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Dena Krupinsky makes Hollywood dreams reality as Turner Classic Movies producer

April 30, 2012 10 comments

Whether you’re a regular or occasional visitor to this blog you have by now probably noticed that I like to write about Nebraskans in Film.  That is a function of my being a Nebraskan, a film buff who just happens to be a journalist.  Naturally, I seek every opportunity I can find to write about fellow natives of this place who have and are doing great things in the world of cinema.  It’s not only filmmakers and actors I profile either.  You’ll find pieces about many different aspects of the industry as well as about people who don’t make films but instead showcase them for our entertainment and education.  Take the subject of this profile, Dena Krupinsky, for example.  When I wrote this article seven or eight years ago she was a producer at Turner Classic Movies in Atlanta, where she was one of the key figures behind those Private Screenings Q&A’s that host Robert Osborne does with legends.  It was a dream job for her because she’s been in love with the movies for as long as she can remember and that gig put her in close contact with some of the biggest names in Hollywood history.  She’s since moved on to teach at a university but her cinema obsession remains intact.  I too have had the distinct pleasure of interviewing and in some cases meeting Hollywood royalty, past and present, including Robert Wise, Patricia Neal, Debbie Rynolds, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Danny Glover.  I am hoping for an interview with Jane Fonda in the near future because she’s coming to Omaha for a July program at Film Streams that will have Alexander Payne interview her live on stage.  Of course, Payne is someone I’ve interviewed dozens of times over the years and because of that relationship I’ve had the chance to interview Laura Dern, Matthew Broderick, Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Sandra Oh, Virginia Madsen, producers Michael London, Albert Berger, and Jim Burke, screenwriter Jim Taylor, and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael.

 

 23632_006_2945.jpgDena Krupinsky makes Hollywood dreams reality as  Turner Classic Movies producer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Orignally appeared in the Jewish Press

 

For most of us, childhood dreams remain just that — the unfulfilled musings of our starry-eyed youth. But for Omaha native Dena Krupinsky, an associate director with Turner Classic Movies (TCM) in Atlanta, her long-harbored fantasy of working with Hollywood greats has become reality. Since joining TCM in 1994, the year the national cable network launched, Krupinsky has produced dozens of special programs featuring stars and other notables from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Even a cursory glance at her producing credits reveals a Who’s-Who of movie royalty she has worked with — from Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Tony Curtis, James Garner and Rod Steiger to June Allyson, Leslie Caron and Liza Minnelli.

Whether in a digital editing suite or in a sound recording booth or in a television studio, she gets on intimate terms with some of the very luminaries she’s idolized. She might be producing a Private Screenings session in which James Garner recalls his career or she might be pruning a feature with Liza Minnelli discussing her father and his films or she might be recording a voice-over track in which Carol Burnett pays homage to Lucille Ball. “Do I wake up in the morning excited to go to work? Yeah,” Krupinsky said. “I feel like I’m doing exactly what I knew I’d be doing. It is a dream come true.” She has, in the course of putting together various programs, met dozens of Hollywood legends as well as many more obscure but no less significant film industry professionals. “I do feel lucky meeting these people. They were part of that Old Hollywood, which was an exclusive, elite world. And now that I’m part of it, I’m so excited. When I watch the Oscars I’ll see these people up there and go, ‘Yeah, know him, met him. Nice guy.’” That goes for screenwriter Ernest Lehman, a 2001 honorary Oscar recipient whom Krupinsky met while taping a program in which Lehman discussed how scenes from his script for North By Northwest were brought to inspired life by director Alfred Hitchcock.

Somehow, even as a little girl, Krupinsky knew she was destined to work in film or television. Growing up in the Rockbrook Park neighborhood, she was the oddball kid on her block who much preferred watching TV hour upon hour to playing outside with her friends. So enamored was she with whatever the magic box displayed that she would kvetch with her mother for extra viewing privileges. Although her parents, Jean Ann and Jerry Krupinsky, could not then see how such a steady diet of old movies, sitcoms, dramas, game shows, variety shows, soap operas and commercials could possibly benefit their daughter, it undoubtedtly has — embuing in her a deep affinity for popular entertainment that, if not a prerequisite for working at TCM, certainly helps. “It does. It definitely does,” said the perky Krupinsky during a June visit to Omaha for her 20th high school class reunion. She is a 1981 graduate of Westside High School and a former student at Temple Israel Synagogue. “I just always loved television and movies and I’ve just always known I wanted to be in them.”

During her recent visit from her home in Decatur, GA., a community near Atlanta, where she works, Krupinsky, who is single, wore a bright red dress that matched the burning intensity she has for her job. That job entails producing segments for the network’s (Channel 55 on Cox) Private Screenings, Star of the Month, Director of the Month and Spotlight features as well as producing special projects related to individual films, figures or themes, such as a new half-hour documentary, Memories of Oz, which has been well-reviewed in the national press for its informative and fun take on the making of The Wizard of Oz. She has worked with everyone from impish Mickey Rooney to serious method actor Rod Steiger and tackled themes from Religion in the Movies to the Art of the Con. Her work has been recognized in the industry with Telly awards for Private Screenings segments on Tony Curtis and Leslie Caron. a 1999 Gracie Allen Award for a Carol Burnett On Lucille Ball special and the 21st Annual American Women in Radio and Television Award for a series of interstitials (promotional links) on women in film.

