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Life Itself IX: Media and related articles from the analog past to today’s digital era


Life Itself IX: 
Media and related articles from the analog past to today’s digital era
 
 
KM3 reporter Maya Saenz living her dream
Maria Teresa Kumar and Voto Latino dig down on civic engagement
John Knicely: A life in television five decades strong
Kevin Simonson on Interviewing Hunter S. Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut
Ann Schatz on her own terms – Veteran sportscaster broke the mold in Omaha
KETV president-general manager Ariel Roblin leads effort to make historic Burlington Station the ABC affiliate’s new home 

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Ariel Roblin

 
Summer Miller’s book depicts area whole foods culture in stories, recipes, pics
Lew Hunter’s small town Nebraska boy made good in Hollywood story is a doozy
Playwright turned history detective Max Sparber turns identity search inward
Faith, Friends and Facebook: 
The Journey of Camille Metoyer Moten
From the heart: Tunette Powell tells it like it is
Identity gets new platform through RavelUnravel
Making community and conversation where you find it: Stuart Chittenden’s quest for connection now an exhibit
How wayfarer Stuart Chittenden’s Nebraska odyssey explored community through conversation
Creative couple: Bob and Connie Spittler and their shared creative life 60 years in the making

Mike Kelly

Mike Kelly

 
Master of many mediums Jason Fischer
To code or not to code: New Omaha school offers bootcamp for aspiring web designers
Ex-Gonzo journalist-turned-filmmaker James Marshall Crotty resolved to celebrate debate in new films “Crotty’s Kids” and “Master Debaters”
News of Omaha Star publisher’s illness spurs admiration for her stewardship and interest in historic paper’s future
Omaha World-Herald columnist Mike Kelly: A storyteller for all seasons
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Veteran Omaha TV meteorologist Jim Flowers weathers the storm
MindMixer: Rethinking the town hall meeting 
The Omaha Star celebrates 75 years of black woman legacy
Ex-reporter Eileen Wirth pens book on Nebraska women in journalism and their leap from society page to front page
Bob Hoig’s unintended entree into journalism leads to career six decades strong 
Finding her voice: Tunette Powell comes out of the dark and into the spotlight
El Puente: Attempting to bridge divide between grassroots community and the system
 
Documentary shines light on civil rights powerbroker Whitney Young: Producer Bonnie Boswell to discuss film and Young
The Great Migration comes home: Deep South exiles living in Omaha participated in the movement author Isabel Wilkerson writes about in her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns”
Part IV of four-part Q & A with Pulitzer-winner Isabel Wilkerson on her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”
Part III of four-part Q & A with Pulitzer-winner Isabel Wilkerson on her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”
Part II of four-part Q & A with Pulitzer-winner Isabel Wilkerson on her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”
Part I of four-part Q & A with Pulitzer-winner Isabel Wilkerson on her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”
Wounded Knee still battleground for some per new book by journalist-author Stew Magnuson

Howard Silber

He knows it when he sees it: Journalist-social critic Robert Jensen finds patriarchy and white supremacy in porn
Ron Hull reviews his remarkable life in public television in new memoir
Dick Cavett’s desk jockey déjà vu
Gray Matters: Ben and Freddie Gray fight the good fight helping young men and women find pathways to success
A brief history of Omaha’s civil rights struggle distilled in black and white by photographer Rudy Smith
 
The man behind the voice of Husker football at Memorial Stadium
Warren Francke – A passion for journalism, teaching and life
Dena Krupinsky makes Hollywood dreams reality as Turner Classic Movies producer
Documentary considers Omaha’s changing face since World War II
The wonderful world of entertainment talent broker Manya Nogg
Entertainment attorney Ira Epstein: Counsel to the stars 
Photojournalist Nobuko Oyabu’s own journey of recovery sheds light on survivors of rape and sexual abuse through her Project STAND
 
Intrepid photojournalist Don Doll reinvents himself by adding video to repertoire of making images that matter
Linda Lovgren’s sterling career earns her Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame induction
From reporter to teacher: Carol Kloss McClellan enjoys new challenge as inner city public high school instructor
Steve Gordon, the man behind RDQLUS Creative embodies creative class life and career
Omaha’s KVNO 90.7 FM turns 40: Commercial-free public radio station serves the community all classical music and local news
To Doha and back with love: Local journalists reflect on their fear, loathing and everything surreal adventure in the Gulf
Nancy Kirk: Arts maven, author, communicator, entrepreneur, interfaith champion
Retired Omaha World-Herald military affairs newsman Howard Silber: War veteran, reporter, raconteur, bon vi vant, globetrotter
Jeff Slobotski and Silicon Prairie News create nNiche by charting innovation
From wars to Olympics, world-class photojournalist Kenneth Jarecke shoots it all, and now his discerning eye is trained on Husker football
 
Dream catcher Lew Hunter: Screenwriting guru of the Great Plains
Sun reflection: Revisiting the Omaha Sun’s Pulitzer Prize-winning expose of Boys Town
Open Minds: “Portals” explores human longing in the digital age
Omaha native Steve Marantz looks back at city’s ’68 racial divide through prism of hoops in new book, “The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central”
Magazine and mission founded on spirit of giving: Metro Magazine publisher Andy Hoig celebrates philanthropy
SkyVu Entertainment pushes “Battle Bears” brand to sky’s-the-limit vision of mobile games, TV, film, toys …
Beware the Singularity, singing the retribution blues: New works by Rick Dooling
Old partnership takes new turn: UNO-Kabul University renew ties with journalism program 
North Omaha champion Frank Brown fights the good fight

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Warren Buffett, left, and Stan Lipsey at the Omaha Sun in the 1970s.

Being Dick Cavett
Homecoming always sweet for Dick Cavett, the entertainment legend whose dreams of show biz Success were fired in Nebraska
Bill Maher Gets Real
Exposed:
Gail Levin and Steve Brodner prick the body politic
Imagemaking celebrated at Joslyn Art Museum: “The Misfits” and Magnum Cinema
Forever Marilyn: Gail Levin’s new film frames the “Monroe doctrine”
Hidden In plain view: Rudy Smith’s camera and memory fix on critical time in struggle for equality
Radio DJ-actor-singer Dave Wingert, in the spotlight 
 
Theater-Fashion Maven Elaine Jabenis
Marguerita Washington: 
The woman behind the Star that never sets
Ron Hull’s magical mystery journey through life, history and public television
Author, humorist, folklorist Roger Welsch tells the stories of the American soul and soil
Buffett’s newspaper man, Stanford Lipsey
John and Pegge Hlavacek’s globe-trotting adventures as foreign correspondents
 
 
 
Howard Rosenberg’s much-traveled news career
A good man’s job in radio is never done: Nebraska broadcasting legend Gary Sadlemyer
What’s in a brand? For Rebel Interactive, everything
Extremities: As seen on TLC’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive” – Mary Thompson takes her life back one piece at a time
Three old wise men of journalism – Hlavacek, Michaels and Desfor – recall their foreign correspondent careers and reflect on the world today
Culturalist Kurt Andersen wryly observes the American scene as author, essayist, radio talk show host
Radio One queen Cathy Hughes rules by keeping it real: Native Omahan created Urban Radio format
Alice’s wonderland: 
Former InStyle accessories editor Alice Kim brings NYC style sense to Omaha’s Trocadero
Radio Day: “Michael Feldman’s Whad’Ya Know?”Live from Omaha
 

Doug Wesselmann, aka Otis Twelve

 
Otis Twelve’s Radio Days
Preston Love: His voice will not be stilled
Slaying dragons: Author Richard Dooling’s sharp satire cuts deep and quick
Man on fire: Activist Ben Gray’s flame burns bright
Former Omaha television photojournalist Don Chapman’s adventures in imagemaking keep him on the move
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John Knicely: A life in television five decades strong 

February 26, 2018 3 comments

 

John Knicely: A life in television five decades strong 

©Story by Leo Adam Biga

©Photos by Jeff Reinhardt

Appearing in the March 2018 issue of New Horizon

Anchormen are mainstays of the old local network affiliate television tradition that saw men, almost never women, read news on-air. Much has changed in TV in terms of gender equity. Women anchors, reporters and news directors are common now,. But there’s no getting around the fact that for a large portion of the viewing audience age 55 and above, a man delivering the news was the norm. Though men now share newscasting duties with women as part of co-anchor teams, it’s still a male-dominated field behind the camera.

Just as there’s frequent turnover in other industries, people don’t stay put in broadcast journalism very long. In TV, where ratings and focus groups rule job security and on-air personalities look to bigger markets, station hopping comes with the territory. Plus, reporting-anchoring is often a gateway to other careers, such as corporate public affairs. That’s why WOWT co-anchor John Knicely is that rarest of creatures. He’s been the face of the same station for 26 years. It constitutes the longest run by any one anchor in this market since television emerged in the late 1940s-early 1950s.

His presence on local TV extends back even further – all the way to 1974, when the Sidney, Neb. native and University of Nebraska Lincoln graduate first joined WOWT, not as a newsman but on the sports side. He was a popular Omaha TV sports figure from then through 1981, when he made his only career move outside this market to do sports in St. Louis for three years. He returned to Omaha in 1984, still doing sports, only at WOWT’s chief rival, KETV, where he was part of the top-rated local newscast team that also featured Carol Schrader, Michael Scott and Jim Flowers.

Going from sports to news and connecting with viewers

Then, in 1992, he was part of a media shakeup that made headlines when he and Flowers left No. 1 KETV for then doormate WOWT and he simultaneously made the unusual move over from the sports desk to the news desk. WOWT’s ratings climbed and he’s remained in the anchor chair ever since.

“I had heard of another sports guy who made that transition in another market,” Knicely said of the sports to news switch. “As we thought about it, my wife and I, it was a way to advance and not have to move out of town. With five kids at home at the time it was really appealing. It was, I suppose, taking a chance because you’re known for 20 years in sports and then changing over to news. But we had a really good consultant then. He said, ‘Don’t try to be any different just because you’re doing news now – be yourself’ – which was great advice. You don’t have to be something else.

“The biggest thing was meshing with my co-anchor Pat Persuad. It’s not that it had to be hard or anything. it’s just that I was always sports alone. I produced everything myself – went out into the field and did it and it was done. But in this case you’re working with somebody and there’s kind of a rhythm you need to develop and get into – and a trust . And for Pat, she had a sports guy coming in to do this. She’d had a couple previous anchors that she worked with. She was very gracious. My wife Sue and I made a point to go out to lunch with Pat so that she could get to know us better.”

In broadcast journalism, it’s all about connecting enough with viewers to make them feel comfortable having you, so to speak, in their living room or kitchen or bedroom.

“You make a connection if you’re genuine, if you’re real about who you are,” Knicely said. “There’s a comfort level I think that develops. Of course, not everybody’s going to like your style or like something about you, but that’s the business.

“You think back to the first time you were on TV and how foreign that camera lens seemed to you. You’re wondering, ‘What am I talking to?’ There’s nothing talking back to you or anything. But I think pretty early on I was able to get that and be at ease doing it, and if you’re at ease, then I think your viewer’s at ease, too.”

He actually discovered his knack for communicating to others in high school speech class.

“I got in front of the class to give a speech and I just felt comfortable, right at home. I really enjoyed it. There was something about them responding to what I said. I usually did something that I thought was humorous. You got that instant feedback” not unlike a stage performer.

“I was successful at it.”

Just as many successful communicators imagine they’re speaking to one person in the audience, Knicely said, “I think in a way I do that – it’s almost like the camera becomes that individual. It’s the only thing out there. You don’t really think about the number of people you’re being seen and heard by. but it’s definitely that projection right into that camera.”

He’s not always at his best.

“I think some nights you don’t feel like you connected as well. Maybe the copy didn’t get in early enough for you to look at it and make some changes – because it has to be conversational. That’s really critical.”

A good newscast presentation has to do with intangibles like charisma, chemistry and energy but also measurables like pace. Anything can throw the whole works off, whether a flubbed line or a technological glitch or just not feeling yourself.

Knicely’s consistently resonated with enough viewers – two generations of them – that he’s outlasted countless other local on-air talents. Along the way, he’s carved a niche as a participatory journalist. It started with the “I Challenge John” series he did at KETV and it’s continued through the “John at Work” and “Knicely Done” segments he’s become known for at WOWT. He’s also developed a sterling reputation for integrity.

A man of faith

Off the air, he often shares his values and faith at public functions where he’s asked to speak.

He finds congruence between his on-air and off-air self.

“If I didn’t have my faith, it would be a different story because I may then have to be this person on camera but off the camera a different person. But since I’m the same person in both places that really takes that kind of pressure off because it’s nothing I really have to worry about since I’m still being myself.”

His professionalism doesn’t allow his personal views to leak through his work as a journalist.

“In regard to the stories you do, it’s always objective and both sides of the story. I understand there are different views and feelings and it’s not my job to give my views. If I’m speaking at an organization that invites me to come and speak and they ask me to share my faith, I’m certainly able to do that.”

 

Ageless

As Omaha’s version of Dick Clark, he’s seemingly defied aging by still looking remarkably like he did when he started all those years ago. The former high school athlete – he played football, basketball and golf – has always made fitness a priority and he still exercises most every day. At the station he gets in a workout between evening newscasts at its subterranean workout room, complete with racquetball court and basketball hoop. When his kids were young and visiting dad at work, they’d shoot hoops there.

He’s gracefully aged into Omaha’s longest-lived TV icon. He’s a grandfather several times over. He’s twice the age of most of his colleagues and has more experience in the business than many of them have lived. All of which makes him the dean of area TV journalists.

