James Sheldon may never have directed a feature film, in a career of 50 years behind the camera, but he practically wrote the book on how to direct for television. Along with such contemporaries as Marc Daniels and Charles Dubin, he was devising, inventing, and perfecting the field as he went along, from the dawn of commercial TV in 1948 right to the end of the 1990s. Sheldon's aspirations as a director began astonishingly early, in his early teens when he was brought by his father to see Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad doing a Wagner opera at the Metropolitan Opera. He was dazzled by the sound and the color and the sets and, knowing that he couldn't sing or play an instrument, saw directing as his way of contributing creatively to a performance. It took Sheldon a few years to get near that goal; a job as an usher at NBC helped get him into the general vicinity of performance work, and by his early twenties he was an assistant director on radio, which mostly meant timing out the program and making sure that no censorable words got out over the air. His first opportunity to run a program arose when the director of the particular show on which he was working had to be out of town at a sponsor's meeting, and asked Sheldon if he would fill in as director. From that beginning in radio, he jumped to television on CBS in early June of 1948 with the first broadcast of We, the People on CBS, which had its debut one week before Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theatre went on the air.
Sheldon went on to direct over 1,000 television shows, encompassing Mr. Peepers, Studio One, Armstrong Circle Theater, The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, My Three Sons, Naked City, The Virginian, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Batman, My World and Welcome to It, Longstreet, M*A*S*H, and The Dukes of Hazzard, among numerous other series. He could also take credit for discovering any number of actors and actresses across the years and giving them early breaks in their careers, perhaps most notably Tony Randall, whom he cast in what was supposed to be a one-page role in a single episode of Mr. Peepers; the producer was so pleased with Randall's work that the part was expanded to five pages and he became a regular on the show.
Although several of Sheldon's made-for-television movies have been released theatrically in Europe, he has never had occasion to direct a feature film, though not for lack of desire or interest. He'd always had it in his mind to someday do movies, but unlike Delbert Mann, whose television production of Marty gave him an entrée to the film industry, Sheldon never had a natural jumping-off point to help him make the leap. Alas, the timing on some of his opportunities wasn't always fortuitous. As he explained at a sold-out lecture at New York's Film Forum in March of 2006, his first chance to work in features came to nothing, mostly by virtue of his own reticence: "Anthony Perkins, whom I had directed on television, was due to star in Fear Strikes Out, the Jimmy Piersall story, and he told me that he would like me to direct. But this was 1956, and I didn't quite feel I was ready, and told him that I was gratified that he'd thought of me, but that I wasn't quite ready. Of course, that didn't stop Robert Mulligan, who also had never directed a feature film before, from doing the movie, and going on to do lots of other feature films in the years since." Still, Sheldon never lacked for work or opportunities, and remained busy on the small screen for hundreds of programs across another 40 years. By the start of the 21st century, he was regarded by those in the field as almost a living legend in the realm of television production and directing, and increasingly being sought out for interviews and lectures by such institutions as the Museum of Television and Radio and Film Forum for his reminiscences and recollections about the field he'd all but invented. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi