at Universal Studios who said he would start putting me on some single-camera things.
I started doing second units on Airwolf as an AD. That was a blast. Second unit is all stunt guys and special effects. We would go out in the desert and we would work with the helicopter, or blow up a Jeep, or turn over a car. I did a bunch of work on Simon & Simon as a fill-in AD. And then there was a show with a talking car, Knight Rider. I did the whole last season of that show as the second AD. After a full season, I now had the credentials to become a first AD – something I was never going to get on Newhart.
You took a risk, but it paid off.
Risk-taking is an essential part of one's personal growth. And it's what I do in my personal life. I'm a technical rock climber. Three years ago, I attempted El Capitan in Yosemite. Unfortunately, on day number two, I tore my rotator cuff. I like challenges and, you know, a certain feeling of danger.
I picked up on that. You have quite a few first AD credits, including Coach, one of my all-time favorites. Can you tell me about that?
I had been stolen away from The New Leave It to Beaver to work as the production manager and first AD on Coach. That was a huge opportunity for me. It was a hit show, very popular. I relinquished my duties as first AD after the first season, and I took on the title of executive in charge of production. It was a highfalutin title with a great salary, but it wasn't creative. I was in the office making deals and handling budgets. I became a suit, and I hated it. What I really wanted to do was produce. So, I dropped out. I could have made a fortune, but I would have been miserable the whole time.
You took another risk.
I did. I was out of work for several months, which was very scary. I thought my credit, my name, and my resume were going to open all these doors for me, but it didn't happen right away. Finally, I got a call from a friend of mine, Stewart Lyons (who went on to great fame producing Breaking Bad). He was producing a sitcom called Step by Step on ABC. It's like Wednesday, and he says, “Randy, can you take a two-week job starting tomorrow in Maui? I need somebody to direct second unit for us.”
I was like, “Hell Yeah!”
What an incredible experience!
Definitely. They didn't want to lose me after that, so they put me on as production manager for a show called Café Americano with Valerie Bertinelli. I did that for a season and solidified my relationship with Warner Brothers. That next year, I finally got a co-producing credit on a sitcom called Partners with Jon Cryer. Partners led to another producing job on a show called Townies. It starred Molly Ringwald, Lauren Graham, and this new actress named Jenna Elfman. We only did 14 episodes before we were canceled, but I made some lifelong friends. This was like 1996.
You also worked with Jenna Elfman on Dharma & Greg. That was big show. How did you manage to get that job?
I was working on a show for a director friend of mine. We never even shot a foot of film. We prepped this pilot, spent a million dollars, and they pulled the plug after the table reading. I was getting married at the end of that week. They pulled the plug on Monday and I'm getting married on Saturday. I'm broke. Life is not going all that great.
So, I drop everything and go down to Fox. Jenna Elfman runs over and gives me a big hug. Then, Chuck shakes my hand and says, “Hey, if this show goes to series, you want to produce it?”
And that's how I got Dharma & Greg. We shot 125 episodes. And that really put me on the map. It was a wonderful, fun show. Chuck Lorre and I became like brothers. We had we had five great years together. Then, Chuck went over to Warner Brothers. I did three pilots for him, but none of them got picked up. You know, he didn't really hit his stride until Two and a Half Men. But, by then I had picked up a different series called Still Standing. Chuck asked me two years in a row to come over. But as a line producer, you are hired on a recurring contract. I just could not extricate myself to go over to Warner Brothers and work for Chuck Lorre as much as I wanted to.
You worked on Still Standing until about 2006, correct?
That's right. About that time, the bottom of audience sitcom fell out. Young people were now the TV watching audience and laugh tracks became old fashioned. Suddenly, single-camera became the order of the day, and overnight this whole genre was gone. A lot of jobs disappeared. You had to reinvent yourself or starve to death.
I was one of the lucky ones because I had single camera experience going back to Hill Street Blues. I got a series called The Loop. You've never heard of it. It didn't go well. The audience didn't respond to it. It was cute, but it died. I also did a series for the Farrelly brothers, called Unhitched. We did a season of that. But it didn't go well either. And somewhere in that era, this show came on the air called The Office.
Um, yeah. I'm definitely familiar with that one.
Well, The Office was on my radar. I was like, wow, this is different! And in the fall of 2007, Hollywood went into a writers' strike and Unhitched was canceled. Everything shut down. And in the middle of that strike, my agent asks me to take a meeting over at Universal Television with the head of comedy production. In the meeting, The Office is never mentioned specifically, only that there is an opening for a producer. But I figure out pretty quickly which show they were talking about. And sure enough, the next day they ask me to go meet Greg Daniels, head writer for the American version of The Office.
I understand that Greg is quite a character.
Listen. Greg is brilliant, but he is uniquely different. He looks at everything about 90 degrees to normal. But our meeting went well. The writers' strike came to an end, and I took over as producer for season five of The Office.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Between 2008 – 2011, Cordray produced 76 episodes of The Office before leaving the show for personal reasons after season seven. Sometime later, he returned to work, producing a handful of network comedies with varying degrees of success before retiring to his current home in Jacksonville, Oregon.
These days, Cordray is enjoying retirement and spends most of his time taking calculated risks on the slopes of the Siskiyou Mountains. He does not seem too eager to get back to work (unless Chuck Lorre happens to call with a great idea for a new sitcom – which he probably will).
Cordray's tales from the set of The Office offer an extraordinary behind-the-scenes glimpse into the inner workings of the hit series. Here are two incredible stories from our discussion:
Listen to Randy's epic tale about the episode where Jim proposes to Pam. Warning: Strong Language
Listen to another epic tale about the episode where Jim and Pam get married. Warning: Strong Language
Photos provided by Randy Cordray.