Still manning the anchor desk at age 66 means he’s also defied a growing trend toward younger on-air talent. His familiar face and age may actually be a plus for audiences since the demographic that consumes network affiliate programs tends to be older and thus he’s the face of a proven, trusted news organization. That matters in an era with a glut of online news and social media, much of it unreliable or unvetted.

Doing it all

Knicely has not only withstood TV’s ageism, he’s gone against the grain by shooting, editing and writing his own stories in the field – a rare practice among anchors. It flies in the face of the stereotype that anchors are talking air heads who can’t string two words together unless they’re scripted for them on a teleprompter, or in today’s studio world, on an Ipad.

“There aren’t many news anchors that go out and shoot a story, edit it, write it, read it. ‘Knicely Done’ – I do all that myself. They’ve given me a camera to use. I know exactly what I want and I know what makes a good story. I know the natural sound you’ve got to mix in, so I can shoot it and produce it. Some of that goes back to shooting sports – I was familiar with angles and shots.

“But it’s a lot of extra work doing it that way. The typical way – you go do the interview, write the story and then hand it off and that’s all your involvement is. But I don’t do it that way. My way, there is that accomplishment and the creativeness you get to express.”

He’s heard the jokes about anchor people and, he said, “I don’t think it applies to me because I’m involved in every aspect and want to be,” adding, “I want to have a good product I present that has my name on it.”

Filing his own stories for “John at Work” and “Knicely Done” has given him an opportunity to stand apart from the pack by getting his hands dirty and showing his personality. For the latter, he did everything from working on a garbage hauling crew to climbing a 2,000 foot television tower to being a middle school principal to flying with the Blue Angels.

“The one thing about it is that it keeps it fresh and new. You’re presenting something in a different fashion. News doesn’t always have to be serious. It can be informative and give you an idea of what’s going on in the community that you wouldn’t otherwise hear about. There’s really good things about that approach. And it’s not about you, it’s the fact that this is what’s happening behind the scenes with certain jobs or personalities in our community that you get to showcase.”

The segments also counter the frequent criticism leveled at TV news that it reports too much negativity.

“You hear all the time, ‘Why do you guys only give the bad news?’ Well, we don’t. When the good news kind of goes by and you’ve watched it, I don’t know what happens to it. It’s like, ‘Did you forget that we did a good positive story?’ ‘Knicely Done’ is always positive. It’s highlighting good works in our community.

“Maybe because of the emphasis of the lead story at the  top of the newscast, which is usually a serious story about an issue or some crime or disaster, the good news kind of gets lost. It’s kind of sad that’s the case. Also, you’re exposed to news throughout the day with the different mediums out there and you hear a lot of bickering and negative things going on and you kind of lump it all together with news in general. Maybe viewers are not as discriminating in thinking about it.”

He’s convinced that local news broadcasts, whether over the air or streaming, remain relevant.

“The first thing would be breaking news because it’s happening now and we can bring it to you right now, Newspapers have video and online services, so you can get it there, but not in the same capacity, Then there’s the local issues that develop that we cover in real-time. It could be the school board voting that night on the new superintendent and we capture the results and reactions on camera. We can bring you really anything happening in the city – crime and scams going on right now, things you need to be aware of as a viewer.”

On the lighter side, he’s a pretty good sport who doesn’t take himself too seriously. whether working someone else’s job or accepting a competitive challenge.

“Yeah, you have to know how to fail and live with it. It’s always pretty much tongue-in-cheek. We make it fun.”

He no sooner started the “I Challenge John” pieces, he said, then he was “swamped with letters – I couldn’t answer them all and I couldn’t do them all.” Many  challenges he accepted were from kids. “I lost to a bunch of 9 and 10 year olds.” Once, memorably, he played goalie and tried and failed to stop youth ice hockey players from scoring on him. “My self-esteem just sank. But they were fun things.”

He’ll never forget two challenges.

“A guy had me come out to Carter Lake for a water ski challenge. Well, I water ski, so I thought this shouldn’t be tough. We get out in the boat and he says, ‘See that ski jump over there? You’re going to go over that.’ Sure enough, next thing I knew i went over it. He told me beforehand, ‘When you hit that, don’t pull back on the rope.’ There’s this trickle of water always coming down on the board to keep it slippery – so you can slide. Well, I hit that ramp, pulled back on the rope, and my skis started going straight up. I was looking right up into heaven. I  landed smack on my back and went under water and I thought, ‘Okay, the rescue boat is going to be here,’ and it was and the guys were laughing.

“One humiliation after another.

“Another time, I played chess at Brownell-Talbot against their champion. He was a brilliant senior. He played me with a paper sack over his head in front of the whole student body. They would call out my move and in 10 seconds he had the next move, and he checkmated me, I later ran into one of the professors there, and he said, ‘I know chess and I knew he had you checkmated earlier.’ And so I asked the kid, ‘Why didn’t you do it then?’ and he said, ‘Well, I promised the student body  I’d take the whole hour.'”

Some challenges Knicely politely declined out of safety concerns. Para sailing was one. “I thought, ‘I’ve got five kids, I can’t get up in that thing by myself.’ I even declined parachuting. I’ve done it since.”

 

From the heart

Perhaps the most personal storiy he ever filed was in tribute to the derring-do of his late father, Jack Richard Knicely, an Omaha native who co-piloted B-24s and C-46s in the China-Burma-India Theater. He flew missions over the “Hump” (Himalayan Mountains). The son accompanied the father on an honor flight to Washington D.C. to visit the World War II Memorial.

The trip meant a lot to both of them.

“You won’t find anyone more loving of his country than my dad was. In his late age he would get tearful when he would talk about the men and women who served. There was one very dangerous, almost desperate situation that his co-pilot pulled them out of that he would get tearful about remembering.

“That memorial visit was really fantastic because the plane was full of veterans. When we got to D.C.. there was a gauntlet of people cheering as all these veterans walked through and, boy. it was emotional. Dad actually sat next to a guy who also flew B-24s. Pretty amazing. It was so special to see Dad’s reaction to what a great tribute they put together in their honor. It was humbling. It was just great to experience it with him.”

The Greatest Generation holds great store for Knicely.

“I love that description  When you think that they were 18. 19, 20 years-old and without question enlisted right away to do what they could for our country. Totally selfless. We can’t thank them enough.”

His father’s passing offered another opportunity to pay respect to his service, which included years in the Air Force Reserves before retiring with the rank of colonel.

“At his funeral they had a full military salute. As we drove into the cemetery I looked over at all these young military people standing at attention as the hearse drove by. Then they had the gun salute and folding of the flag and presentation. Wow, did that ever hit hardcore .”

Showing another side of things

Knicely’s entrepreneurial news reporting has its roots in a series he did at WOWT about two decades ago.

“Our news director then was John Clark and I asked him, ‘Can you just give me my own camera because it will free me up to get some things that otherwise I can’t get?’ So, he did. It started that way. He had seen my work at KETV. But my going out and finding stories really evolved from when I came over to WOWT in 1992. We had a little time before I could go on the air and so I proposed that I go live in the projects in North Omaha for three days. John assigned a photographer to me who was kind of street smart and we went in and lived in the Hilltop Housing project for two nights and three days and found just a whole bunch of positive stories that you don’t hear about in that community of young women really working hard to improve, take care of their families and get out.

“The one apartment in the whole complex that allowed the bad guys to come in just tortured everybody. That’s the way it was. The idea for the series kind of caught my news director off guard. He was like, ‘Should we do this or not?” He okayed it and we had three good nights of stories out of it. A lot of good positive stuff. We called it ‘Three Days in The Jets’ because the people living there called the projects The Jets. I edited it and wrote it. I used music. Back then, you could use music more. It makes a big difference in a story.”

A purpose-driven life and career

Hundreds of stories have followed. He’s won recognition from his peers for his work. Yet, this nearly 45-year fixture of Omaha media wasn’t even sure he wanted a career in television as late as his graduation from UNL with a broadcast journalism degree.

“My dad was a lawyer. My brother’s a lawyer. Even right to the end of school I was still kind of thinking that, too.”

There already was a journalist in the family though. His mother Betty wrote a column called “Panhandle Mother” for the Sidney Star-Telegraph that John admired and she encouraged his own reporting interests.

Then fate or divine providence intervened.

“Coming out of college, I had two job offers. One was Sioux City TV. The other was Lincoln radio. I took the one in Lincoln because I had a girlfriend in Lincoln. TV would have been the better choice in hindsight. But then three months later there was a job opening at Channel 6 in Omaha and my old college professor Dr. Larry Walklin said, ‘You should apply for that.’ It was a weekend sports job. So I came down here and interviewed.

“I had long hair back then. I got the job in like a week’s time. The opportunity just came. I really think God opened the door for me at that time. There was a sense about it that this is supposed to happen.”

He’s indebted to his teacher for the job tip.

“He didn’t have to call me and find me. I was out of school. But he was so nice to do that and I’ve thanked him several times since.”

An aphorism from his old prof turned words to live by once Knicely entered the real world of working media.

“Dr. Walklin always told us ‘never assume anything.’ In college you didn’t understand what that meant, but, boy, when you get in the business you do.”

Knicely joined a strong, veteran newscast.

“Gary Kerr was the anchor. Dale Munson did weather, Steve Murphy was news director, Ray Depa was assistant news director. Wally Dean was there, too. They were so professional. True journalists. They were just a tremendous example and it was a real learning experience working around them. Wonderful guys.”

The three broadcast network affiliates had the market to themselves.

“It was such a different era back then with just three TV stations. It was very competitive.”

Knicely was off and running in his career. But something was missing.

“I’d probably worked here six months to a year. I had all these things going for me: a great job, friends, fun activities. You’d think you’d be happy because you’re meeting all these goals. But I just had this shallowness inside me. The depth wasn’t there. I was kind of running from God and couldn’t get away. It was like He was saying, ‘John, I have a real purpose for your life,’ and it just resonated for me.

“Things were happening in my family, too, with deeper walks in faith by my mom and dad and my brother. I  grew up around church but I realized, ‘No, there’s some depth they have that I don’t. Finally, I got down on my knees on Christmas Eve. I was working alone. I just said, ‘Alright, Lord, I give you my life – you use it the way you want to use it, and that’s my commitment to you.’ It was a very personal thing. God really spoke into my life. I started reading the Bible. It was jumping off the pages to me. That was 1975. It’s been a long time.”

 

Moving past tragedy and trauma

His faith was seriously tested before and after his born again experience. In his teens his mother Betty was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

“She had an operation and never really recovered from that. She was in a coma state. Before she passed away, we all came home and she would acknowledge us. My brother asked her if she’d like to say the Lord’s Prayer and in spite of the fact she was in a coma she came out of it to say that with him. Spiritually, it was pretty dramatic for everybody in the family. With our Christian faith, we’re confident she was with the Lord and we’ll meet again one day.”

His father later remarried a widow, Jan, with two girls of her own and thus Knicely found himself part of a blended family as a young adult.

“I didn’t know what to expect with a new mom introduced to the family, There was an adjustment but we all understood what a blessing it was and it proved to be an absolute godsend for everybody. They were married almost 40 years when he passed away at age 92. Her daughters looked at him as Dad. Jan’s just a very loving, kind person and treated us like her own, especially our kids.”

Decades later, Knicely’s own family experienced a crucible no one should have to endure. His daughter Krista was attending Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where she lived alone off campus, when an intruder broke into her place one night and began assaulting her before help arrived. She called her parents in Omaha, distraught after barely escaping with her life.

“It was traumatic,” Knicely recalled. “We get the phone call that night, ‘Mom and dad, somebody just attacked me.’ We’re here and she’s down in Waco and how do you get through the night until you get down there and hold her. The whole ordeal was a miracle of how she was saved. There wasn’t anybody around. There was no hope when this guy attacked. It was clear he was intent on harming her because she fought with everything she could. The first words she remembered saying when she realized this wasn’t some practical joke or something were, ‘Help me, Jesus.’

“While she was still struggling, being choked, two guys coming to pick her up saw what was going on through the window and one ran to get police officers they’d just pased in the neighborhood. The officers got there and burst in with guns drawn. They told the guy to freeze but he bolted and Krista’s friends ran after him, caught up to him and tackled him, and put a nice welt on the guy for me. He was arrested. It turned out he had done similar things to other women.”

The criminal justice process meant reliving the incident.

“There was the whole ordeal of going through the trial,” Knicely said. “At the sentencing you have the opportunity to speak to the defendant. I wrestled all night with whether I was going to say anything or not. The next day I still hadn’t decided. Then, in the courtroom the next thing I know I’m moving up to the stand and talking.”

He believes what he spoke was inspired from on high.

“I was able to address that guy and tell him ‘what you did is not going to have a hold over our family – we forgive you for what you did, it’s wrong, and you’re going to get the punishment you deserve.’ It just kind of released everything on behalf of my family and Krista my daughter.”

Krista’s moved on with her life but there’s still repercussions.

“She still has to work through that,” Knicely said. “It’s not been the easiest healing. When she was able to forgive her perpetrator it was a transformation and she went on to become Miss Nebraska. Her platform was bringing awareness about violence against women. We couldn’t have known all these positive things were going to happen. We’re still so thankful to this day.”

Stolid, almost never controversial, and still at it

Knicely is in a decidedly young person’s game and he acknowledges, “I’m getting to the end of my career. I’m aware of that.”

His son John surprised him by following him in the business. John junior is now an anchor in Seattle.

“I told him even if he wasn’t my son, I’d watch him. He does a good job.”

Knicely, the “old man,” doesn’t concede anything.

“I feel like I’m just as active as I ever was.”

