Theodore J. Flicker, a writer and director who led an influential improvisational theater troupe in New York in the 1960s, wrote and directed the comic film “The President’s Analyst” and helped create the sitcom “Barney Miller,” died on Friday at home in Santa Fe, N.M. He was 84.
His wife, Barbara, said the cause was complications of a lung infection.
In the mid-1950s, Mr. Flicker worked in theater in Chicago and then St. Louis, where he helped form a version of the Compass Players, an improvisational group that was a predecessor of Second City. By 1960 he had moved to New York and begun performing in and producing “The Premise,” an irreverent revue in Greenwich Village. He offered audiences a distinctive greeting before performances.
“I feel it only fair to warn you,” he would say, “that we have nothing prepared for you.”
Louis Calta, reviewing the show in The New York Times, explained the trick: “A company of four young players, led by Mr. Flicker, a mustached, bewhiskered and bespectacled person of amiable mien, improvises scenes from words (animate or inanimate) and from topics provided by members of the audience. The category can be anything — a phrase or something having to do with films, art, politics or telephone operators.”
Mr. Calta was not impressed, but others were. In 1961, Mr. Flicker received a Drama Desk Award for creating “an irreverent, brash and novel form of entertainment.”
“The Premise” had a long run and energized the careers of several of its stars, including George Segal, Buck Henry, Joan Darling and Tom Aldredge.
In 1962 Mr. Flicker took “The Premise” to London, where he had trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Early in the run, the troupe was ordered to remove scenes that parodied the Kennedy family — in one, 4-year-old Caroline was portrayed as the real power in the family — because they violated English laws against lampooning heads of state. A telegram from Jacqueline Kennedy’s press secretary saying the family hoped the Brits would allow the scenes had no effect.
Mr. Flicker followed “The Premise” with another New York revue, “The Living Premise,” before moving to Hollywood to work in film and television. After directing and co-writing the film comedy “The Troublemaker” in 1964, he worked on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “I Dream of Jeannie” and other shows. In 1966, he helped write the Elvis Presley movie “Spinout.” A year later, after a chance meeting with the actor James Coburn, he made his best-known film, “The President’s Analyst.”
Mr. Coburn starred as a psychiatrist dedicated to helping the president work through the internal struggles brought on by leading the free world. Mr. Coburn’s character becomes so burdened with what he learns from the president that he develops his own psychological troubles, which soon spiral into farce. Critics liked Mr. Coburn and the novel concept but some felt the film eventually lost its way.
“The President’s Analyst” did poorly at the box office — a fact Mr. Flicker later vaguely suggested was a result of meddling by J. Edgar Hoover — but it won a modest cult following and helped Mr. Flicker find more work in Hollywood. He worked on various sitcoms before helping to create “Barney Miller,” the award-winning series about New York police detectives.
According to his wife, Mr. Flicker had developed a show proposal called “My Husband the Detective” when his agent urged him to work with the producer Danny Arnold to develop the idea into a sitcom. Mr. Flicker helped Mr. Arnold write and direct the show’s pilot, in 1974, and to conceive future story lines. Barbara Flicker said that soon after the pilot, Mr. Arnold took control of the show and sought to diminish Mr. Flicker’s role. Mr. Flicker’s involvement ended with the first season, while Mr. Arnold remained one of the show’s leading creative forces throughout its long run, from 1975 to 1982.
Mr. Flicker sued in the mid-1970s, saying he had been wrongly treated; he received a multimillion-dollar settlement. Mr. Arnold died in 1995.
Theodore Jonas Flicker was born on June 6, 1930, in Freehold, N.J., one of three sons of Sidney and Rebecca Flicker. His father made metal plates used to print books. Theodore attended Bard College but did not graduate. By the early 1950s, he had enrolled at the Royal Academy in London.
In 1959, Mr. Flicker directed “The Nervous Set,” a musical about the Beat generation that opened in St. Louis in March and moved to Broadway in May. It lasted for just 23 performances.
Besides his wife, the former Barbara Perkins, whom he married in 1966, his survivors include two brothers, Dr. Marvin Flicker and Robert Flicker.
Mr. Flicker settled in Santa Fe in 1986, just after receiving the settlement from the “Barney Miller” lawsuit. He wrote a self-published novel and then became a sculptor, specializing in female nudes. Seeking a fresh start from his show business life, he legally changed his first name to Ted.
“The process of creating art is intensely fulfilling,” Mr. Flicker said in a 2011 documentary about him, “Ted Flicker: A Life in Three Acts.” “You’re looking at the face of a deeply satisfied man.”