Many of the stars that Krupinsky, a graduate of the prestigious University of Missouri School of Journalism, has worked with have since passed away, most recently Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. A Private Screenings installment she did with Lemmon and Matthau remains one of her favorites, if for no other reason than she was enchanted with the man who originated the role of Oscar Madison on stage and on screen. “That was something that I loved to do. Walter Matthau was the greatest, funniest guy I ever met. I loved him. At one point, I was walking with him to show him where the Green Room is and he grabbed my hand. He was so sweet. He called me Charlotte the whole time. I’d be like, ‘No, it’s Dena.’ And he’d go, ‘No, no, I had a girlfriend named Charlotte, and you’re just like her.’ When he died I remembered this line he said that I loved during our taping session: ‘Dear, oh dear, I have a queer feeling they’ll be a strange face in heaven in the morning.’ And I thought of him and that line. Bless his heart.” Krupinsky invited her parents to attend the Lemmon-Matthau taping. She said she often tries sharing her Insider’s position with less experienced co-workers by letting them listen in on phone interviews. “I always like to have people listen because it’s too great a learning experience not to have your co-workers there.”

On one occasion, Krupinsky gathered a phalanx of Liza Minnelli fans in her office for a scheduled phone interview with the star only to have the diva surprise everyone by inviting the producer up to her place instead. “She said, ‘I’d love it if you could come to my house — I really don’t like to do phone interviews.’ And I was like, ‘Well, Liza, I’m in Atlanta and you’re in New York.’ She goes, ‘I’ll fly you up.’ So, I checked with my bosses and they said, ‘Go for it.’ I went to her house in New York and hanging on the walls were these big Andy Warhol prints — one of her, one of her mother and one of her father. Staring at those prints reminded me I was with a member of Hollywood royalty, and that her mother really was Judy Garland and her father really was Vincente Minnelli. She was as easy as an old friend, but I was in awe the whole time. It was great.”

 

 

 

Dena Krupinsky Picture
Dena Krupinski

 

 

Not at all jaded even after hobnobbing with scores of celebrities, the star struck Krupinsky said she still gets butterflies every time she meets one. “I’m always a little nervous, but the minute they start talking you kind of forget you’re scared.”

She said the stars are real troopers who go out of their way to make her and her colleagues feel comfortable being around them. “So far, they’ve all been so easy to work with and I think it’s because they want to tell their stories. They’re proud.  They don’t do it for the money. They do it because they want to do it.” She said stars are put through their paces on a typical Private Screenings production day, which entails a three to three-and-a-half hour taping session, promotional intros and press interviews. “It’s an exhausting process, but never have we had problems. I’ve never had anyone complaining that it’s taking too long or demanding star treatment. They’re totally professional. When we bring them on to the set, they’re not worried or anxious. They just say, ‘I got it. I know what to do.’ And they love it. I feel like they have as much fun with us as we do with them. I mean, they even sit with the crew and eat lunch.”

With stars flying in to Atlanta for the tapings, opportunities abound for Krupinsky to hang with the screen legends. “We usually take them out to dinner the night before. Tony Curtis, whom we’ve worked with a lot, came with his wife Jill. We took them to dinner and shopping. Tony is a lot of fun. This is a guy who doesn’t want to rest. He wants to go out at night. He has fun with his celebrity. He gladly signs autographs.” Following a Private Screenings session with Best Actor Oscar winner Rod Steiger, Krupinsky was asked to escort the actor to a Florida film festival in his honor and she witnessed first-hand the respect and adulation audiences feel for this “very intense and very passionate” man.

One of the toughest parts of her job, she said, is trying to whittle down the star interviews from several hours to the one hour or less allotted for airing. For several months now she has been working on the edit for an August 2 scheduled James Garner Private Screenings segment. “James Garner’s has been one of the hardest to cut because he told so many good stories. I cut and cut on paper first and when I went to edit I thought for sure I‘d be fine but it was still too long. Cutting stories is the hardest part. Editing is a long process.” In preparing to tape a Private Screenings or to produce a special project like the Memories of Oz documentary, Krupinsky immerses herself in the project, gathering and reviewing reams of materials on the subject, including published interviews, biographies, tapes of movies and archival photos, with the help of staff researchers. “I become totally absorbed in my subject. For three months I can tell you everything about Tony Curtis or James Garner because I study them and I learn about these guys. I’ll know everything — dates, times, movies  — you name it. But then once a project’s done that information goes away as I move on to the next one. The thing I love about my job is that I’m learning all the time. I feel like I’m still in school. It’s like having advanced film classes with experts talking about how they approach screenwriting or directing or acting.”