The work also hasn’t grown stale for him.

“It’s still fresh in many ways and that doesn’t seem possible. But it might be because the content changes every night and there’s a change that happens as you sit down to go on camera and do the news. It’s an opportunity to connect with viewers.

“It’s pretty remarkable that it’s not like, ‘Oh no, not this again.’ But it’s not that way. It’s the people you work with, too, that make a difference. Mallory’s full of life and fun to joke with. Rusty Lord and Ross Jernstrom are fun.”

Knicely’s squeaky clean image has never been tarnished by controversy, He did suffer ribbing for an on-air faux pas when he said crystal meth instead of Crystal Light and the mistake ended up on the butt of a joke on Jimmy Fallon’s late night show.

Years earlier, Knicely was cast as a villain in some circles for jumping ship from KETV to WOWT. Channel 6 was motivated to break up the ratings leader team at Channel 7 and Knicely knew of the strategy thanks to an inside source.

“I was communicating with a person I knew at 6. Then I had a clandestine meeting with the general manager at a very discreet little coffee shop. I realized in talking to him that, yeah, this could happen. WOWT’s concern was a non-compete clause in my contract which said you had to stay off the air for a year in the market. They were content with that. Well, when 6 hired me and Jim Flowers, Channel 7 went right to a judge to make sure non-compete was enforced. But the judge ruled against them, saying Neb. is a right to work state and there was nothing so unique about us that couldn’t be replaced, so we were on the air in three months instead of a year.”

The only time Knicely left for a bigger market was St. Louis. There were other occasions when he eyed a move. When still doing sports at 7, he was the runner-up for the sports director slot at a station in Phoenix.

“But being close to family and being comfortable raising my kids in this community won out and I just didn’t very actively pursue anything. If I was contacted by somebody, I considered it, but …”

Home is where the heart. That’s why he’s here to stay.

Follow John at https://www.facebook.com/john.knicely.

 

Nebraska’s own Lynn Stalmaster gets long overdue Oscar

February 27, 2017 1 comment

Nebraska’s own Lynn Stalmaster gets long overdue Oscar

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

 

If you’re like most Nebraskans who watched the Academy Awards last night, you’re probably unaware that one of the receipients of an Honorary Oscar is one of our own – Omaha native Lynn Stalmaster. Stalmaster made history last night as the first casting director so honored by the Academy. That it should have ben Stalmaster is appropriate since, as the attached IndieWire article explains, he basically helped invent the role of the independent casting agent at the very moment the old Hollywood studio system was beginning to dismantle and the rise of independent production companies came to the fore. Casting in old Hollywood was done internally within the studio apparatus or factory system. Stalmaster, who was an actor himself, saw the need and opportunity for a casting expert to help producers and directors identity, audition and assemble casts for their projects. He became the king of casting in Hollywood, for both television and film, from the early 1950s through the 1990s. He discovered many actors who went on to become stars and he cast countless landmark shows and films by legendary directors. Many actors went on to be nominated for Emmys or Oscars, some even winning these awards, for their performances in the roles he cast them in.

 

 

From Omaha World-Herald and the Hollywood Reporter:
He was born in Omaha in 1927 to Nebraska District Judge Irvin A. and Estelle Lapidus Stalmaster, and he attended Dundee Elementary School. His father’s made his early career as an assistant state and Douglas County attorney before serving on the Nebraska Supreme Court. The family moved to California in 1938, when Lynn was 12. A self-described “shy child”, he came “out of his shell” during high school and college via acting. He enjoyed a good measure of success as a professional actor, though one day while working as an assistant to a group of producers, including fellow Omahan Phillip Krasne, he was asked to cast some shows. Soon, he was looking for cowboys for the television western, “Gunsmoke.”

 

Lynn Stalmaster

Lynn Stalmaster

 

He cast more than 400 productions during almost 50 years in the industry and is credited with identifying the talent and jumpstarting the careers of John Travolta, William Shatner, Jon Voight and Richard Dreyfuss, among many others. He even earned the nickname “Master Caster.”

“Before Lynn, no one really knew who John was,” Travolta’s manager, Bob LeMond said

The rest, as they say, is history. For many, Stalmaster’s career seems glamorous and powerful; being able to create true stars; but he has said he doesn’t see it that way. “I don’t think of what I had as power. Decisions were made jointly with the director and producer. I wanted to help make the best possible film and hire the best possible actors. I had a responsibility not just to my clients, but to the actors as well.” Once asked how it feels to now be the dean of his profession, he laughed it off, “I’ve just been around the longest!”

Link here to a great IndieWire article detailing what made Lynn Stalmaster such a seminal figure in his field–

http://www.indiewire.com/2016/11/honary-oscar-lynn-stalmaster-casting-directors-1201744901/

______________________________________________

Interestingly, another local, John Jackson, who’s from Council Bluffs but often works in Omaha, is an actor turned casting director having great success in the business. John is fellow local Alexander Payne’s casting director. Payne, like other directors, wiil tell you that casting is perhaps THE single most important aspect in making a successful film. You have to have a good script, of course, but if you don’t have the right cast it won’t be as good as it could be and it might very well fail.

Cheers to Lynn Stalmaster for showing the way and for John Jackson in following in his footsteps, two of hundreds of locals who have made and continue making significant contributions to the screen world.

“The Graduate”

Courtesy of AMPAS

 

The following is a selected list of Lynn’s staggering credits from his IMDB. You’ll likely be familiar with dozens of the projects he worked on, but pay particular attention to the features he cast in from the 1960s through the 1980s, as he worked on many of the finest films of those decades:

2006 A Lobster Tale
2000 Battlefield Earth
1996 No Easy Way
1996 To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday
1996 Crime of the Century (TV Movie)
1996 Carpool
1995 Fluke
1994 Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale
1994 Chicago Hope (TV Series)
1994 Blue Sky
1994 There Goes My Baby
1994 Clifford
1994 Intersection
1993 The Program
1993 Guilty as Sin
1992 Double Jeopardy (TV Movie)
1992 Stay Tuned
1992 Folks!
1991 For the Boys
1991 Frankie and Johnny
1991 The Doctor
1991 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze
1990 The Bonfire of the Vanities
1990/I Havana
1990 Taking Care of Business
1990 Voices Within: The Lives of Truddi Chase (TV Movie)
1990 Crazy People
1989 Incident at Dark River (TV Movie)
1989 Welcome Home
1989 Casualties of War
1989 A Sinful Life
1989 See No Evil, Hear No Evil
1989 Margaret Bourke-White (TV Movie)
1989 Dead Bang
1989 Get Smart, Again! (TV Movie)
1989 Weekend at Bernie’s
1989 Physical Evidence
1989 Winter People
1988 The Jeweller’s Shop
1988 Split Decisions
1988 Murphy’s Law (TV Series)
1988 Lady in White
1988 Switching Channels
1987 Buck James (TV Series)
1987 Real Men
1987 Big Shots
1987 You Can’t Take It with You (TV Series)
1987 Dragnet
1987 Amazing Grace and Chuck
1987 The Fourth Protocol
1987 American Harvest (TV Movie)
1986 Sword of Gideon (TV Movie)
1986 The Wizard (TV Series)
1986 8 Million Ways to Die
1986 9½ Weeks
1986 The Best of Times
1985 The Eagle and the Bear (TV Movie)
1985 Santa Claus: The Movie
1985 Love, Mary (TV Movie)
1985 Murder: By Reason of Insanity (TV Movie)
1985 Marie
1985 The Other Lover (TV Movie)
1985 Creator
1985 George Burns Comedy Week (TV Series)
1985 Jagged Edge
1985 Joshua Then and Now
1985 Space (TV Mini-Series) 1985 Hollywood Wives (TV Mini-Series)
1985 Robert Kennedy and His Times (TV Mini-Series)
1984 The River
1984 After MASH (TV Series)
1984 The Glitter Dome (TV Movie)
1984 Songwriter
1984 Supergirl
1984 High School U.S.A. (TV Movie)
1984 Ernie Kovacs: Between the Laughter (TV Movie)
1984 Her Life as a Man (TV Movie)
1984 Harry & Son
1984 The Parade (TV Movie)
1984 Unfaithfully Yours
1984 The Lonely Guy
1984 The Master (TV Series)
1984 Something About Amelia (TV Movie)
1983 Uncommon Valor
1983 Princess Daisy (TV Movie)
1983 Rita Hayworth: The Love Goddess (TV Movie)
1983 The Right Stuff
1983 Brainstorm
1983 Hotel (TV Series)
1983 Class
1983 The Thorn Birds (TV Mini-Series)
1983 Deadly Lessons (TV Movie)
1983 Starflight: The Plane That Couldn’t Land (TV Movie)
1983 Love Is Forever (TV Movie)
1983 Invitation to the Wedding
1982 Tootsie
1982 First Blood
1982 Lookin’ to Get Out
1982 Split Image
1982 Mother Lode (uncredited)
1982 The Executioner’s Song (TV Movie)
1982 Young Doctors in Love
1982 Hanky Panky
1979-1982 Hart to Hart (TV Series)
1982 Mae West (TV Movie)
1982 American Playhouse (TV Series)
1982 Some Kind of Hero
1982 T.J. Hooker (TV Series) 1982 Making Love
1982 Prime Suspect (TV Movie)
1982 Marian Rose White (TV Movie)
1981 Modern Problems
1981 Looker
1981 Splendor in the Grass (TV Movie)
1981 Dark Night of the Scarecrow (TV Movie)
1981 Callie & Son (TV Movie)
1981 Mommie Dearest
1981 Blow Out
1981 Second-Hand Hearts
1981 Caveman
1981 Cheaper to Keep Her
1981 On the Right Track
1981 Crisis at Central High (TV Movie)
1981 A Whale for the Killing (TV Movie)
1980 Stir Crazy
1980 Superman II
1980 A Change of Seasons
1980 Enola Gay: The Men, the Mission, the Atomic Bomb (TV Movie)
1980 The Last Song (TV Movie)
1980 Foolin’ Around
1980 The Women’s Room (TV Movie)
1980 Loving Couples
1980 The Shadow Box (TV Movie)
1977-1980 Family (TV Series)
1980 Wholly Moses!
1980 When the Whistle Blows (TV Series)
1980 The Mountain Men
1980 Amber Waves (TV Movie)
1980 The Black Marble
1980 Seizure: The Story of Kathy Morris (TV Movie)
1980 Ike: The War Years (TV Movie)
1979 Being There
1979 Letters from Frank (TV Movie)
1979 The Rose
1979 Promises in the Dark
1979 The Two Worlds of Jennie Logan (TV Movie)
1979 Flesh & Blood (TV Movie)
1979 10
1979 The Last Word
1979 The Onion Field
1979 North Dallas Forty
1979 Nightwing
1979 Goldengirl
1979 Prophecy
1979 The MacKenzies of Paradise Cove (TV Series)
1979 Ashanti
1979 Fast Break
1979 Ike: The War Years (TV Mini-Series)
1979 The French Atlantic Affair (TV Mini-Series)
1978 Ishi: The Last of His Tribe (TV Movie)
1978 Superman
1978 And I Alone Survived (TV Movie)
1978 A Question of Love (TV Movie)
1978 Like Mom, Like Me (TV Movie)
1978 The Users (TV Movie)
1978 Foul Play
1978 Matilda
1978 Go Tell the Spartans
1978 Convoy
1978 Damien: Omen II
1978 Murder at the Mardi Gras (TV Movie)
1978 Stickin’ Together (TV Movie)
1978 Cindy (TV Movie)
1978 Gray Lady Down
1978 The Fury
1978 Ski Lift to Death (TV Movie)
1978 Coming Home
1978 The Betsy
1978 Fantasy Island (TV Series)
1978 The Defection of Simas Kudirka (TV Movie)
1978 How Sweet It Is!
1977 Having Babies II (TV Movie)
1977 The Night They Took Miss Beautiful (TV Movie)
1977 Young Dan’l Boone (TV Series) (
1977 You Light Up My Life
1977 New York, New York
1977 The Other Side of Midnight
1977 Good Against Evil (TV Movie)
1977 Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn (TV Movie)
1977 Nashville 99 (TV Series)
1977 Audrey Rose
1977 Black Sunday
1977 Brothers
1977 Westside Medical (TV Series)
1977 SST: Death Flight (TV Movie)
1977 Secrets (TV Movie)
1977 Fun with Dick and Jane
1977 Roots (TV Mini-Series)
1976 The Secret Life of John Chapman (TV Movie)
1976 Nickelodeon
1976 Victory at Entebbe (TV Movie)
1976 Bound for Glory
1976 Silver Streak
1976 I Want to Keep My Baby! (TV Movie)
1976 21 Hours at Munich (TV Movie)
1976 Having Babies (TV Movie)
1976 Mr. T and Tina (TV Series)
1976 The Big Bus
1976 Harry and Walter Go to New York
1976 Second Wind
1976 Farewell to Manzanar (TV Movie)
1976 James Dean (TV Movie)
1976 The Entertainer (TV Movie)
1976 Three’s Company (TV Series)
1975 The Cop and the Kid (TV Series)
1975 The Legend of Valentino (TV Movie)
1975 Beyond the Bermuda Triangle (TV Movie)
1975 Katherine (TV Movie)
1975 The Master Gunfighter
1975 Welcome Back, Kotter (TV Series)
1975 Rollerball
1975 Cornbread, Earl and Me
1975 Mandingo
1975 The Hiding Place
1975 The Wild Party
1975 Hustling (TV Movie)
1975 A Shadow in the Streets (TV Movie)
1974 Punch and Jody (TV Movie)
1974 All the Kind Strangers (TV Movie)
1974 The Crazy World of Julius Vrooder
1974 The Great Niagara (TV Movie)
1974 Kodiak (TV Series)
1974 Hurricane (TV Movie) (as Lyn Stalmaster)
1974 The Dove
1974 The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz
1974 The Family Kovack (TV Movie)
1974 Conrack
1974 Billy Two Hats
1974 Rhinoceros
1973 Cinderella Liberty
1973 Sleeper
1973 The Last Detail
1973 A Summer Without Boys (TV Movie)
1973 The Iceman Cometh
1973 The Girl Most Likely to… (TV Movie)
1973 Jonathan Livingston Seagull
1973 The Third Girl from the Left (TV Movie)
1973 Isn’t It Shocking? (TV Movie)
1973 Scorpio
1973 Class of ’63 (TV Movie)
1973 Lolly-Madonna XXX
1973 Firehouse (TV Movie)
1972 The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean
1972 The Mechanic
1972 Footsteps (TV Movie)
1972 Hickey & Boggs
1972 The New Centurions
1972 Junior Bonner
1972 The Magnificent Seven Ride!
1972 Deliverance
1972 The Wrath of God
1972 Jeremiah Johnson
1972 Pocket Money
1972 The Sixth Sense (TV Series)
1972 The Cowboys
1971 Harold and Maude
1971 If Tomorrow Comes (TV Movie)
1971 Honky
1971 The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler
1971 Fiddler on the Roof
1971 The Organization
1971 Sweet, Sweet Rachel (TV Movie)
1971 Le Mans
1971 The Grissom Gang
1971 Bearcats! (TV Series)
1971 Valdez Is Coming
1971 Lawman
1971 The Sporting Club
1970 Monte Walsh
1970 Cannon for Cordoba
1970 They Call Me Mister Tibbs!
1970 The Hawaiians
1970 The Landlord
1970 Too Late the Hero
1970 Halls of Anger
1968-1970 Death Valley Days (TV Series)
– The World’s Greatest Swimming Horse (1968) … (casting)
1969 The Reivers
1969 Gaily, Gaily
1969 They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
1969 Viva Max
1969 Castle Keep
1969 What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?
1969 The Bridge at Remagen
1969 The April Fools
1969 Guns of the Magnificent Seven
1969 If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium
1968 The Stalking Moon
1968 The Killing of Sister George
1968 How Sweet It Is!
1968 The Thomas Crown Affair
1968 Yours, Mine and Ours
1968 The Scalphunters
1966-1968 The Rat Patrol (TV Series)
1967 Fitzwilly
1967 Clambake
1967 Hour of the Gun
1967 Dundee and the Culhane (TV Series)
1967 In the Heat of the Night
1966-1967 Hey, Landlord (TV Series)
1966 The Iron Men (TV Movie)
1966 Return of the Magnificent Seven
1966 The Fortune Cookie
1966 And Baby Makes Three (TV Movie)
1966 The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!
1964-1966 My Favorite Martian (TV Series)
1965-1966 Hogan’s Heroes (TV Series)
1966 Man in the Square Suit (TV Movie)
1966 Cast a Giant Shadow
1961-1966 Ben Casey (TV Series)
1965 A Rage to Live
1965 The Loved One (uncredited)
1965 The Hallelujah Trail
1965 The Satan Bug
1964-1965 My Living Doll (TV Series)
1965 The Greatest Story Ever Told
1964 Kiss Me, Stupid
1964 Slattery’s People (TV Series)
1964 Profiles in Courage
1964 Lady in a Cage
1955-1964 Gunsmoke (TV Series)
1963-1964 The Greatest Show on Earth (TV Series)
1963 The Richard Boone Show (TV Series)
1963 Irma la Douce (uncredited)
1960-1963 The Untouchables (TV Series)
1963 A Child Is Waiting
1962 Two for the Seesaw
1962 Pressure Point
1962 Don’t Call Me Charlie (TV Series)
1961-1962 The New Breed (TV Series)
1959-1962 The Detectives (TV Series)
1959-1962 Hennesey (TV Series)
1961 The Children’s Hour (uncredited)
1960-1961 Peter Loves Mary (TV Series)
1961 Harrigan and Son (TV Series)
1957-1961 Zane Grey Theater (TV Series)
1961 Gunslinger (TV Series)
1960 The Westerner (TV Series)
1960 The Law and Mr. Jones (TV Series)
1960 Guestward Ho! (TV Series)
1960 Tate (TV Series) (4 episodes)
1960 Inherit the Wind (uncredited)
1959-1960 Black Saddle (TV Series)
1959-1960 Law of the Plainsman (TV Series)
1959-1960 Johnny Ringo (TV Series)
1959 The Adventures of Hiram Holliday (TV Series)
1959 The Gale Storm Show: Oh! Susanna (TV Series)
1959 The Betty Hutton Show (TV Series)
1959 Pork Chop Hill
1959 The Third Man (TV Series)
1959 Tokyo After Dark (uncredited)
1957-1959 Whirlybirds (TV Series)
1958-1959 U.S. Marshal (TV Series)
1958 Half Human
1958 I Want to Live!
1958 When Hell Broke Loose
1958 The Texan (TV Series)
1958 The Rifleman (TV Series)
1958 Kings Go Forth (uncredited)
1957-1958 Have Gun – Will Travel (TV Series)
1957-1958 The Court of Last Resort (TV Series)
1957-1958 The Sheriff of Cochise (TV Series)
1957 The Pied Piper of Hamelin (TV Movie) (uncredited)
1957 The Walter Winchell File (TV Series)
1957 Those Whiting Girls (TV Series)
1957 Black Patch
1957 Trooper Hook
1957 Hot Rod Rumble
1957 The O. Henry Playhouse (TV Series)
1957 Official Detective (TV Series)
1956 Johnny Concho
1956 Screaming Eagles
1956 Please Murder Me!
1955-1956 Dr. Hudson’s Secret Journal (TV Series)
1955 Matinee Theatre (TV Series) (1956-1957)
1954-1955 The Lone Wolf (TV Series)
1950 Big Town (TV Series)

