Few ever make it to the top as a television director in Hollywood; for a foreigner to succeed in this most American of industries is even more remarkable. But one of the most sought-after directors in Hollywood today is Cairo-born Asaad Kelada. Since 1976, he has directed more than 250 program episodes for three major American networks.
Kelada directed such comedy successes as "The Facts of Life," "Who's the Boss?" and "WKRP in Cincinnati." His latest series, "George," starring ex-heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman, debuted on ABC this month.
It's a long way from the Nile to the Hollywood Hills, and the journey hasn't always been smooth.
Kelada studied drama at the American University in Cairo, and earned a master's in directing at Yale University's drama school. He taught college drama and directed at San Diego's Old Globe Theater and other playhouses.
In 1971, having made his mark in academic theater, Kelada took the leap into television. His reputation gave him entree to MTM Studios in Hollywood, where he spent five seasons studying on the set of the popular sitcom "Rhoda." This was not a formal apprenticeship; he still had to earn a living outside, teaching and directing theater. "I was simply allowed to sit [at MTM] and watch the directors' techniques," he says. "It was very frustrating, because I wanted to apply what I'd been learning."
When he finally got an opportunity to direct, Kelada was almost overwhelmed by the challenge. "I had spent five seasons preparing for this break, and now my future hung on one week's work."
He smiles wryly, "A door closes much more quickly than it opens, they say." Kelada observes, "Because I was different—Egyptian—I was under far more scrutiny; producers had to take a risk to give the outsider a chance."
In 1981, he directed his first hit, "The Facts of Life," about four girls at boarding school. His next success was "Who's the Boss?" starring Tony Danza. Five years later, Kelada walked away from "Who's the Boss?" at the height of its popularity, in search of a new challenge.
"It was a difficult decision," he said. "It was like leaving my family. The actors had created a kind of shorthand, so they were able to read each other and respond to nuances the viewer is oblivious to. It's this ephemeral chemistry that makes a show, and creating it is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle." After leaving "Who's the Boss?", Kelada freelanced for "Married People," "Frannie's Turn" and "The New WKRP in Cincinnati."
Soft-spoken, almost meditative, Kelada has a reputation for bringing out the best in actors. "This is a personality business. One must find a way to work with super egos and have them interact," he says. Another professional challenge is making careful choices: "The balance is between success and artistic integrity. I want to do work I can be proud of."
Kelada's roots are still firmly planted in Egypt, where he visits family each year. And that brings with it an added pressure. "I want always to present the best impression, because I represent a lot of people—my people."
Pat McDonnell Twair is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles who specializes in Arab-American topics.