Krupinsky followed a logical route to TCM, working in local television promotion before graduating to the network level. Once out of college — and with her sights dead set on a career in TV — she took an entry-level job, as a secretary, at CBS affiliate WAGA-TV in Atlanta, where she was soon promoted to associate producer status — developing image campaigns and teasers for the station’s news and entertainment divisions. Even with the new position, she said, it was hard to get by on her small salary. “I was broke. I ate a lot at Taco Bell.” After a brief stint with a station in Knoxville, TN, she landed a spot as a writer-producer with Turner Network Television Latin America, which equaled a step-up on her career path but which also presented a dead-end since she did not speak a word of Spanish or Portugese. Then, in 1994, she heard about the formation of TCM and promptly applied for and won her current post. When she began at TCM, media mogul Ted Turner was still taking a hands-on approach with the fledgling network unlike today, when various mergers have taken Ted’s folksy presence out of the picture and replaced it with corporate suits. “Ted would always come by. One day, we had a meeting with him and he was wearing a cartoon tie and he was just hilarious,” she recalled. Other times, he’d walk by the office and say, ‘Hey guys, what are you doing?’ Everyone who worked for Ted has this feeling for him because he did a great job. Thank God I was there for that regime.”

 tcm_02_privatescreenings2

 

 

Before joining the ranks of film buffs and cinephiles at TCM, Krupinsky acknowledges she was a bit out-of-step with her workmates because even though she loved movies, she lacked a deep knowledge of their history and lore. As an example, she points to Warner Brothers tough guy John Garfield, someone she was assigned to do a feature piece on and knew next to nothing about. “Before I did John Garfield I didn’t know who he was to be honest. I told my mom who I was profiling and she said, ‘Oh, John Garfield, he’s great. You’ll fall in love with him.’ I said, I will?’ And sure, enough, I did. You almost fall in love with all these people.”

The Garfield project led Krupinsky to the late actor’s daughter Julie Garfield, an actress, who provided personal insights into the man, and to former director Vincent Sherman, who directed Garfield in the 1943 drama Saturday’s Children and who worked with many other Warners greats in the 1930s and ‘40s. Krupinsky played matchmaker of sorts when she arranged for the two to meet. “I brought Julie and Vincent together for lunch and it was great to sit back and let him tell her stories about her dad that she didn’t know. I was kind of proud myself because I brought these two together.” Krupinsky feels privileged getting the inside scoop from veterans like Sherman, who at 95, is one of the last surviving directors from Hollywood’s classic studio era. Sherman knew everyone on the Warners lot and hearing him talk about the old days and the old stars is like getting the Holy Scripture from the prophet himself. “I had lunch with him and he was telling me stories about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Oh, God, I’m sitting here with a man who worked with these legends.’ I mean, it is very cool. Vincent’s become a friend of our network’s.

A large part of her producing chores involves developing scripts, which generally include narration read by a star or stars who have some relationship with or enthusiasm for the subject. For example, to promote a month-long salute to the late producer-director Stanley Kramer, Krupinsky hit upon the idea of having comic Jonathan Winters, who appeared in Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, wax nostalgic about the filmmaker, with whom he was quite close. She interviewed Winters by phone and developed a script from his comments that adhered very closely to his own words. The resulting Winters’ salute was a surprisingly sober, reflective and personal reminiscence. When it comes time for the star to record the narration, as in the case of Winters, leeway is given for the star to go off-script and improvise. “They’ll paraphrase and add their own little things,” Krupinsky said, “and so it almost sounds like it’s off-the-cuff, and a lot of times it is.”

Among new and proposed projects, Krupinsky is now brainstorming ideas to promote TCM’s scheduled Coming of Age theme in October. She would like to get a Matt Dillon or Diane Lane or Reese Witherspoon to host the Coming of Age festival. Another idea she has is to get Dustin Hoffman alone or as part of a reunion of the cast of The Graduate. Other projects she would like to see happen range from a special on the Marx Brothers (she recently interviewed Carl Reiner on that comedy team) to Private Screenings segments with Shirley MacLaine, Elizabeth Taylor, James Coburn and Jerry Lewis. She is also busy thinking of some project that would be a good fit for Steve Martin to host/narrate.

Pitching projects is part of what Krupinsky or any producer does. She feels fortunate having superiors who value her input. “The cool part about my job is that as producers we have a lot to say. It’s not like, ‘Hey, Dena, your next assignment is…’ It’s more like, ‘Hey, Dena, here’s the programming we’re thinking of doing and we want you to come up with ideas.’ I can come back and say, ‘Let’s try this,’ and they’ll say yes or no, but a lot of times they say yes. That’s why I love my job. Like the Lemmon-Matthau Private Screenings. That was mine. I wanted to do something on comedy teams and I thought of Lemmon-Matthau and I did it. And the cool thing is you get to do this stuff with people you’ve always admired and wanted to meet.”

For now, Krupinsky is content at TCM, but she can see herself moving on, perhaps to produce feature-length documentaries. “I think about it all the time and I do feel like I am making a slow progression towards it. I’m doing great stuff now but I always feel like there’s something else I could be doing out there. I don’t want to ever get away from this work. Even if I moved on I still want something to do with Older Hollywood. Right now, though, I’m happy where I am.”

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The wonderful world of entertainment talent broker Manya Nogg

April 30, 2012 6 comments

Behind virtually every television commercial, corporate training video, TV show, music video, movie, stage show, and lifestyle print ad is someone like Omaha-based Manya Nogg, whose job is to locate or identify talent and a lot of other things for producers and creative directors.  Without her, the show or project does not go on, or only does so after a big headache because she serves to expedite things that take valuable time in a field where time is money.  She’s been doing this talent broker thing for decades, and it’s just one manifestation of a lifelong enchantment with show biz, entertainment, and the arts that has seen fill all sorts or roles, as writer, director, producer, editor, casting director, makeup artist, production assistant, and on and on.  She’s worked in film, TV, theater.  She writes articles and reviews.  She teaches.  No spring chicken either, she’s still quite active juggling a multi-faceted career.  That was true when I profiled her a half-dozen years ago or so, and it’s still true today.