Gabrielle Union: A force in front of and away from the camera

December 27, 2016 Leave a comment

On a per capita basis, Nebraska has been sending oodles of talent to Hollywood from the start of the industry through today. Then and now that talent has been variously expressed in front of the camera and behind the camera. While there are many name actors from the state, past and present, actresses from here who’ve made a splash in film and television are a rarer commodity. The few really big name and familiar face actresses with strong Nebraska connectiosn include Dorothy McGuire, Sandy Dennis, Inga Swenson, Marg Helgenberger, Stephanie Kurtzuba and Yolonda Ross. In terms of pure popularity and exposure though I’m not sure any of them compare with Gabrielle Union,, whose movie and TV work extends over nearly 25 years now. In addition to a very large, active body of work as an actress, she’s lately moved into producing and she’s always made a mark as a beauty pitchwoman, as an outspoken advocate, as a talk show guest and as the subject of countless glam and profile spreads in major magazines. Of course, she gets added fame and attention for being one half of a celebrity couple – her husband is NBA champion and future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade. Like many peer actresses sharing Nebraska roots, she’s maintained close ties to her home turf. I touch on a variety of these and other things paramont in her life and career in this new Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) piece I wrote about Gabrielle. I’ve been covering her for 15-plus years and it’s been fun to see her development.

You can link to my other Gabrielle Union stories at–
https://leoadambiga.com/?s=gabrielle+union

 

gabrielleunion1

 

Gabrielle Union

A force in front of and away from the camera

December 22, 2016
Photography by Contributed
Appearing in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

Actress Gabrielle Union projects her natural intelligence and feistiness in whatever role she undertakes. The Omaha native is never at a loss for words or opinions. She decries Hollywood’s male-dominated, white-centric ways and lack of opportunities afforded to women of color. She recounts her experience as a rape survivor and preaches the need for women to speak up against violence.

It took Union a while to be regarded a serious artist. Early roles included that of a wealthy suburban teenager in 10 Things I Hate About You, followed a year later by a role as a cheerleader in Bring It On. Twenty years later she’s matured into a real force both in front of and behind the camera. She expertly balances being a fashion- and fitness-conscious celebrity, the wife of NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, and a mother, actress, producer, and activist.

It is not surprising that as her life has broadened, so has her work.

Ambitious projects such as Think Like a Man and Top Five find her giving deeper, more complex performances or satirizing her own mystique. Today, as the star of the popular and critically acclaimed BET series Being Mary Jane, she represents the modern American black woman navigating her way through personal and professional relationships. In mid-October, the actress sued for breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation, claiming the network is combining seasons four and five to lower her pay and extend her contract.

Further proof of her take-no-prisoners attitude was her role in one of the most talked about films of 2016, The Birth of a Nation.

The film dramatizes the historic Nat Turner-led slave revolt, a subject of interest for Union that goes back to her Omaha childhood.

“It was a story my mom made sure I knew about. I remember going to the library and her telling me to do research on him. It wasn’t until later I realized my mom had noted I was very passive in the face of adversity and injustice, and I wasn’t willing to speak up, not only for myself, but for anyone else. She thought I might need some additional heroes to look up to and she introduced me to the story of Nat Turner,” Union says.

The interest in Turner continued for years.

“In college I learned even more about Nat Turner and I was drawn to the sense of pushback against oppression–the idea that there are stories situated in slavery where we are not waiting for someone else to save us but that we were actively trying to save ourselves. Really the story of black resistance and black liberation, I’ve always been drawn to.”

gabrielleunion2When the script first came to her attention, she says she determined that, “I had to be a part of telling this incredibly powerful chapter of American history.”

That chapter took years to produce. The film’s producer-writer-director, Nate Parker, who also portrays Turner, had a hard time getting financing for the project.

“There’s a reason the Nat Turner story has never made it to the big screen [before now],” Union says. “There’s a lot of fear of black resistance and black liberation. We see that with what’s happening with Colin Kaepernick and the rest of the professional, college, and high school athletes who are taking a knee to combat and shed light on racism, discrimination, police brutality, inequality, oppression everywhere. We see the pushback, we see people protesting [being] labeled as unpatriotic. I feel quite the opposite. I don’t think there’s anything more American or patriotic than resistance to oppression.”

With such a struggle ongoing, Union says, “I think there’s never been a better time for The Birth of a Nation to come out.”

Union plays an unnamed character who does not speak. The part was written with dialogue but she and Parker decided the woman should be mute.

“I just felt it would be much more symbolic and realistic if we stripped her of her voice, of the ability to speak, of the ability to have power over her own body and over the bodies of her family and her community,” Union says. “That was true for black women during slavery, and it’s still true for so many women, specifically black women, who are voiceless and powerless at the hands of oppressors. Sexual violence and racial inequality have always existed for black women at that very crucial intersection.

She says it was liberating to play a background character.

“Part of that was just being much more committed to the character than when I was younger. When you’re starting out, you want to stand out in every single role. I’m not as concerned about that anymore. I have enough projects where my face is recognizable and my name is out front…I’m much more interested in being fulfilled creatively.”

The film was shot on an actual Georgia plantation that stood in for the site where the historical events took place in Virginia. The dark spirit of the plantation’s past weighed heavy on Union and company.

“Every actor of color on that set felt the pain and the horror that our ancestors felt. It’s in the soil, it’s in the air. You can’t escape it, you really can’t escape it.”

She is offended that the former plantation used in the film is rented out for weddings and parties.

“It’s unfathomable,” she says.

She considers the conversations she and Wade must have with their boys about the threats facing young black males “infuriating.”

“How do you explain that to children?”

She’s banking on Birth to trigger change.

“What we keep saying is, it’s not a movie, it’s a movement. No one I know who’s seen the film is unmoved and unchallenged to re-examine everything. So I hope people walk out of the theater energized and inspired to do better, to really identify oppression and to fight back against it.”

Visit bet.com/shows/being-mary-jane for more information.

 

Stephanie Kurtzuba: From bowling alley to Broadway and back

August 27, 2016 2 comments

So, everything you need to know about stage and screen actress Stephanie Kurtzuba from Omaha is summed up in the Bill Sitzmann photo of her below and in her scenes in the movies “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Annie.” She’s the rare performer who can project many dimensions and emotions at once or in rapid succession: brash, silly, poignant, smart. This multi-talented artist can act, sing, dance, play comedic or serious and have you smiling and laughing one moment and move you to tears the next moment. You may not know her name or her work, but she is one of the brighest talents in a long line of talented individuals from here to have found serious success in Hollywood and on Broadway. She got her acting and dancing start in Omaha at Central High, Show Wagon and the Rose Theatre. Growing up in Omaha she was encouraged to pursue her performing dreams by her mother, who didn’t live to see her realize her dreams. But Stephanie’s supportive father has. She and her dad and her siblings still own the family’s West Lanes Bowling Center that she spent a lot of time in as a girl. On a recent visit back home she agreed to a photo shoot at the bowling alley and you can see the fun movie-movie magic she and Bill Sitzmann made together. Stephanie’s also involved in an Omaha-based production company that’s developing a TV pilot drawn from her own life that is to be shot right here in her hometown. She is one of very few Nebraskans in film to bring the industry back to these Midwest roots. Alexander Payne, Nik Fackler and John Beasley have led that charge and others are looking to do the same. Whatever Stephanie ends up doing, it should be entertaining. This is my profile of her in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/).

 

StephanieKurtzuba

 

Stephanie Kurtzuba

From bowling alley to Broadway and Back

August 26, 2016
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Kristen Hoffman
Appearing in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

Stage and screen actress Stephanie Kurtzuba has graced Hollywood red carpets and Broadway billboards, but she is most comfortable at her family’s West Lanes Bowling Center in her hometown of Omaha.

