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KETV President-General Manager Ariel Roblin Leads Effort to Make Historic Burlington Station the ABC Affiliate’s New Home


The woman leading the effort to make the historic Burlington railroad station the new home of Omaha ABC affiliate KETV is Ariel Roblin and my short Omaha Magazine profile of her and of her passion for the project and her work follows.

 

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Ariel Roblin

Building the Burlington Station’s Future

May 8, 2014 by 
Photography by Bill Sitzmann & Leo A Daly
Appearing in Omaha Magazine

Almost as soon as Ariel Roblin became president and general manager of Omaha ratings leader KETV in 2011 she faced the momentous decision of finding a new site for the ABC network affiliate.

This next generation media executive succeeded Sarah Smith at the Hearst Television Inc. station and barely into Roblin’s watchshe was tasked with leading a search made necessary because KETV had outgrown its 27th and Douglas digs. That near downtown facility has been home to the station since it went on the air in 1957. Roblin looked at potential properties all around the metro before fixing on a location that took many by surprise. When she announced last June KETV would move to the historic Burlington Station south of the Old Market it meant the iconic rail depot would be saved after decades of neglect and repurposed for a new use few could
have predicted.

It also marked the first time viewers had likely ever heard of the engaging TV boss, par for the course for a behind-the-scenes administrator who sets the course for the station’s on-air talent and content but who is seen on-camera only weekly for special segments. She used the moment to cast the Burlington decision as a win-win.

“It’s a really special place that means a lot to Omaha, and so it was the right thing to do,” she says. “It was built for the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition to show off Omaha. As a passenger train station it’s where stories and memories were created. It’s this big open space that has so much to say and so much history behind it.

 

 

“I feel KETV is the perfect business to go in there because we’re going to capture those stories.”

Designed by noted Omaha architect Thomas Rogers Kimball, the Burlington was long a fitting neighbor showplace to the adjacent Union Station. Unlike that station, which was turned into a museum many years ago, the Burlington sat unused and uncared for after closing in 1974. What became an albatross and eyesore will need a complete makeover. The $22 million renovation designed by Leo A. Daly architects is well under way. When completed in the summer of 2015 the building will not only house KETV’s operations and 100-plus employees but a dedicated public space charting the history of KETV and the Burlington. This new life for a grand old space is expected to bolster redevelopment in the area and add another anchor along the South 10th Street corridor from North Downtown to the Henry Doorly Zoo.

“In broadcasting we talk a lot about making a difference in the community,” Roblin says, “and this is an opportunity for us to do that in a tangible way.”
She views local TV as a positive agent  for change and she enjoys overseeing what KETV does to impact things.

“I’ve worked in different facets of the business, and I have a great amount of respect for what goes on in every position. There’s intensity and passion in every aspect. I love that I’m able to affect a positive outcome in all aspects. I feel fortunate I’m able to do it.”

The Omaha transplant has followed a managerial track since starting in the industry in the mid-1990s. The Ohio native graduated high school early (age 16) and studied theater and communications at the University of Miami. It was there she met her husband, Ablan Roblin, a theater professional who works on stage and backstage at various Omaha theaters. The couple have two boys, Aiden and Kian. Kian played Tiny Tim to his father’s Bob Cratchit two successive years in the Omaha Community Playhouse production of A Christmas Carol.

Ariel’s own love for theater extends to serving as a board member of the Blue Barn Theatre, whose new building will be near the Burlington.

Her first media job was as a program director at USA Networks’ WAMI-TV in Miami. Her next career stops were in Dayton, Ohio, Honolulu and Redding, Calif. She joined KETV in 2010 as general sales manager. Though Roblin always desired to be a GM she was surprised when it happened at age 35. When she asked Hearst management why they selected her she was told it was because she cared.

She acknowledges, “I put myself into my work. I’m all in.”

Why does she care so much? “This is an opportunity to get to make a difference in people’s lives. You can’t get that wrong. The news consumption here is very strong compared to other markets—it really does matter to people what you do and how you do it in your news.”

Omaha has become home.

“I’ve never lived in a city and loved it as much as Omaha and I’ve lived in a lot of places. I love this town, my family loves this town. It’s got a great balance for life. We find we can do it all here. We appreciate the sports and the arts. The schools are great.

“I feel Omaha is an incredibly inclusive community. Even though I’m not from here I’ve always felt if I was willing to chip in and do some good work for Omaha I was more than welcome. That’s a really special characteristic Omaha has.

“If I ever did leave I would really miss that.”