 

The wonderful world of entertainment talent broker Manya Nogg

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Jewish Press

 

Who am I this time?

It’s a question brassy, breezy Manya Nogg might well ask given the chameleon-like life she leads and endless ways she reinvents herself. There’s Manya the wife and mother, the entrepreneur, the writer, the teacher, the motivational speaker, roles that overlapped her work as a makeup artist, television crew member, ad agency hack, city film commissioner and race horse owner.

In her current guise as founder-manager of the talent brokerage house Actors Etc. and of the dramatic presenting group Theater-to-Go, both of which she operates with her son, Randy, she wears many hats in trying to please clients and audiences alike. A day-in-the-life of Manya Nogg is sure to find her working the phone and perhaps rounding up human or animal talent, scouring salvage or thrift stores for one-of-a-kind props, searching far and wide for just-the-right locations, organizing-designing events and maybe even filling-in for an actor unable to go on.

She’s a whirling-dervish, hell-on-wheels, one-woman band with enough chutzpah, guile and wit to hold her own with anyone. Whether hanging with Teamsters on a set or meeting with button-down execs in a conference room, she can joke, quip and swear with the best of them and outlast them pulling all-nighters.

All of which brings us back to, Who is Manya Nogg anyway? “Anchor me down, honey? It’s like trying to catch the wind,” she tells a visitor to her Omaha home. “You can call me a broad, you can call me fat, but if you call me old, I will find out where you live.” A clue to what makes her tick is the joy her variegated work brings. “Being able to take an idea and bring it to fruition…to fulfill your own artistic vision…to have an idea and see where you can go with it, that creative part of taking something from nothing has always been very exciting to me. I love that.”

Actors Etc. is nearing its 30th anniversary as a media production supplier furnishing producers of commercials, TV movies, feature films and industrials with everything from actors and crafts people to props to caterers to location scouting services. Theater-to-Go presents live performances of original Who-Done-It mystery party games and TV-movie parodies at receptions, conventions, meetings and seminars.

Her search for new identities began during the post-World War II boom, when no sooner did she graduate from Central High School than the former Manya Friedel boarded the train to California as another starry-eyed Midwest girl pursuing silver screen dreams. “I graduated on Friday and left for Hollywood on Sunday,” is how she describes the start of her adventure. She was only 17. And the shy girl known then as “Doc” was following through on her long-held ambition “to be an actress.”

Aside from a one-time desire to be a nurse, Nogg’s what-do-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up visions were always golden-hued, like her wish to be a professional ice skater. “I don’t march to the same drummer as a lot of people,” she says.

Her movie aspirations were fired by the hours she spent watching movies, especially at the neighborhood Lothrup Theater, where her parents deposited her once a week while they played cards with the theater’s owners across the street. There, in the darkened cinema, basking in the glimmer of bigger-than-life images emblazoned before her, a young girl’s show business dreams took flight under the spell of stars like Bette Davis in Now, Voyager and character actresses like Agnes Moorehead in The Magnificent Ambersons and Judith Anderson in Rebecca.

But Nogg, who grew up an only child of practical parents that owned both a garage and the Omaha Broom Company, was not putting her eggs all in one basket. In school, she learned a more down-to-earth facet of show biz that became her backup for breaking into the movies. “Central High School had a marvelous theatrical makeup department and I just fell in love with it,” she says. “I started taking stage makeup and it became so much part of me I ended up becoming the student makeup mistress. I did this for three years. As a matter of fact, the teacher got married during the school year and was gone a week, and I taught the class.”

 

Manya Nogg

 

 

 

Still, she had little more than pluck when she made the trip west. Amazingly, her parents let her go without much of a fuss. “In retrospect, it kind of blows my mind they let me do what I did,” she says. “It took a lot of guts.” Easing their fears was the fact Nogg would be rooming with a friend who’d earlier ventured out there. Soon after arriving, reality set in. First, a Hollywood strike was on, meaning jobs were scarcer than usual in a ruthless town filled with wannabes. Next, she was unschooled and unprepared for the ins-and-outs of getting noticed. She had no agent, no head shots, no nothing except her naked ambition.

Embarking from the one-room apartment she shared in “a not so good part of downtown L.A.,” she made the rounds at the studios and the central casting office and “found out right away” she “couldn’t get in for an interview or audition” as an acting hopeful. Worse, she discovered women were shut out of makeup artist jobs and instead confined to hair stylist jobs, but in order to qualify she needed “a hair degree” from a cosmetology school, which she didn’t have.

Then, her beating-the-pavement paid off when she wandered into the offices of something called Stage Eight Productions, which turned out to be her gateway into the embryonic but soon-to-be burgeoning TV industry.

“Its head, Patrick Michael Cunning, was literally one of the pioneers of television in this country. He had one of the first production companies. He was one of the first directors. Edgar Bergen was a partner,” says Nogg, who didn’t know any of this when she arrived. “They were over on Sunset (Boulevard) and I walked in and Cunning was looking for a production assistant. The fact I knew makeup appealed to him and so I went to work for Stage Eight, and it was the Harvard of experiences. They wrote and produced everything themselves.”

