Lela Swift, who rose from the secretarial pool at CBS to become a pioneering force for female TV directors, died today at her Santa Monica home of natural causes. She was 96. Swift went from gopher to an AD job on the network’s Studio One in 1948, to directing nearly 600 episodes of Dark Shadows and winning three Daytime Emmys over 14 years of helming the soap opera Ryan’s Hope.

Born Lela Siwoff on February 1, 1919, in New York City, she joined the then-nascent CBS in the early 1940s. She was assigned as a researcher to Dr. Peter Goldmark, who, as CBS’ chief engineer, developed the original technology for color television and the concept of video recording. As the network expanded nationwide, she cracked the boys club of TV directors, going on to helm for such shows as Studio One, Suspense, The Web, The Dupont Show Of The Week, The House On High Street, NBC’s The Purex Specials For Women and the farmland documentary Years Without Harvest.

dark-shadowsIn 1966, Swift joined producer Dan Curtis on the ABC gothic serial Dark Shadows. After a slow start, the show became a big hit; it ran five seasons and 1,225 episodes, and Swift directed nearly 600 of them and was a producer for the final seasons. In 1975, she helmed the first episode of the Alphabet network’s daytime drama Ryan’s Hope. It would run for 14 years, and Swift directed most of its hours, more than 825 in all.

She is survived by her brother, Seymour Siwoff; sons Russell Schwartz, SVP Business and Legal Affairs at Starz, and Stuart Schwartz, an Emmy-winning TV producer; their wives; and five grandchildren.