The Central High School graduate’s maternal grandparents, Tony and Nellie Pirruccello, built the place at 151 N. 72nd St. Her late mother, Connie Pirruccello, had grown up there in the 1950s. Stephanie, a co-owner with her father, Ray Kurtzuba, spent countless hours at the bowling alley as a stage-struck kid. It’s now a favorite hangout for her two boys when they visit from New York City.

“I remember running up and down the concourse practicing cartwheels and using the dance floor in the lounge after school to rehearse my dance recital numbers,” recalls Stephanie, who displayed her cartwheel moves in the 2014 movie Annie. “It was a second home to me and now my children. My boys only get to visit about once a year, so when they do, they eat it up.”

Stephanie’s mom encouraged her to perform in Omaha Show Wagon. Her breakout came in Oliver at the Music Hall. She performed at the then-Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater (now The Rose) as well as the Firehouse and Upstairs dinner theaters. When the original Broadway Annie became a sensation, she sang its anthems around the house. Stephanie says, “It’s the ultimate irony” that three decades later she played Mrs. Kovacevic in the movie.

A local choreographer planted the seed that she had the chops to pursue a professional acting career. But talent only takes you so far. The rest is desire and discipline.

“It’s almost like what some people would call a calling. But it’s almost like there’s nothing else I can or want to do with my time and energies than pursue this, and that’s a real motivator.”

Her theater passion may not have gone far without tragedy befalling her biggest champion.

“If I had not lost my mother when I did, I don’t know that my choices would have been the same in terms of following my dream. We were so incredibly close, my mother and I. When everything went down with her health, it became very clear to me in a very short amount of time, tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone. Losing her rocked my foundation, my very being, but it taught me some really valuable lessons about carpe diem.”

Stephanie won a full-ride to Drake University but got cold feet being so far from home. She briefly attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. With her mom gone, she resolved it was now-or-never. She prepared an audition with help from The Rose’s James Larson and got accepted to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Off-Broadway and regional theater parts honed her craft.

“My goal has always been to be a working actor.”

Her credits include Broadway’s The Boy from Oz, Mary Poppins, and Billy Elliott; the feature films Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and The Wolf of Wall Street; and TV’s The Good Wife.

She hopes one day to perform again where it all started.

“The Emmy Gifford was so seminal in my development as a young artist. I loved it deeply. I still remember the smell of the place. It was home. It would be singularly fulfilling to be able to come back and rejoin the Omaha arts community. That would be some deeply felt, full-circle kinda stuff right there.”

Meanwhile, she’s found a new love: producing. She has several projects in the works. She’s also developing a TV series set in Omaha, which is loosely based on her life, for local Syncretic Entertainment. The pilot is due to shoot here in the fall. They look to put local talent to work. Paying it forward.

“It’s my passion project. I love it so much.” 

To learn more, visit stephaniekurtzuba.com.

StephanieKurtzuba

 

John Beasley: Living his dream

April 22, 2016 5 comments

In the pantheon of Nebraska born and bred actors to have made it in Hollywood and/or on Broadway, and there have been more than you think, none have really ever kept much of a close relationship with this place other than Henry Fonda, Robert Taylor, Dorothy McGuire, Julie Wilson, Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, and Marg Helgenberger. Some more recent players who have kept the home fires burning are Gabrielle Union, Yolonda Ross, Kevyn Morrow, Randy Goodwin, and Stephanie Kurtzuba. But only John Beasley has never really left Omaha. The others all picked up and went off to pursue their careers and thus their connections to Omaha became relegated to occasional visits. A notable exception is Randy Goodwin, who recently moved back to Omaha while continuing his career as a film/TV actor, producer, and director. Meanwhile, Beasley has maintained his residence here the entire run of his now 25-plus year career as a busy film, television, and regional theater actor. He operated his own theater in town for several years. He appears in indie Nebraska films. He’s now producing two movies with Nebraska connections. He’s doing what Alexander Payne has done by not only keeping Omaha his home but by doing work here. John has definitely contributed to the theater and cinema culture in the state. Though it’s the last season for The Soul Man, the popular TVLand sitcom he’s been a regular in from the start, he recently finished the pilot for a new CBS sitcom Real Good People and he’s part of a large ensemble cast in the coming Fox event series Shots Fired. Then there are the two feature films he’s producing – The Magician and East Texas Hot Links. John’s good friend and former teammate Marlin Briscoe of Omaha is the subject of The Magician. I’ve written a lot about John over 15 years and this is my latest piece to tell his engaging story. It will appear as the cover story in the May 2016 issue of the New Horizons, the free monthly newspaper published by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. Should hit newstands and, if you get it delivered, your mailbox around April 29-May 2.

 

 

Beasley as Barton (LEO)

John as Barton Ballentine in The Soul Man

 

 

John Beasley: Living his dream

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the May 2016 issue of New Horizons

 

Following a dream

Omaha’s John Beasley (Rudy) came to film-television acting late in the game. After all, he was pushing 50 when he broke through. But he used that late start to hone his craft on stages in Omaha, the greater Midwest and the South.

Besides being a familiar face in front of the camera, John’s a producer on two feature film projects, including the story of football legend Marlin Briscoe. Before making history as the NFL’s first black starting quarterback, Briscoe starred at Omaha South and at then-Omaha University, where Beasley was a teammate in the mid-1960s.

The performing bug bit as a youth for Beasley. At Technical High School he won prizes for oral interpretation and acting. He didn’t pursue the profession awhile because he had a family to support.

“I’ve always been content and confident I could have made it as an actor years earlier. But I wasn’t ready at that time to do what it would take,” he says. “I mean, I had a young family that I was raising, and I love my family. I love the time I spent with them. And if I had started this (career) earlier I would have lost all of that. I have no regrets.”

Growing up without a father, he made sure he was there for his kids .

“My father was never around. But he taught me a lot by not being around. He taught me to be the father I didn’t have.”

John’s sons, Tyrone and Michael Beasley, both actors, appreciate his being there.

“Our father taught us how to be men by showing love and always being present and always showing interest and making sacrifices for the family,” says Michael, whose wife Deena Beasley is also an actress.

 

Beasley closeup #1 (LEO)

 

 

A path of his own

John Beasley’s path to stardom is not so different than fellow Omahan Nick Nolte’s. They both used regional theater as their springboard. The difference is Nolte never acted on an Omaha stage and his screen work began in his early 30s. By contrast, Beasley did an Army hitch and then worked regular jobs through his mid-40s. His wife Judy was a medical secretary. He was a Union Pacific railroad clerk and custodian, a Vickers machine operator, a North Omaha jitney driver and a Philadelphia waterfront laborer. He always did theater on the side.

“I was content, even when I was a janitor, because I was doing what it is I love to do — the theater. There were people who looked down on me and I always said to myself, ‘Well, just wait. I know who I am, and pretty soon you will know who I am.’ I’ve just always felt I could do whatever it is I wanted to do.”

His confidence was well-founded, Royal Shakespeare Company  members he trained with in Omaha encouraged his talent. At local theaters he broke casting barriers by winning roles not traditionally given actors of color. He then tested his wings outside Omaha, earning parts at regional theaters, Between his “life experience” and theater chops he preparec himself. “I’ve paid my dues, and I know that,” he says. “The foundation was already set.”

Nothing was guaranteed though. Michael says his father didn’t let on what a risk he was taking.

“He never let us know when there was struggle. As an actor you never know when your next paycheck is coming in. He always sheltered us from that. A lot of friends and family thought he was crazy for going after his dream as an actor.”

Michael admires his persistence.

“My father would drive sometimes through blizzards and sleep in the car to auditions in Minneapolis and Chicago. He asked my mother to give him three weeks to try and live his dream. He booked a job within that time period. Now the rest is history. He is my modern day hero.”

Judy Beasley never really doubted her man. Besides, she didn’t wish to stand in the way of what she considers his “God-given talent.” She says, “I believed in him. We all have gifts and he obviously had that gift and when you have a gift you should use it.” She says when he did achieve fame “there were things to work through and we did.” She enjoys the red carpet events but she also likes their life away from the spotlight doing “home stuff.” She’s not surprised her two boys followed their father as actors since “he’s in them, he’s a part of them.”

She views what’s happened to her and John as “a blessing,” saying, “I thank the Lord all the time.”

2012 BET Awards - Arrivals

John and Judy on the red carpet at the BET Awards

 

 

Once he finally went for a full-time acting career, he was ready. “When I went out to act I wanted to be actor, I didn’t want to be a waiter, so waiting tables was not in the cards. I wanted to be a working actor and I’ve been a working actor all my career. I mean, that’s all you can hope for. Stars come and go – I’ve been working for a long time.”

He’s been a regular cast member on the TVLand series The Soul Man starring Cedric the Entertainer and Niecy Nash from its 2012 start. He earlier had a recurring role on Everwood starring Treat Williams. He’s appeared in scores of TV dramas, including HBO’s highly praised Treme. His cinema work ranges from blockbusters (Sum of All Fears) to action pics (Walking Tall) to indie projects (It Snows All the Time).

While many others have come out of Nebraska to find acting success in Hollywood, Beasley stands alone for always keeping Omaha home.

“I live in Omaha, yet I just finished a five-season series in L,A, and I did four years on Everwood. I’ve worked on some really large films. I’ve done every CSI series.”

 

Beasely #1 by Eric Antoniou (LEO)

John as Troy Maxson in Huntington Theatre (Boston, MA)

production of August Wilson’s Fences

 

 

Taking from life, making his mark

When he made his initial splash in the early 1990s alongside Oprah Winfrey on Brewster Place and in the movie Rudy, he was past leading man age but right on time to be a wizened, gritty character player. He’s continued making his mark portraying authority figures – fathers, judges, ministers, detectives, military officers – and Everyman types.

He came to Hollywood with something no actor can buy – rich life experience. He’s packed a lot into his 72 years.

“Done a lot of things, man,” he says, adding that he draws on “every last bit of it” for his craft.

Should the fame ever go away or the acting offers stop, he’ll be fine.

“I know it’s going to be okay because I’ve lived that kind of life. I was a longshoreman in Philadelphia. I was a gypsy cabdriver in Omaha.”

Growing up in North Omaha he got to know black sports legends from the community – Bob Boozer, Bob Gibson, Gale Sayers, Johnny Rodgers. In Philadelphia he worked at a TV station that broadcast a show whose guest stars – Sammy Davis Jr., Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Muhammad Ali among them – Beasley met. “It was very exciting for me.” Meeting Ali was a particular thrill.

“I had two encounters with Ali. The first was at that TV station, He was banned from boxing and claimed to have a license to fight in Mississippi. He came to do an interview. I went back stage and Ali came up to me and said, ‘I’ve seen your face someplace before, but I can’t place the cemetery.’ I didn’t say anything and he said, ‘You must not have heard me.’ I said, ‘I heard you and you’re not going to have to go to Mississippi to get a fight if you keep talking like that.’

“The next time I saw him was in a little gym down in North Philly. On     this black radio station he had goaded Joe Frazier into coming down to fight. By the time I got down there the place was packed. There was no way I was getting in. But then the news crew from my station arrived and one of the guys said, ‘Grab the sound equipment,’ and we went up to the second floor. Ali and Frazier were talking about taking the fight to a city park. Ali didn’t have anything to lose but Joe was the champ. Then Frazier’s manager, Yancey Durham, came in and told Joe to put on his clothes and go home. That was the end of it.”

Beasley got close enough to the fracas he could see Frazier genuinely disliked Ali and took The Greatest’s barbs personally. Beasley appreciated the high drama and did what he’s done since childhood –  file away the colorful characters and incidents for his art. Coming from a family of storytellers, it came naturally. With his facility for spinning yarns and assuming identities, he bluffed his way into TV and radio jobs and ingratiated himself wherever he went, including some tough spots along the way. All of it taught valuable survival skills.

“I’ve seen the rough side of life too, where I thought maybe I might not make it out alive, but I always did. It’s always turned out. But you’ve got to stay the course and you’ve got to believe it will work out.”

Even in a sitcom like Soul Man, Beasley brings a gravitas rooted in real life. His Barton Ballentine is a retired preacher who checks his son, a former hit singer turned preacher, played by Cedric.

“What I do is I ground the show in reality because that’s the way I act. It allows the other actors to be able to go over the top a little bit, to play for the laughs. I don’t play for the laughs. I treat this character just like I would an August Wilson character. In fact. one of the characters he’s patterned after is Old Joe from August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, the show I was doing at my theater when I got the call for this (part).”

 

Beasley closeup #2 (LEO)

 

 

In the moment

In the hands of less life-tested actors, many roles could be easily forgettable. Only Beasley makes them indelible. Think of his work as a preacher opposite Robert Duvall in The Apostle. Even in scenes with the masterful Duvall Beasley holds his own delivering a depth of character and truth seldom seen.

“I knew when I read the screenplay what he was looking for and I just knew I was the only one that could do it,” Beasley says. “My ability to create a believable character honestly is really the hallmark of what I do. I try to be as honest in my performance as possible as opposed to trying to be someone else. I look at how would I react to this same situation. I’ve always gone inside for my characters.”

Beasley felt a deep kinship with Duvall.

“Nobody is as believable as Bobby Duvall,” he says. “Always in the moment. In fact, when we did it, he said, ‘Big John, don’t be afraid to say anything, don’t hesitate, you’re not going to throw me.’ In other words, if I improvised something he’d go with it in the moment. I think if you’re in the moment it’s always going to work for you.”