Under Cunning’s guidance, Nogg did makeup, film editing, writing and assistant directing for some of TV’s earliest live dramatic programs, including its signature series of Tom Sawyer shorts, which were first done live and then redone on film. The films’ players worked as an ensemble troupe. “I was blessed that he let me write for them. What I would do is…be at every rehearsal and take down everything in short-hand, and go home and distill a script they would all be a little familiar with. They worked so well together they did not need tons of rehearsal. They could take my skeleton script and improvise. Then, eventually, I got to direct the Tom Sawyer Kids.” She counts Cunning among the “mentors” she’s been “lucky enough to have” who were “so professional and taught me so much about the business.” The only drawback was the less-than-living wage paid.

Cunning allowed her to get the acting bug out of her system and to find her true creative calling behind the scenes. “He knew I wanted to be an actress and he let me do some acting. I was doing a dramatic scene once that called for me to go from frightened to hysterical,” she recalls. “Well, I ended up being hysterical, not from anything in the scene, but because I realized I didn’t want to be the very thing I went out there to do. I was introverted and shy enough, and nobody knew this, that I wasn’t comfortable sharing me or putting myself out there. That’s when I went behind the camera, and I loved it. I love being behind the camera.”

Although Stage Eight proved a good “training ground,” Nogg became “frustrated in California” with the low pay and her inability to “make a dent in the film industry” and she sought a new start in Chicago, where she worked at Paramount Pictures-owned WBKB-TV, “one of the first genuine television stations in the country. By then, they were doing really hot stuff. They were on the air pretty much all day long. Kukla, Fran and Ollie started there. Marlin Perkins’ Zoo Time, the forerunner of Wild Kingdom, started there. I was technically a publicity assistant but my duties spilled over into working as a film editor, makeup artist, assistant director and writer. I did live interviews from Arlington Park.”

Life then threw her a curve when her father died. After a period of mourning in Omaha, she went back to Chicago, but soon returned here to be with her mother. With all that experience gained in Hollywood and Chicago, the indefatigable, unsinkable “Manya Brown” had no trouble starting over and selling herself again. In quick succession, she nabbed jobs at Universal Advertising and KBON Radio and snagged a husband in businessman Alvin Nogg, son of the late Nathan Nogg, whose Nogg Paper Company is still going strong today. She raised the couple’s two children, Randy and Sharon, and took part in managing some of her husband’s many other business interests, including the company that became Lancer Label and the family’s stable of racing and show horses. From the 1960s through the early ‘70s, she whet her creative appetite by doing makeup, props and costumes at the Omaha Community Playhouse and by working as a Docent at the Joslyn Art Museum, whose women’s association she was active in. The Noggs numerous civic activities extended to the downtown Kiwanis chapter, which her husband headed, and to the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben, where the couple’s daughter, Sharon, was a princess.

 

 

 

 

All this time, Nogg kept her hand in the media world as a freelance makeup artist and jack-of-all-trades in support of local commercial/industrial shoots. Her wealth of experience and keen networking skills gave her contacts in theater, TV/film production and the service industries that few others could match. When a TV client called with what seemed a tall order — “He said, ‘I want a guy to be able to walk around with a sandwich board on, but I want it to be a vault that will open up and that kids can reach into and grab candy’” — Nogg replied, “I’ve got just the guy for you.” That guy was Tom Casker, the then-set designer for the Omaha Community Playhouse. She called and a conversation ensued with Casker’s wife, Diane Casker, who was also working in local film production.

“By the time we got done talking, we had formed a new company. Between she and Tom and myself, we had done everything.”

Nogg and Diane Casker formed Illusions Unlimited, the predecessor of Actors Etc. “She was a wonderful gal, and we did magic together,” Nogg says of her late partner. She recalls that as women officing from home they encountered flak from the then-male-dominated ad agency ranks until they unloaded with some what-does-where-we-office-have-to-with-our work? straight talk.

The intent with Illusions was to offer location services for out-of-town and local production companies. To announce themselves with more pizzazz than the usual card or brochure, the partners stole an idea from TV’s Mission Impossible by recording a dramatic pitch on an audio playback machine, complete with a mock self-destructing tape, and delivering it to prospective clients. Nogg explains, “Our recording went, ‘Dear agency director…this is your mission, and should you choose to accept it,” and it said who we were and how we could be contacted. Then, at the end, and I don’t know how he did it, Tom inserted a powder package and when the tape ended, smoke poofed out. We could only afford one tape recorder, so we dropped it off one company at a time. We called a day or two later to ask if we could come visit. And, of course, we had hooked them with that.” Nogg says she and Casker only had to pull the stunt a few times before bagging a big client.

Landing the services contract for a National Alcohol Prevention Association film led to an expansion of Illusions that Nogg did not anticipate. “They wanted talent as well and most clients wanted that same service, and so it became an equal part of what we did,” she says. Flash forward 30 years and the bulk of what Actors Etc. does now is talent coordination for film-video projects, which means doing everything from supplying producers with actors, extras, crew and crafts people to actually casting the shoot to sub-contracting production houses to film it.

“Our slogan is script to screen,” she says. “If you call me today and say, ‘Manya, I want you to coordinate a commercial or industrial film for me,’ we have a roster of actors to act it, writers to write it, location people to find locations, crafts people to do costumes, makeup or hair, production assistants, assistant directors…We even subcontract with companies that do the actual filming. Everyone that works with us is an independent contractor. We’re a talent coordinating company or broker that picks the best people for you at the best price for your job.”