 

 

Nebraska Coast Connection: Networking group ties Nebraskans in Hollywood

January 6, 2014 Leave a comment

Upon discovering there’s a networking group for Nebraskans in Hollywood called the Nebraska Coast Connection it’s not surprising for someone to ask, There are Nebraskans in Hollywood?  Yes, and a lot more than you might think.   The fact is there have always been Nebraskans in that strange and alluring land of make-believe.  A surprising number of natives of this Midwestern state have played and continue playing prominent roles there, both behind the camera and in front of the camera, all the way from the motion picture industry’s start through the advent of television and more recently the dawn of multi-media platforms.   The story that follows is my profile of the Nebraska Coast Connection for an upcoming issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Much of my story is based on interviews I did with the Nebraska Coast Connection’s founder and president, Todd Nelson, a Holdrege, Neb. native who’s been doing his thing in Hollwyood for 30 years.  His group’s monthly Hollywood Salon has become its signature event.   This part social mixer and part professional seminar allows folks to tout their projects and to hear featured speakers, such as Oscar-winner Alexander Payne.  I also have insights and impressions about the organization from three of the biggest names from here in Hollywood: filmmaker Alexander Payne, whose new film Nebraska is sure to fare well at the Oscars; writer-producer-director Jon Bokenkamp, whose hit new NBC series The Blacklist has elevated him to the prime time A-list; and former network executive and script writer Lew Hunter, who’s retired from the craziness but knows where the bodies are buried.  All speak glowingly about the nurturing nature of the group and how it offers a home away from home environment in what can be otherwise a cold, harsh culture for those working in the industry or aspiring to.

I can speak to the warm hospitality offered by the group based on two recent experiences I had with it.  I was there for the Sept. 9 Hollywood Salon featuring Payne and for a Nov. 16 screening of Payne’s Nebraska at Paramount Studios.  I was also the featured speaker for its Nov. 11 salon.  Todd Nelson was my gracious host each time.

This blog is filled with stories and interviews I’ve done with film figures, famous and not so famous.  Much of that work as well as related activity I’m now purusing will feed into an eventual book about Nebraskans in Hollywood, past and present.  I am the author of the current book, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.

Todd Nelson generously provided a set of photos for my story taken by homself and some other NCC stalwarts.

 

photo credits:
TIM WOODWARD, TRAVIS BECK, TODD NELSON, DAVID WILDER

 

 

Nebraska Coast Connection: Networking group ties Nebraskans in Hollywood

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

 

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Alexander Payne at the Sept. 9 salon

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Todd Nelson interviewing Payne at the Sept. 9 salon

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Some of the crowd at the recent Hollywood Salon featuring Payne

 

 

Dreamers from Neb., as from everywhere else, have flocked to Hollywood since the motion picture industry’s start.

Softening the harsh realities of making it in Tinsel Town’s dog-eat-dog world, where who you know is often more vital than what you know, is the mission behind the Nebraska Coast Connection. This networking alliance of natives already established in Hollywood or aspiring to be is the brainchild of Todd Nelson, a Holdrege son who’s been in Hollywood since 1984. A former Disney executive, his company Braska Films produces international promos for CBS.

Early in his foray on the coast Nelson was aided by industry veterans and once settled himself he felt an obligation to give back.

His own Hollywood dream extends back to childhood. He made an animated film with his father, created neighborhood theatricals and headlined a magic act, ala home state heroes Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett, that netted a recurring spot on a local TV show and gigs around the state.

“I guess I didn’t know any better and nobody ever told me I couldn’t do it, so I just kept at it,” Nelson says.

As a University of Nebraska-Lincoln theater and broadcast journalism major he made the then-Sheldon Film Theatre (now the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center) his film school.

“To see classic movies and to meet the filmmakers behind some of them was just a fantastic experience and a real eye opener for me.”

Frustrated by limited filmmaking ops at UNL, he talked his way into using Nebraska Educational Television production facilities to direct a one-act play for the small screen. He also worked as a KETV reporter-photojournalist in the ABC affiliate’s Lincoln bureau.

He was an extra in Terms of Endearment during the feature’s Lincoln shoot.

An internship brought Nelson out to the coast, where he worked behind-the-scenes on a soap and later served as personal assistant to TV-film director Paul Bogart (All in the Family). After five years as a senior project executive at Disney he left to produce and direct the documentary Surviving Friendly Fire.

Nelson formed NCC in 1992. A couple years later he befriended fellow Nebraskan Alexander Payne, then gearing up to make his first feature, Citizen Ruth. Payne was looking for an L.A. apartment and Nelson leased him a unit in the building he managed and lived in. The neighbors became friends and the Nebraskans in Hollywood community Nelson cultivated grew.