 

Movies The Apostle poster

Robert Duvall as The Apostle

 

 

Two decades later Duvall still enjoys recounting the answer he gave people who inquired about the then-unknown Beasley.

“They’d say, ‘Where’d you find that nonactor?’ I’d say. ‘Well, that nonactor played Othello at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.’ He’s a good actor that guy.”

Actually, Beasley played other roles at the Goodman, just not Othello, but he did essay the Moor at Omaha’s Norton Theater.

Duvall is a big football fan who knows enough Husker gridiron lore to describe Johnny Rodgers as “one of the greatest college football players ever.” Duvall was excited to learn Beasley’s not only from the same hometown as the Heisman Trophy winner but knows him personally. Recalls Duvall, “When I said, ‘I want to talk Johnny Rodgers,’ Big John said ‘I don’t want to talk football, I want to talk theater.’ He’s a fine actor and a good guy. Give him my regards.”

Beasley’s work in The Apostle got singled out by The New York Times and other major publications. The performance helped make his reputation in Hollywood,

Then there’s the short but telling screen time he has as a Notre Dame football coach in Rudy. His character starts out wanting no part of Rudy but by the end he’s won over by the kid’s heart.

 

Marlin Briscoe was the first African American quarterback

Marlin Briscoe

 

 

 

The Magician

Rudy is one of two hit sports movies, along with The Mighty Ducks, he made. Now he’s producing a new sports film The Magician, going before the cameras this fall. The project is a personal one because he goes back a long way with its subject, Marlin “The Magician” Briscoe. The nickname arose from Briscoe’s knack at quarterback to improvise when things broke down. At the most dire times, he’d make a memorable pass or run and lead an improbable comeback.

“He’s ‘The Magician’ for a reason,” Beasley recalls. “When I played with him I saw him in difficult positions, where you thought it was over, and he’d be in a crowd on one side of the field and the next thing you knew he’d be on the other side as if by magic. And it carried over to his life. Just when it looks like he’s down and out he comes back.”

Between Briscoe’s junior and senior seasons he suffered a broken neck in a pickup basketball game that could have easily ended his playing days. Only he came back to earn All-America status. Over his career he set 22 school records. Earlier this year he was selected for induction in the College Football Hall of Fame. Many believe his selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame is only a matter of time because of the color barrier he broke in the NFL.

A South Omaha street’s named for him and a life-sized bronze statue of his likeness will be unveiled next fall at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. His life is worthy of a movie, too, because it is equally historic, heart-breaking and inspirational.

Briscoe signed with the Denver Broncos in 1968 as an all-around athlete. Once he reported to camp the club wanted him to play defensive back though he intended to play quarterback and had a contractual agreement he be given a tryout. Reportedly, Briscoe out-shone his competition behind center, yet when the season began he was confined to the secondary and not even on the depth chart at quarterback. In a time rife with racial prejudice, bigotry and myths, many coaches and executives believed blacks did not possess the attributes to be signal-callers at the professional level.

Then, fate forced itself upon Denver as one by one its QBs got sidelined by injuries or poor play. Pressure from media and fans grew to give Briscoe a shot. Finally, six games into the season and Denver off to a 2-4 start in which he saw limited action but still helped the team pull out a win, he was given the reins. He ran with them to set club rookie records with 14 touchdown passes, 1,589 passing yards and 309 rushing yards in leading the Broncos to a 3-5 mark as the starter.

He expected to be in the mix for the job come 1969 but instead found himself shut out of the QB race. Then he found himself traded to the Buffalo Bills, where in order to make the team he had to learn a new position, wide receiver. He not only learned it well enough to make the squad but mastered it to become a starter and All-Pro. His next trade proved fortuitous when he landed with the Miami Dolphins and helped them win two straight Super Bowls.

He played for a couple more teams before retiring. Life after football began well but by the 1980s he fell deep into the spiral of a hard drug addiction that eventually cost him his family, his home, his money and nearly his life. Once he hit rock bottom he called on the same character traits that allowed him to get out of tight spots and to surmount hurdles on the playing field, only this time the stakes were much higher – regaining his sobriety and sanity.

Lyriq Bent (Book of Negroes) will play Briscoe on-screen. The script is by Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans). Beasley and two Omaha partners in his West Omaha Films, Terry Hanna and Dave Clark, are partnering with producer Doug Falconer (Forsaken) on the $20 million budgeted project. Some exteriors may shoot here but most of the film is expected to shoot in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

This labor of love has been in the works a decade. Beasley says he stuck with it because “Marlin Briscoe is a friend, first and foremost, and it’s a great story.” When Briscoe was still mired in addiction, Beasley never lost faith in him. “When he was on drugs for years people would say, ‘Did you see, Marlin?’ ‘Yes,’ I’d say, ‘but Marlin will be back.’ He lost everything but still he came back..”

Indeed, Briscoe’s greatest feat of magic became saving himself and finding new purpose in life serving youth. The movie is based on the book, The First Black Quarterback, he wrote with Bob Schaller.

 

Thumb

 

East Texas Hot Links

The other film Beasley’s helping produce, East Texas Hot Links, tells the story of black men going missing in the South. A bloody day of reckoning comes at the local hangout run by Charlesetta. Themes of community, loyalty, betrayal, revenge and racism run through this drama that builds tension until the violent purge. Eugene Lee adapted his own play and will direct. A-list actor Samuel L. Jackson is executive producing. Omaha-based Night Fox Entertainment, whose president, Timothy Christian, is an Omaha native, is financing the project.

Beasley produced the play at his own theater.

“It’s quite a story. It’s a great ensemble piece,” he says. “It goes along as kind of the quiet before the storm and then everything breaks loose and eventually there’s a shootout. Eugene Lee had The Twilight Zone in mind when he wrote this.”

Thus far, Beasley adds, the cast includes Wendell Pierce (The Wire) and Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction). Several other familiar names are being sought. He says his Soul Man co-star Niecy Nash “would be perfect as Charlesetta – she could really carry it.”

Once the cast is complete, the film is slated to shoot in Omaha and Los Angeles, either late this year or early next year.

Building a Nebraska film culture

The addition of Night Fox Entertainment and other production companies in Nebraska signals a growing local film scene. Beasley does what he can to encourage this momentum.

“I like to help out the young filmmakers in the area,” he says, though he adds, “Sometimes I do some things I regret doing. I’m kind of a soft touch. I should tell these people to go talk to my manager but they call me on my cellphone,”

He takes far less than scale for these projects because he knows what’s it’s like to be hungry.

“I know when I was coming along there weren’t many opportunities for film here and now that the film community has grown some and there are a lot of young people trying to do some things I’ll lend my talent as much as I can.”

There’s some self-interest at work, too.

“I do want to do films that i can include my actors in. That was probably the main reason to get into producing – to provide a vehicle for not only myself and my boys but also the actors I’ve developed here.”

 

Beasley in kitchen (LEO)

John, middle seated, from The Soul Man

 

 

Bread and butter

Beasley’s bread and butter projects come out of Hollywood. Soul Man provided steady work and further enhanced his screen image. It was a positive experience.

“Behind the scenes we always had a great set, a welcoming set. No tension. And that says a lot about Cedric and who he is because the player in the number one position kind of sets the tone, He was also the co-creator and an executive producer, so he had a lot of say.”

Beasley is a big admirer of Niecy Nash, who played Cedric’s wife and his daughter-in-law. He says the actress best known for her light comedic roles (Reno 911) turned heads with her serious work in the HBO series Getting On. He calls her performance “real, raw, believable – I’ve been saying people have got to see her, they don’t know the Niecy Nash I know, and now everybody’s discovering her.”

Seeing the show end is not easy. He says at the wrap following the final episode’s taping “tears started to fall because after five years on a series you become family. You know the people behind the camera, in front of the camera, That was kind of a difficult day for us.” He leaves with upbeat feelings. “They were always good to me and they always let me know I was an important part of what was happening.”

There were some bumps in the road.

“The first season the writers really understood who this character was and I got quite a bit of screen time. They always told me they loved writing for me because I always make it work. After the first season we lost a lot of writers because of budget cuts. The second season they brought in new show runners and I got less storyline. In the third, fourth and fifth sessions we had different show runners altogether and these guys really didn’t know who Barton was.

“Some things they wrote for me I didn’t particularly care for. But when we’d go through rehearsals Cedric would say, ‘Circle that,’ meaning let’s take that back to the writers. There was one episode where they had Barton being disrespectful to his daughter-in-law. I said, ‘I’m not going to say that line because he wouldn’t say that.’ The writers understood. They knew that I knew the character better than they did.”

Beasley stays true to his principles in whatever he does. “The thing I’ve told myself is that I will never do any character that doesn’t have dignity. Regardless of who you are, you have to love yourself, you have to have some kind of dignity. If a character doesn’t have dignity then I don’t usually get called for it because that’s not in my body of work.” If someone were to ever demand he portray something not right in his eyes, he says. “I can walk away. It’s not an ego thing with me.”

Having a series end a long run is nothing new for him. It happened with Everwood. Beasley prefers to look at things optimistically “The end of any project is the beginning of another thing.” In this case, it led to taping the CBS sit-com pilot Real Good People from the power team of Stephanie Weir (The Millers), James Burrows (Will & Grace) and Greg Garcia (Raising Hope). The series stars David Keith and Julie White as a Texas couple. Beasley plays a denizen at a cafe they frequent. “We shot in front of a live audience and it went really good. The producers really liked me a lot. It’s a funny show. They’ve put some money into this one. It will probably go in production in July and air in the fall.”

Beasley went up for a new Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy) project he didn’t get but was offered the role of Mr. D in the upcoming Fox event series Shots Fired starring Richard Dreyfuss, Helen Hunt, Stephen Moyer, Stephen James, Sanaa Lathan, Aisha Hinds and Trtstan Wilds. Taking its lead from racially charged police shootings that inspired Black Lives Matter, the series looks at the aftermath of such incidents in a Southern city. “I’m in demand right now,” says Beasley, whose son Michael was up for a part in the same series.

 

Beasley # 2 by Antoniou B & W (LEO)

John in the Huntington Theatre production of Fences

 

 

Theater

Aside from TV-film work, theater’s always on his mind. “My first love is theater,” he declares. His John Beasley Theater & Workshop found a niche doing the work of August Wilson (Fences). Beasley acted-directed there and brought in guest actors. He and his son Tyrone Beasley, who was artistic director, trained many first-time players.

“I’m thinking about doing another play in Omaha because I’ve got some players here I’ve developed that are pretty good actors and I’d just like to see them do something. I want to do August Wilson. I still think Omaha doesn’t know about August Wilson. I love his work because it’s a true reflection. I know these people.”

The late Wilson wrote a much-heralded 10-play cycle about African-American life that Denzel Washington is adapting for HBO. Beasley is a leading interpreter of Wilson, having appeared in several productions of the artist’s work at major theaters in Chicago and Atlanta as well as at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. He landed his Equity card playing Troy Maxson in Fences at the New American Theatre in Rockford, Illinois. Years later he was to reprise the role in a Broadway-bound production before Denzel got cast.

Beasley thinks enough of the Wilson canon he mounted all 10 plays at his theater. He feels forever indebted to the artist. “I owe so much to August Wilson. He’s been a big part of my career. He wrote some roles for middle-aged black men I can do the rest of my life.”

One thing Beasley’s not prepared to do is to have his own theater again, at least not right now.

“Running a theater myself was quite a burden. I didn’t have a strong board. They didn’t raise money and so I underwrote most of the things we did. I don’t want to go back to that. One production I can handle. I think I can find the sponsors for it and I think i can do it without it coming out of my pocket.”

Midwest values

He’s among a long line of locals who’ve gone on to screen and stage success. He feels the city’s strong theater scene helps propel some people. Besides, he says, “There’s a lot of talent here.”

He’s worked with some fellow Omaha talent on screen, including Gabrielle Union in Daddy’s Little Girls and Yolonda Ross in Treme. Closer to home, he worked with Camille Metoyer Moten on the short Tatoo and with TammyRa’ Jackson on the short Second Words.

He feels Nebraskans stand out in film-TV circles on the coasts because of their Midwest ethos.

“There’s a different value here. When you’re out in L.A., it’s a whole   different climate, it’s a whole different deal. I’m well-liked on the sets I work out there. I’m pretty laid-back too. I’m known for being a nice guy and very considerate and very compassionate.”

He’s comfortable in his skin and talent. “My work speaks for itself and I don’t have to impress anybody.” He feels he’s improved with age. “My concentration’s gotten even better. I’m even more aware of my presence and I look more and more for the subtle things. I want you to maybe see what I’m thinking without beating you over the head.”

Michael Beasley

Jan 4, 2016; Tallahassee, FL, USA; Florida State Seminoles guard Malik Beasley (5) in the second half against the North Carolina Tar Heels at the Donald L. Tucker Center. The North Carolina Tar Heels won 106-90. Mandatory Credit: Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

Malik Beasley

 

 

All in the family

He’s pleased his boys followed his lead. Tyrone is respected for his stage and screen work here. He’s on the artistic staff of the Rose Theater. Michael Beasley is a busy TV-film actor based in Atlanta. He was a fine athlete who played hoops in high school (Omaha Central), college (Texas Arlington) and professionally (overseas). His son Malik was a Blue Chip prep baller who this past season became a one-and-done phenom at Florida State and declared for the NBA draft. John has enjoyed his grandson’s coming-out party. During Malik’s banner FSU season he often posted about his on-court exploits.

“It’s been great. I went down to see him in Tallahassee for their last home game. I flew in the night before. He’d not been scoring much the previous few games and I said, ‘Tomorrow, I want you to show out,’ and he did show out – he scored 20 points for grandpa and his team beat Syracuse. It was a great comeback for him.”