No two calls are the same. “When the phone rings,” she says, “we don’t know what they’re going to ask. We always have a short time frame, too. It’s like they always need it five minutes ago. When people ask me what I do, I joke that I’m a procurer. I’ll get you anything you need…if it’s legal. We don’t get bored, that’s for sure.”

Her credo is, “You’ll do the impossible, or try, if you want ‘em to come back.” Take the time New York ad agency Hungry Man prepped a Doritos commercial here. “They called needing to see as many of the heaviest-set people as we could find and put on tape by the end of the day,” she says. Nogg and company wrangled an ample sampling for the firm to review via video-conferencing. Then there was the time Disney needed a setting for an early Native American scene in an Ebcott Center film. Nogg picked a remote spot at De Soto Bend National Wildlife Refuge, “leaving us to figure how would we get an earth lodge and horse out to the middle of this island. We had to find boats to ferry them out. It was a challenge.”

Or when a client sought a dog and cat that could wear eyeglasses, prompting Nogg to ask, “You’re talking real ones, right?’ After explaining the animals’ limitations, she convinced the producer “to use puppets.” Another animal request she felt pushed the limits was the call for a chihuahua to do a series of poses in a La Mesa spot. “I never thought we were going to pull this off, but we made it work with only a mildly trained dog. In the spot, you see the dog sitting near a window watching its master come home. Then, you see it at the restaurant wrapped up in a blanket like a baby. And then sitting at the table. It’s darling.”

Finally, there was “the guy who wanted to blow up an airplane” for a commercial,  “and we were actually working on it, too, when he backed out.”

Delivering on those “if it’s ungettable, we’ll get it” push-the-envelope jobs is what Nogg lives for. “I’m excited we have clients that want to go the extra mile and come up with something different. You don’t mind because you know they respect what you’re trying to do. It’s a fun challenge to try to see it through to fruition. It invigorates you…when it’s not giving you an ulcer.”

As if needing something else to do, she served as Omaha’s first film commissioner in the ‘80s. Then, in the ‘90s, she saw the possibilities for adapting a script she’d pitched the producers of The Equalizer to the mystery party game circuit, and thus Theater-to-Go was born. She’s since added How-To teaching at Metropolitan Community College, motivational speaking and on-line book reviewing to her activities. Then there’s her stint as a private investigator, but that’s another story.

Living out loud has become her persona, but she wasn’t always thid way. “I was very quiet until I was 40. Then I heard that beer commercial –‘You only go around once in life, so go for the gusto’ — and, so, I became Auntie Mame, and I’ve never come back. But, you know what? That’s how I’ve managed to do what I’ve done.”

Entertainment attorney Ira Epstein: Counsel to the stars

April 30, 2012 10 comments

Where there is a celebrity, there is an attorney, and in the case of the entertainment attorney profiled here, Ira Epstein, this Beverly Hills-based lawyer never lost the taste for show business he acquired as a kid growing up in Omaha, Neb.  In a diverse life and career he’s touched many different aspects of the human condition, the legal profession, and the entertainment industry, working with some genuine legends along the way.

 

 

Longtime client Carroll O’Connor in his iconic  role as Archie Bunker

 

 

Entertainment attorney Ira Epstein, Counsel to the stars

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

 

Veteran west coast entertainment attorney Ira Epstein, a counsel to high-profile clients in film and television, traces his show biz roots to growing-up in Omaha, where he and his brother, Arnold “Tuffy” Epstein, a well-known Omaha woodwind player, performed in area fairs and amateur shows during the Great Depression.

Born and raised here, the brothers, studied music at the prodding of their grocer parents, Harry and Jenny, the proprietors of their own mom-and-pop store, Epstein’s Grocery, originally located at 27th and Maple and later at 20th and Martha. The family lived above the stores. As kids, Ira and Tuffy were prevailed upon by their parents to entertain salesmen pitching wares. “Ira would play the accordion and I would sing,” Tuffy recalls, adding their stage mother booked them “wherever she could get us,” including two neighborhood movie theaters, the Roseland and Corby, where the boys were billed as Ruffy and Tuffy for amateur show performances. Their younger siblings, Allen and Gloria, also performed.

Graduating to the piano, Ira performed in music programs at his school, Central High, where he cut short his senior year in order to join a touring big band headed by Skippy Anderson. While he downplays his own musical talent, Ira was, in Tuffy’s estimation, “an excellent jazz pianist.” With the help of money his mother saved, Ira attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and took paying gigs to pay his tuition, room and board. “I worked my way through school playing in bands,” he says. Often, he and Tiffy found themselves jamming on the same stage.

By the time Ira started college, the Korean War erupted and the military draft loomed large. The then-social work major sought a field of study that would keep him in school. That’s when he and a pair of buddies decided “we’d take the law school exams. We didn’t have anything better to do.”

What began as “a lark” turned into a distinguished career nearing its half-century mark. But his frivolous attitude toward the exams nearly quashed his plans. Certain he’d failed, the silver-tongued Epstein proceeded to talk his way into law school with the personal chutzpah and charm that made him a natural for the courtroom.

