Son of composer and playwright Abe Burrows and brother of producer Jonathan Burrows.
Born in Los Angeles and raised in New York.
Graduated from Oberlin College, a small liberal arts school in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1962. In college he was a government major, though he had considered being a math major. After he graduated from Oberlin College he went on to get a masters degree in theater from Yale University.
Following his graduation from Yale in 1965 he moved to Hollywood and worked for a short time as a dialogue coach for O.K. Crackerby!, a short-lived television series starring Burl Ives. When the show ended he returned to New York where he worked as a stage manager, generally for his father's plays. Soon he began directing several off Broadway shows including, The Castro Complex, in addition to stock productions of The Odd Couple and Never Too Late.
By 1973 he had moved back to the West Coast and in 1974 he was invited to visit MTM Productions in Los Angeles. MTM hired James as an apprentice and they let him observe many of the sitcoms they produced, eventually having him direct some of the episodes. He spent the next few years directing episodes of MTM comedies such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda, and Phyllis.
In 1978 he became the principal director for the first 4 seasons of the show Taxi. He directed 75 of the first 90 episodes of the show.
In 1982 he left Taxi and created with former Taxi writers Glen & Les Charles, the show Cheers. To produce the show, he and the Charles brothers formed Charles Burrows Charles Productions in 1982.
Of the 275 episodes of Cheers, James Burrows directed all but 35 episodes over its 11-year run.
After Cheers ended James Burrows went to its spinoff Frasier and directed many episodes starting with the pilot in 1993. He was very involved the first 3 years of the show, directing 29 episodes in the first 3 seasons, 32 for the show in total.
Throughout the 90's James Burrows directed many sitcom pilots, most of which went on to become very successful shows. In 1994 he directed the pilot for Friends and also was a big part of the show in the first couple of years directing a total of 15 episodes of the show. In 1995 Burrows directed the pilot for Caroline in the City. Here again he stayed with the show for a little while directing in total 21 episodes of the show. Some examples of the pilots for shows he directed that went on to become very successful are Night Court, The Hogan Family, Wings, Newsradio, 3rd Rock from the Sun, Dhama & Greg, and Two and a Half Men.
In 1998 James Burrows signed on permanently with Will & Grace. He joined the creators of the show as an executive producer and has directed every single episode of the series so far.
James Burrows continues to direct pilots, most of which go on to become very successful shows.
In 1993, he and his wife Linda, with whom he has 3 daughters, got divorced.
In 1997 he got remarried to his current wife, Debbie.
He now resides in Los Angeles, California, continuing his sitcom directing career.