Hoops runs in the bloodlines.

“I’m told my father was a really good basketball player,” John says.” I never knew that side of him.”

Acting is in the genes, too. Malik and his sister Micah grew up on sets their father and mother worked on. They visited some of grandpa’s sets as well. John Beasley says whether an NBA career works out for Malik or not, he has the skills to succeed in acting. “He’s very talented.” He says being around lights and cameras is why Malik is “so grounded – he’s been there before,” adding, “He knows what celebrity is and handles it very beautifully I must admit.”

Meanwhile, John Beasley’s actively seeking a project he and his sons can do together. “I’ll find something, even if we have to write it ourselves.”

All in all, he says, “I’ve just been blessed. It’s been quite a ride.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

 

Lew Hunter’s small town Nebraska boy made good in Hollywood story is a doozy

February 25, 2016 4 comments

Of all the Hollywood greats Nebraska has produced, and there are far more than you think, Lew Hunter may boast the most impressive career behind the camera outside of Darryl Zanuck from Tinsletown’s Golden Age.  Hunter’s career stacks up well, too, among more more recent Hollywood players from here, such as  Joan Micklin Silver and Alexander Payne.  While it’s true Hunter never ran a major studio the way Zanuck did and has never directed a film the way Silver and Payne have, he did hold high executive level positions at each of the three major broadcast televison networks and at various studios.  And like Zanuck, Silver and Payne, he’s written and produced movies.  But he’s also done some singular things that stand him alone from his predecessor and peers.  For example, he’s taught a well-regarded screenwriting class at UCLA since 1979,  “Screenwriting 434,” that became the title and basis for his best-selling book about how to write screenplays.  He’s also conducted many screenwriting workshops or seminars.  He annually hosts the Superior Screenwriting Colon at his home in Superior, Neb., near his childhood home of Guide Rock.  Unlike the vast majority of Nebraskans who’ve made a name for themselves in film and television, Hunter never lost touch with his Midwest origins and some 15 years ago or so he and his wife Pamela departed the Left Coast to move back to his roots.

He’s now the subject of a new documentary, Once in a Lew Moon, showing at the Omaha Film Festival.

On this blog you can find an earlier profile I wrote about Lew that drew on my being embedded in his screenwriting colony for several days.

NOTE: Thanks to Lonnie Senstock and Bill Blauvelt for providing some of the photos here.

 

Lew Hunter teaching

Hunter (COVER)

Lew Hunter

 

Lew Hunter’s small town Nebraska boy made good in Hollywood story is a doozy

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the March 2016 issue of the New Horizons

 

Nestled at the bottom of Eastern Nebraska, about a three-hour drive from Omaha, the sleepy hamlet of Superior is home to one-time Hollywood Player Lew Hunter. Pushing 81 and retirement now, he still exerts enough influence to bring Tinseltown types to this isolated  spot. Growing up a Neb. farm boy not far from there, Hunter dreamed of doing something in show business and he did as a television network and Hollywood studio executive. producer, screenwriter.

He’s on the short list of Nebraskans with major Hollywood credits. He isn’t as well known as some as his success came behind the camera, not in front of it. Not since Darryl Zanuck’s mogul days did a native reside so far within Hollywood’s inside circle as Hunter. Of past screen legends from Neb., he says, “These people were role models for me.”

Hunter’s a role model himself for having programmed popular network shows in the 1960s and 1970s that still draw viewers on Nick at Nite. Some mini-series and TV movies he shepherded for the networks were sensations in their time. Three movies he wrote, two of which he produced himself, earned huge shares and generated much discussion for their sensitive treatment of hard issues.

 

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Site of the Superior Screenwriting Colony

 

 

 

A full life and an amazing career

Hunter’s the first to tell you he’s led one helluva life.– one as big as his oversized personality. Given where he came from, his career seems unlikely, but a desire to prove himself drove him to succeed.

Throughout the Great Depression and Second World War, he was enamored by the movies and radio. Then, during the Cold War and Baby Boom, he fell under TV’s spell.

Weaned on MGM, RKO and Paramount musicals – the only motion pictures his mother allowed him to see – he projected himself into the fantasies he saw in the lone theater in his hometown of Guide Rock. He imagined himself up there on the silver screen.

“I wanted to be Fred Astaire so bad. I danced with a pitchfork, and the pitchfork was Ginger Rogers.”

The barnyard filled in for a ballroom or nightclub.

The fact that Hunter went on to enjoy a storybook career rubbing shoulders with the likes of Astaire and other stars does not escape him. He knows how fortunate he was to create top-rated movies of the week. He’s grateful to be emeritus chairman and screenwriting professor at UCLA and to have written a book based on his class, Screenwriting 434, that’s the bible for cracking the scriptwriting code.

Some of his students have enjoyed major film-TV careers, including Oscar-winner Alexander Payne, one of dozens of great screenwriters and directors Hunter’s had as guests for his class. Those sessions have featured everyone from the late Billy Wilder and Ernest Lehman to William Goldman and Oliver Stone.

Hunter’s the subject of a new documentary, Once in a Lew Moon. It portrays his love of the writing craft and writers and the reciprocal love writers feel for him. The feature-length film by fellow Neb. native Lonnie Senstock premiered at UCLA, where Hunter’s retiring after this quarter. The doc screens at the Omaha Film Festival on March 12.

This once big wheel and still beloved figure in Hollywood gave up that lifestyle years ago when he and his wife Pamela settled near his boyhood origins to make their home in Superior. Twice a year there he convenes the Superior Screenwriting Colony, an immersive two-week workshop for aspiring and emerging film-TV writers. He leads it in an inimitable style that is equal parts Billy Graham, Big Lebowski and Aristotle on the Great Plains.

This prodigiously educated and well-read man once considered entering the ministry. He long served as the lay leader of a Methodist congregation. He does treat screenplays with a reverence usually reserved for the scriptures. When he gets rolling about scene structure and character development, he might as well be a preacher. Far from being a choir boy though, this let-your-hair-down free spirit uses coarse language the way some people use punctuation. There was a time when he drank to excess. A naturally verbose man and born raconteur, his preferred way of teaching is telling stories. Asides and anecdotes beget full-blown stories. He has a vast store of them.

The site of the Colony is a restored Victorian mansion across from another period house he and Pamela occupy. He’s prone to lecture in shorts, T-shirt and bare feet. While professing he keeps near him a file folder bulging with lecture materials. He fishes out writerly quotes, excerpts or tidbits to share, referencing Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Joseph Campbell. He relates how as a Northwestern University grad student he asked guest lecturer John Steinbeck what to do to be a great writer. The legend’s response: “Write!” Hunter’s appropriated a variation as his sign-off in letters and emails: “Write on!”

Colony sessions are largely unscripted improvisations. Hunter doesn’t need notes, he says, “because the structure is exactly the structure I do in a 10-week class.” At table readings he reads, aloud, students’ ideas or outlines and offers verbal notes, inviting group feedback. He proffers precise analysis that constitutes Lew’s Rules.

“Too little story.” “Too much story.” “What’s your story really about?” “Your imagination is the only restriction you have.” “Conflict, conflict, conflict.” “Story, story, story.” “Character, character, character.” “All comedy and all drama is based on the three-act structure.” “My paradigm is situation, consequences and conclusion.” “Don’t even think about writing down to the audience.”

His rapid-fire yet relaxed, let-it-all-hang-out approach is fun. But his sunny, cruise-ship-recreation-director manner is leavened by a semi-scholarly seriousness that makes clear this is no joke. There’s work to be done and no time to waste, well, maybe a little. Students pay thousands of dollars to attend, many traveling long distances to participate. Perks include drop-in visits by Hollywood friends like Kearney native Jon Bokenkamp, creator of The Blacklist.

Colonists aim to please their guru, whose laid-back Socratic Method has its charms. It suits this one-time King of Pitchers who bent the ear of producers and executives when trying to sell a story idea or script. Hunter knew how to play the game because he was on the other side as a producer-executive, listening to writers-directors pitch him.

How it all happened for Hunter is, well, a story. One he’s only too glad to share. It aptly falls into three-acts. But leave it to Hunter to digress.

 

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Lew back in his salad days at the networks

 

Midwest roots

Raised in an “extraordinarily conservative” environment full of narrow-minded views – “I felt like I had a pretty sheltered life” – Hunter had a lot of growing up to do post-Guide Rock.

His classically trained mother exposed him to cultural things to round out the corn pone experience. For example she had him take dance and music lessons. His father was “known as the most loved and strongest man in Webster County” before a massive stroke left him paralyzed and unable to speak. “The first 12 years of my life I had him and then I lost him to a stroke and aphasia,” Hunter recalls.

As his father slipped further away, Hunter’s overbearing “hell on wheels” mother became the dominant presence in his life.

“She was the head of the Nebraska Republican Party, the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) and WCTU (Women’s Christian Temperance Union) in her lifetime. Someone asked me once, did you love your mother?” and I said, ‘Well, I think I loved her, but I didn’t much like her. I respected her. And my father, I adored.”

A bright boy who felt betrayed by life for taking away his father and bored with his surroundings, Hunter rebelled. He got caught doing petty vandalism. With his mother unable to handle him, a judge offered a choice – reform school or military school. Hunter chose the latter. A valuable takeaway from Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington Mo. came playing football. Back home he had no experience with African-Americans. He only heard disparaging, scornful things. Then one game while playing guard he went up against a black tackle whose extreme effort and high ability made a lie of what he was told.

“I got the shit beat out of me. That was a very good learning lesson. I deserved it.”

Hunter’s racial education continued at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, where his roommate was a black student-athlete.

“Meeting him was clearly one of the best things. We palled around together. He took me down to the jazz cellars in Lincoln.”

Hunter became enough of a jazz devotee that at 17 he hitchhiked to Chicago to see Art Tatum at the Blue Note.

He studied theater at Wesleyan and he made his first foray into show biz working at Lincoln radio and TV stations.

“I became so caught up in the idea of being a professional that it spurred me to go to Chicago.”

 

Hunter, Coppola B & W

Lew with Francis Ford Coppola

 

 

Rebel with a cause

Intent on studying broadcasting at Northwestern, he applied but was rejected. Not taking no for an answer he garnered letters of support from Neb. dignitaries and struck a bargain with school officials to enroll on a probational basis. If he got all As, he stayed. If he got even one B, he’d leave. He stayed and excelled, earning a master’s in 1956.

“That rebellious aspect of me is still part of me.”

He worked in Chicago radio as a disc jockey and producer. But he wanted out of the Midwest in order to try his hand in Hollywood. Everyone he consulted told him to quit what they considered a cockeyed dream and stay put. Instead, he followed his heart and went.

“I’ve been pretty much a guy that ‘no’ is just a word on the way to ‘yes.’ If I really want something bad enough, I keep on it.”

He did not head out alone. Though barely 20, he was already married. He and his young bride packed their Packard and hoped for the best.

He laid the groundwork for his eventual break into the big time by getting a second master’s at UCLA, this time studying film.

“I went to UCLA on a David Sarnoff Fellowship. I took a lot of pleasure and pride in that.”

He used that opportunity to get his foot in the door.

Future cinema legend Francis Ford Coppola was a classmate. Years after their graduate student days, Hunter had Coppola appear at the UCLA class he teaches to talk screenwriting with students.

At the Westwood campus Hunter indulged in some serious hero worship of his favorite instructor, Arthur Ripley.

“I had very specific mentoring with Arthur Ripley. I just adored him. He was the most charismatic, interesting man.”

Hunter says Ripley’s sarcastic humor was reflected in a famous one-liner attributed to him. When stoic former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge died Ripley was said to have cracked, “How could they tell?”

A veteran from Hollywood’s early sound era, Ripley helped create the miserly, misanthropic W.C. Fields character the comedian parlayed to great success. Ripley worked for cinema giants Mack Sennett, Frank Capra and Irving Thalberg.

“I admired Arthur Ripley and all these wonderful stories he told when he worked at MGM for Irving Thalberg. He told stories about running around with Thomas Wolfe. I was like a sponge soaking up all that stuff. I have more show business stories because I loved the business and the people and the craziness of it all.”

 

Lew and Pam B & W

Lew and Pamela

 

 

The start of it all

Hunter got on as a page at NBC and then worked in the mailroom, where he rose up the ranks to music licensing and promotion.

“I could see there was a ladder I could climb at NBC.”

He later worked in promotion at ABC and served stints at CBS and Disney, among other entertainment conglomerates, before eventually transforming himself into a producer-writer. He later rejoined NBC.

Then-NBC and MTM president Grant Tinker gave Hunter some sage advice about the vagaries of Hollywood when Hunter was torn between staying at NBC or taking an offer at ABC.

“He said, “For your benefit you need to know that in this business you’re not rewarded for loyalty. Quite to the contrary, we’ll probably be more interested in you if you go over to ABC, and so I did.”

And just as Tinker predicted, after making the move Hunter found himself more in demand than ever.

“In this business, if they want you, over hot coals and razor blades they will come get you. But if they don’t want you, nothing. I mean you’re either eating high on the hog or on the hoof of the hog.

“For one brief shining moment,” as the song goes, Hunter officed at four different studios, including Paramount.

He got schooled by (Aaron Spelling) and had run-ins with (Irwin Allen) some big-name producers.

Seeing so many different sides of the business, he learned the ins and ours of how shows and movies get developed, packaged, marketed.