As Epstein remembers, it happened this way: “The dean called me in and said, ‘Ira, you really didn’t do well on these tests.’ I told him why. That I left early every day to conduct cheerleading tryouts in my role as Yell King. That I was in every activity imaginable at Nebraska. I was a member of the gymnastics team, the student council, the Nebraska athletic board. I was active in Jewish activities, including AZA. I was president of the campus chapter of Sigma Alpha Mu. And the dean said, ‘Because of all your activities. we’re going to let you into law school.’ And that’s how I got started. I ended up enjoying the law and doing pretty well.”

In typical Epstein fashion, he ran with the opportunity, becoming editor of the campus law review and earning a law fellowship in trial procedure evidence. During his fellowship, Epstein got a chance to work with and learn under famous personal injury defense attorney Melvin Beli, who was trying a case in Omaha at the time. “He came into Omaha to try a medical malpractice case against a foot surgeon. Beli had a national reputation. He was the big man from the west coast up against a small town country lawyer, who was one of the best defense lawyers in the business. Beli took him to the cleaners…and back in those days you couldn’t easily recover against doctors. It was really tough. Beli brought me in to help do the research. He was a great scholar and a great guy. I was very impressed…I got some good experience and we got to be good friends.”

Ira Epstein

 

 

Coming out of college, Epstein harbored designs on working for one of Omaha’s prestige Gentile law firms, which he says then maintained an unspoken but nonetheless rigid country club policy barring Jews, regardless of their credentials. “When I graduated law school I was a pretty hot prospect with a lot of enthusiasm and I decided I wanted to break the barrier in Omaha and go into a non-Jewish law firm.” he says. “Well, I interviewed with most of the major non-Jewish firms…at least 10 of them…and I could not get hired. Here I was editor of the law review and, while I didn’t finish first or second in my class, I was in the top 20 percent, plus I was in all kinds of organizations, and yet I couldn’t break the barrier. That was anti-Semitism at its best. Now, it’s changed, of course.”

Then, in 1957, Epstein applied for and received a direct commission into the Air Force’s Judge Advocate General or JAG court. The recently married (to the former Noddy Schein of Omaha) JAG officer was first assigned to San Francisco, where he looked up Beli, who officed in the city on the hill, to see about joining the famed attorney’s practice and thereby supplement his low military salary. “I ended up  working part-time for him while in the service. At that point I got a good flavor of personal injury law and decided that just was not my bag.” Meanwhile, his JAG duties helped him develop keen lawyering skills. “JAG was really a good experience for me. I tried a lot of cases…a lot of court martials. For being a closet introvert, I was a pretty good trial lawyer.”

He had no longer settled in his next station, cushy Long Beach, when a mid-air collision of Air Force and Navy planes over civilian air space caused severe property damage and personal injuries, resulting in a flood of claims he handled. This, too, proved a valuable training ground. “As a result of that very serious accident I spent a year settling claims for the government. It was a tremendous experience. By the time I joined a law firm in 1959 I was an experienced lawyer already.”

With his JAG commitment up, he interviewed with private L.A. law firms and got hired by an established entertainment law firm. It was familiar territory. “I felt comfortable from the very beginning,” he says. “I was always interested in entertainment. It was appealing to me.” Besides, as a former performer, he understood the fragile creative personality. “It’s not so much just temperamental artists, it’s temperamental producers, too. They’re all the same. They all have that mind set, which they’re entitled to. It’s an ego business. You have to have a particular kind of mentality to represent them. You have to be pretty patient. You have to be more of a psychologist, bordering on a psychiatrist, than a lawyer.”

Among his first clients was Larry Harmon Productions, whose stable of artists included TV’s Bozo the Clown. Another Harmon artist, animator Lou Scheimer, became one of Epstein’s closest friends. When Scheimer left Harmon to start his own animation shop, Epstein continued representing him. At the time, there were only a few independent animation companies, and when Epstein’s boss ordered him to drop Scheimer to avoid potential conflicts with competing animators, Epstein remained loyal to his friend. “I said, ‘Well, I’d just as well drop the firm than drop the client,’ which was a dumb thing on my part because the guy had nothing going. That was 1963. So, I went out on my own with this partner, and don’t ask me why, but we got a lot of clients. We were doing pretty well, only my friend Lou Scheimer was doing nothing.” That soon changed when CBS plunged into Saturday morning animation and a major player in comic books, National Periodical, sought somebody to animate their signature Superman franchise. Scheimer got the job and Epstein bought a piece of his studio, Filmation.

Superman launched the company and really got me started in animation. After Superman we started doing all the action heroes. Batman. Aquaman. Captain Marvel. Then we branched into other animation series. We did Fat Albert. We did Masters of the Universe — that was a big series. We ended up selling the company in 1969 to a cable company called Teleprompter that was the predecessor of all the big cable companies. Teleprompter ended up selling to Westinghouse and as a result we made quite a bit of money for young guys at the time.”

Outside animation, a good share of Epstein’s early clients were in the music business. When he was still a law firm employee in the early ‘60s, he did work for Liberty Records, a kitsch pop label whose recording artists included Julie London, Bobby Vee and the Chipmonks. “I learned a little about the music industry, but I knew music anyway.” When he opened his own firm, he rode the wave of the soulful black music movement. “I set up the California corporation for Motown Records, which then moved from Detroit to Los Angeles. I worked with many Motown artists. My personal client from their stable was Hal Davis, who wrote and produced many Jackson 5 and Diana Ross hits.”

Then Cooper set about reinventing himself and his practice again. “In 1975 I left my then partner and went with another attorney, Jay Cooper, who was and still is the outstanding music lawyer in the country.” With the addition of a third partner, the firm of Cooper, Epstein and Hurewitz became a player in the entertainment law arena for 20 years. “We started with about six lawyers and built it up to about 60. We had one of the best entertainment law firms in Los Angeles,” he says. “We had a lot of good lawyers. We had a lot of good clients, It was really a major firm.”

Although Epstein did select legal work for legendary stars Marlon Brando, Barbra Streisand and Mary Tyler Moore, his biggest client during this time was Carroll O’Connor, the late actor forever identified with the role of Archie Bunker on the classic, ground-breaking CBS series All in the Family. “I represented Carroll through All in the Family, and all his battles with its producer Norman Lear, and up through his last series, In the Heat of the Night. I also represented him throughout all his problems with his late son and the lawsuits that evolved from that.”

More than a client, O’Connor was a friend, Epstein says. “We had great rapport with each other. We became extremely close. I shared all his joys and sorrows. It was a lasting relationship. I still represent the O’Connor estate.” Bigoted Archie Bunker was far removed from the man Epstein knew. “He was not that character. He was the antithesis of Archie Bunker. He was an extreme liberal. A champion of human rights.” Given that Epstein is a self-described “extreme conservative,” their friendship made for “an interesting relationship.” He says as different as O’Connor was from A.B., the actor struggled escaping the persona he so indelibly fixed in people’s minds. “I represented him on Broadway, where he was never able to have a successful play. It just wouldn’t work. He got so closely tied to the role of Archie Bunker that the public just wouldn’t buy him as a legitimate stage actor, where he got his start. But he was a great actor and a wonderful guy.”

 

Carroll O’Connor became a friend and client

 

 

 

The television landscape Epstein and his clients knew in the ‘70s an ‘80s was vastly different than the one that’s emerged today. Back then, the medium centered around the Big Three networks, monolithic television-focused businesses which got most of their product from independent producers. Today, technology has created an expanded television pie sliced up among dozens of networks and hundreds of channels while at the same time economic forces have seen a consolidation of power, programming and production among a few major multimedia giants. “The television business has been considerably impacted by consolidation,” he says. “An independent television producer today doesn’t have a chance because the majors have taken over almost all of the production. It’s all pretty much integrated vertically. It’s all just controlled by a very small group of people.”

Making television deals for clients today requires Epstein know more than just what the U.S. television market will bear. He must also be well-versed in foreign distribution and in the home video and spin-off markets. “The business has changed a lot. There was no such thing as a foreign television market in the early years. Now, foreign markets produce about 50 percent of the income for television series. With the advent of home video and product merchandising, I have to know these aspects. If you do a major animated show like Masters of the Universe, your income is coming out of merchandising as much as it’s coming out of television. I made a deal a couple years ago bringing the Japanese animated series, Yu-gi-oh to this country and it made all its money in the merchandising area.”

Other forces impacting his work include the ever changing home entertainment market, which has seen VHS and laser disk formats supplanted by DVD, and the proliferation of cable TV and its ever expanding programming menu to serve an insatiable viewing habit. In this wide open environment, anyone or anything can be a hit, as evidenced by the Reality TV phenomenon that makes people from all walks of life instant celebrities. In his quest to stay current, Epstein represents a professional gambler trying to make it on the popular TV poker playing circuit. He also represents Peter Funt, producer of Candid Camera and the son of the show’s creator, the late Alan Funt, who did Reality TV before it had a name. The growth of televised sports and the birth of sports celebrities is another sea change, says Epstein, who’s “done deals” for such figures as George Foreman and Hulk Hogan.

So. what’s the next big thing? Epstein says a mass-market, user-friendly technology to download movies off the Internet is sure to one day replace DVDs by virtue of the ease, speed and convenience of select-and-click home movie viewing.

By 1994, Epstein resigned as managing partner of Cooper, Epstein and Hurewitz and went into a semi-retired mode that saw him work some 10 years at Weissmann Wolf. Then, in 2002, at the urging of his former partner, Jay Cooper, Epstein joined the huge international firm Greenberg Traurig and its growing entertainment practice, where he’s rejoined his old friend. Epstein, who’s recently represented producers and distributors of mini-series and features, operates autonomously there. At age 72, he thinks of retiring, but remains too much in the game to leave now. “When I went into semi-retirement the whole idea was I would phase out and quit soon. Well, I’m still phasing out. I hope to quite real soon, believe me, but I don’t know, I seem to stay with it. I do very little of what is called the traditional practice of law. I advise my clients far beyond the lawyering. It’s fun.”

He also is a senior member of the board of directors for Image Entertainment.

A new challenge occupying much of his time these days is his presidency of the North Coast Repertory Theater in Solana Beach, Calif., whose move to a planned facility in a neighboring community he’s spearheading. His association with this theater company fulfills a dream to be “involved in the legitimate theater.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two days a week find Epstein in Los Angeles, attending to his law clients, and the rest of the week at his home in Rancho Santa Fe, a short drive from the theater. He and his wife Noddy are the parents of three grown sons and the grandparents of six — four girls and two boys. He rarely gets back to Nebraska these days, although he was here last fall for the 50th reunion of his Innocents Society pledge class. “We had a wonderful reunion…a lot of fun.” He stays in contact with family and “a lot of good friends in Omaha,” including former schoolmate Ben Nachman.

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