“I was in promotions doing trailers for BonanzaDick Powell TheatreDinah Shore Chevy Show and so forth. I was around it all the time. A sound engineer and I went around to stars’ homes with a reel to reel tape machine to record them reading copy promoting their shows. Once, we went to the home of my idol, Fred Astaire. As he was reading into a microphone the copy I’d written for him I glanced through another room’s open doorway and I saw a pool table inside. When he was done I said, ‘Do you play pool, Fred?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, do you play pool?’ I said, Well, a little, and he said, ‘Oh-oh, I’m toast, c’mon, let’s go.’ I played a game of pool with Fred Astaire and he won and I let him win. I could not dream of beating my idol.

“I have lots of stories about John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant. It just goes on and on.”

Perhaps the star he got closest to was Judy Garland.

“She and I were very close on an emotional level. We had such a wonderful relationship. We never went to bed with each other but we sure flirted with each other a lot. I’m still in sorrow over what happened to her over the last few years of her life and how she died.”

He enjoyed getting to know the real personalities behind the personas.

 

 

The writer’s way

Doing promos was fine but he felt pulled to go where the action is – programming. He took endless meetings with writers, producers, agents. He gleaned what he could from those around him.

“I had doors open for me all the time I think because of my Neb. decency. I was just eager to absorb everything I could and I learned so much in those story conferences, going to dailies, watching rough cuts and observing artists working on the backlot.”

He was at ABC and then Disney (as a story executive) when the urge or, more accurately, the obligation to be a writer got the better of him.

“I had been for like four or five years telling writers how to write and never having made a living as a writer myself. It bothered me a lot because I really didn’t think I had the cachet. I mean, it’s very, very alarming to give notes to Paddy Chayefsky, who I idolized, or Neil Simon. I was having lunch with Ray Bradbury at the Disney commissary and I said, ‘I’ve read 2.000 scripts in the last two years and 90 percent of them are shit. I think I can be in the top 10 percent. He encouraged me to read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and Dorthea Brande’s Becoming a Writer.

“I came home and told my then-wife I’ve gotten to the point where I want to try to be a writer myself. And she said fine.”

It was a leap of faith as the couple had young kids and a mortgage.

Hunter left his job to scratch this itch. He made a pact that if he didn’t make it in a year he’d find a job. Fifty-one weeks later none of the screenplays he wrote had sold. Tapped out and with a family to support, he took a job as a body sitter at Forest Lawn cemetery. The ghoulish work entails sitting up with corpses and laying them down if they rise up from rigor mortis. He’d done it at an uncle’s funeral home in Guide Rock and again to pay his way through college.

The day before he was to start Aaron Spelling called saying he wanted to buy Hunter’s script for what became If Tomorrow Comes. If it hadn’t sold at least Hunter knew he’d tried.

If Tomorrow Comes is the story of an ill-fated romance between a Caucasian girl and Japanese-American boy in the days before and after Pearl Harbor. The couple get separated when he and his family are ostracized after Japan’s attack on the U.S. and eventually imprisoned in an internment camp.

Even though Hunter grew up during the period when Japanese-Americans were interned he was, like the general public, oblivious to what happened. He only thought about the internment as the premise for a script when a relative recalled this infamy in less than sympathetic terms. That propelled Hunter to research the subject. He was appalled to discover that innocent Japanese-Americans were summarily stripped of property, businesses, livelihoods. Their kids taken out of schools, their lives disrupted. They were treated as criminals and traitors. All without due process. He was dismayed to find they were interned in camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.

“I was shocked we incarcerated more than 120,000 citizens.”

He was shocked this injustice was not mentioned in textbooks. He was offended that many folks dimssed the incident as just part of the price of war. That it was merely a regrettable inconvenience when in fact it was a traumatic severing and breach of trust and civil rights.

In writing his script he found an emotional hook everyone could relate to by imagining a star-crossed Romeo and Juliet romance torn asunder by those harsh, unforgiving events. Patty Duke and Frank Michael Liu starred as the lovers whose lives are interrupted by history.

Anne Baxter, James Whitmore, Pat Hingle and Mako co-starred.

He considers the resulting 1971 movie made from his script among “the stuff that I’ve done that I’m most pleased with,” adding, “That was the thing that got me going. We got a 39 share. My phone was ringing off the hook. Then came another project and another one.”

Hunter resumed working for NBC and various studios in the 1970s and 1980s. As a general program executive at NBC he helped bring to the small screen two movies touching on social=political-moral issues in The Execution of Private Slovak and The Red Badge of Courage (both 1974). Later, as director of program development, he oversaw some major mini-series, including Centennial.

His next venture as a writer confronting social issues was Fallen Angel (1981), in which he tackled pedophilia long before the Catholic Church scandal broke. The idea for taking on the sensitive topic seemingly popped in his head during a meeting.

“I was pitching to Columbia executive Christine Foster when the phone rang. We heard, ‘This is Peter Frankovich here.’ He was an executive at CBS. Christine said, ‘I’ve got Lew Hunter.’ We all knew each other. I said, ‘Can I show you something, Peter?’ He asked, ‘You got anything hot?’ And I found myself saying, ‘Child pornography.’ It just came to me. And then, boom, he said, ‘You’ve got a deal.'”

Only Hunter didn’t have a story, much less a script. He was due to meet Frankovich the next week.

“I said to m self, ‘Oh, shit, I’ve gotta get a story together.” I went down to what was called the Abused Children’s Unit at LAPD. They told me everything they could tell me. I was in constant horror. They had me go down to the hall of records and look at the pedophile records.”

He learned how perpetrators groom their victims. In his script the perp is a photographer (Richard Masur) who befriends a fatherless girl (Dana Hill) and convinces her to pose nude. It bothered Hunter that kids could be manipulated or coerced to appear nude and perform sexual acts and that L.A. was the porn capital of the world.

It was only after Fallen Angel aired he remembered he had a childhood encounter with a pedophile.

“My mother thought she’d make a little bit of money by renting out a room to a Superior Knights semi-pro baseball player. He was a large man and he roomed right next to my room. One day he suggested we go out to the cornfield for a beer. We drove out there and parked. He said, ‘You’ve been really naughty to your mother.’ Of course, I had. I was a little ass-wise, That’s how I ended up at military academy. And then he put his hand on my thigh and said, ‘You know, you deserve to be spanked.’ I didn’t have the slightest idea what was going on but I knew it was bad, so I disengaged myself, leaped out of the car and ran through the cornfield back home. I didn’t say anything to my mother. That man was back in his room that night and I spent  every night for the next month with a .22 rifle next to me when I went to bed. I was going to shoot him if he came in and tried something.”

Hunter says the man attempted to molest some of his buddies, too. While Hunter was away at military school he heard the authorities finally caught the predator. Several boys filed complaints against him.

Fallen Angel scored a record 43 share.

 

 

Fallen Angel Poster

 

Too close for comfort

A personal tragedy informed Hunter’s next controversial and much viewed project, Desperate Lives (1982).

“My best friend at the time said we should so a story together about our boys. Our sons were both deep into drugs. One of the people I talked to in researching this was my son, who said, ‘I can get drugs at my high school quicker than I can get lunch at the cafeteria.'”

Hunter made a decision to give the protagonist played by Doug McKeon the same name as his son, Scott, who didn’t appreciate it.

“it was a stupid thing because it really estranged us, I’m sure for the rest of our lives. He basically doesn’t talk to me, just superficially. That was a very negative thing in my life and something I deeply regret.”

About doing projects that meant something, even at a cost, he says, “I just started poking round through life and coming up with things that really energized me. That was the key for me.”

Fast forward a couple decades, to soon after Lew and Pamela moved to Superior, when the scourge of methamphetamine hit hard.

Concerned by its devastating effects on residents’ lives, he and Pamela formed a nonprofit to raise awareness of the dangers and of helping resources available.

“This bloody meth problem is a terrible problem,” he says. “It’s a rural holocaust.”

He got retired Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne and other public figures, along with law enforcement officials, to appear at a town hall meeting. The Hunters mentored in Osborne’s Teammates program.

 

Lew with Tom Osborne

Lew and Tom Osborne, ©The Digg Site Productions, photographer Christine Young

 

Lew says. “Boy, we really had a roll going. We certainly woke the town up to the fact we have a very serious problem and the reality is the problem still exists. I don’t think it’s going to subside.”

The nonprofit he launched has since been absorbed into a state Health and Human Services program.

Superior Express publisher Bill Blauvelt says the Hunters are a presence in that tiny community.

“Lew and Pam have been active on many fronts. When they take on a project it is a joint effort. You don’t get one with out the other. They have financially supported many community activities and encouraged programs.  Last summer they brought in a painter to work on their homes and then kept finding work so that he and his crew stayed the entire summer. They provided a house for the men to stay in.

“Their homes are always open. If we have important people coming to town and they need a place to stay, you can count on the Hunters to provide lodging. The colony program has brought lots of visitors to town, many of whom spend freely while here. And the colony has brought me friends.  Often I have been invited to attend their get acquainted picnics and late night parties.”

 

 

Desperate Lives Poster

 

Finding his niche as teacher and author

After If Tomorrow Comes and before Fallen Angel. Hunter began teaching at UCLA in 1979. From the start, he’s taught grad students.

“I love that. Undergraduates, they know too much – they haven’t been knocked around as the graduate students.”

He says teaching screenwriting while penning scripts himself proved fruitful.

“It was great. I’d be working on a script and I’d realize. ‘I can’t do this,” because I just told students they’re not supposed to have two people in a room agree with each other – one of my dictums.”

His classes became popular, especially 434. Each student starts with a synopsis and they’re guided step by step to create an outline, story points, and by the end of the class they have a first draft screenplay.

“Then somebody said, Why don’t you put your class on paper?’ I said, ‘That’s a good idea.'”

He says. “Other screenwriting books are ABOUT screenwriting but they don’t tell you HOW TO write a screenplay, they don’t give you the caveats you get on a professional level. Not only do I tell you how to write a screenplay I tell you how 80 to 90 percent of professionals write a screenplay.”

As more than one person in Once in a Lew Moon states, Hunter demystified the screenwriting process and made it accessible to everyone. Like the evangelist he is for screenwriting, he even spread the gospel doing workshops around the world in his aw-shucks style.

“From me, you don’t get this academic bullshit you get from other people who have only learned from a book or they’re failed screenwriters. They give misinformation. I would not have gone into professing had I not been successful. If you go to IMDB you’ll see it’s a pretty long list of stuff I’ve done – probably over a hundred hours of actually writing stuff and producing it. I’m really quite proud of that.”

Front Cover

 

He’s also proud he and his colleagues helped “professionalize” the screenwriting program at UCLA.

“We have more professionals professing.”

Since the program produces many grads who work in the industry, there’s a deep talent pool of writers who come back to teach. Their experience gives students is a taste for how things really work.

“We try to recreate what they’re going to face when they go out into the professional world with the meetings and note sessions before they actually write the screenplay and polish the screenplay.”

Soon into his teaching career he and a group of his students formed the Writers Block, a monthly social for writers. Newly divorced at the time, he offered to host it at his three-bedroom Burbank home.

This open house started small but grew like wildfire.

“The first one had about 20-25 people, then we got 40 and then 40 became 70 and 70 became…until eventually we got hundreds. People would come in and out over the evening. Professional writers dropped by because they liked the atmosphere. We socialized and bull-shitted.

I’ve always felt we writers socialize but we don’t party – it’s too frivolous. It was a wonderful thing.”

In the documentary, former students express gratitude for Hunter creating “a community” of writers. When Pamela entered Lew’s life she became part of the scene. Once Lew and Pamela adopt you, you not only have the keys to their heart but to their house, too.

The last Writers Block in ’99 was held off-site to accommodate the 1,000-plus attendees.

“We closed it down when we moved back to Nebraska,” he says. “Going back to the roots,” he calls that full circle relocation.

He and Pamela will be buried in the Guide Rock cemetery.

“We’ll be stacked,” he says. “The one that goes first will be on the bottom and the one after that will be on top. That’ll raise some gossip.”

 

Hunter, Senstock B & W

Lew and Lonnie Senstock

 

 

Once in a Lew Moon

The documentary about Lew is a passion project for director Lonnie Senstock, who regards the Hunters as surrogate parents.

“Well, he wanted to do something about me,” Lew recalls. “He came to the colony and shot a lot of footage. That was a decade ago. He’s been working on this sucker for 10 years. Very shortly on into the relationship he said, ‘I’d like you and Pamela to be my parents.’ His parents died within a ear of each other. We said sure and so he calls us papa and mama and we’re cool with that. He’s a really nice man.”

Senstock says the film could have gone a different direction when he and Lew experienced some difficulties in their lives. But, he adds, “I found myself celebrating something beautiful instead of something dark. I didn’t realize it was going to be that way until Lew and I talked about the celebration of writing. We realized it was bigger than him. We really wanted it to celebrate that life that so seldom is given kudos.”

Hunter appreciates that focus, “Everybody in it is talking about  screenwriting. I like that.” He likes, too, how it overturns the idea that    somehow actors and directors just make up movies as they go along.

“There are men and women who write these things.”

Meanwhile, this old lion of cinema, now battling illness, is readying his next book, Lew Hunter’s Naked Screewriting: 25 Academy Award-winning Screenwriters Bare their Art, Craft, Soul and Secrets.

Whatever’s happening with him, he still makes time for past-present students. He’s frequently sought out to consult on scripts and projects. He makes himself available 24-7.

“I’ve always thought being accessible was the right thing to do.”

Besides, he says, “I identify so much with people who are dreamers.”

Once in a Lew Moon screens Sunday, March 12 at 3:45 p.m. at Marcus Village Pointe Cinema in Omaha.

Follow Lew’s adventures at http://www.lewhunter.com.

 

 

 
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