“He’s a terrific guy,” Payne says of Nelson “He is, as they say, good people.”

In 1995 Nelson inaugurated NCC’s signature Hollywood Salon series. He knew he was onto something when the first event drew hundreds. His strong UNL ties brought support from the school’s foundation.

The monthly Salon has met at some iconic locations, including the Hollywood Athletic Club and CBS sound stages. Its home these days is the historic Culver Hotel in Culver City, Calif., whose namesake, Nebraskan Harry Culver, attracted the fledgling movie industry to his city in the 1920s. Many Golden Era stars kept residences at the hotel, which purportedly was owned by a succession of Hollywood heavyweights. In this ultimate company town, the hotel is next to Sony Pictures Studios, giving the salon the feel of an insiders’ confab.

 

 

Culver Hotel
Payne’s guest appearances draw overflow crowds. Some 200 attended the Sept. 9 program Nelson hosted. The acclaimed writer-director shared off-the-record dope on the making of his Nebraska, candid comments about the state of movies today and advice for actors and writers hoping to collaborate with him. He took questions from the adoring audience, many of whom he’s gotten to know from past salons, posed for pictures and made small talk.
In addition to Payne, the salon’s featured other Nebraskans: actress Marg Helgenberger (CSI and the new series Intelligence), writer-producer Jon Bokenkamp (The Blacklist), filmmaker Nik Fackler (Lovely, Still) and actor Chris Klein (Election).
Marg Helgenberger (CSI and the new series Intelligence) getting in the spirit of things at a Nebraska Coast Connection Christmas party
Nelson interviewing filmmaker-musician Nik Fackler

The group boasts a mailing list of more than 1,000 and nearly as many anecdotes from those who’ve found fellowship, employment, even love, through its ranks.

Payne likes that NCC affords a kind of Neb. fraternity in Hollywood.

“It’s wonderful and hilarious. It’s hilarious in the way that being from Neb. is hilarious. Maybe people from other states do the same, but I know the Neb. version of how they seek one another out in other cities. I know there’s a Neb. club of some sort in New York City. The state’s members of Congress host a Nebraskans breakfast in D.C.

“Nebraskans feel comfortable with one another outside of Neb. and I am no exception, I enjoy the group, we have a shared sensibility, a shared sense of humor, shared childhood references. And Todd is a forceful personality. He’s the most benevolent, charismatic cult leader one could imagine,” he says with a wink.

According to Nelson, “There is something really unique about Nebraskans. We belong together in this way that no other place does. I have watched other groups come and go trying to duplicate what we do and every group without fail has just fallen apart, and some of them are from the Midwest, so it’s not just the Midwest thing.”

Payne’s far past needing the NCC’s connections but he says, “I’m very happy to continue my participation as an occasional guest speaker.”

Bokenkamp does the same. The Kearney native parked cars when he first got out there. He did have a script but no idea how to get it to anyone that mattered. At Nelson’s urging Bokenkamp entered a screenwriting contest. He won. It got him an agent and eventually jobs writing features (Taking Lives) and even directing a pic (Bad Seed).

Nelson enjoys aiding folks get their starts in the business.

“There’s definitely a thrill watching new people realize their own potential,” he says. “Jamie Ball from Grand Island wanted to be an editor. I’ve given her a chance and she’s working in the big leagues now as a video editor, making a substantial living and finding she really enjoys living her dream. I love being a part of making that happen.

“But I also get the benefit of her good work and it’s enabled me to get home to see my son more often and to take a sick day once in a while. It’s a huge help to have her on my team.”

 

 

Payne’s first Oscar passed around at a salon

 

 

Against all odds small population Neb’s produced an inordinate number of success stories in film and television, including several legends. The star actors alone run the gamut from Harold Lloyd and Fred Astaire to Robert Taylor, Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire to Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift to James Coburn, Sandy Dennis, Nick Nolte and Marg Helgenberger. At least one major studio mogul, Darryl Zanuck, originally hailed from here. As have leading composers. cinematographers, editors, writers and casting directors.

Payne heads the current crop, but he’s hardly alone. Most homegrown talents are not household names but they occupy vital posts in every facet of the biz. For each hopeful who makes it, such as producer-writer Timothy Schlattmann (Dexter) from Nebraska City, many others give up. Having a sanctuary of Nebraskans to turn to smooths the way.

Nelson credits former UNL theater professor Bill Morgan with sparking the concept for NCC.

“He was the one who really put the idea of a Neb. connection in my brain. I would always visit with him when back home for Christmas and he would pull out a stack of holiday cards from all his old students. I’d say to him that I don’t know so-and-so, they were before or after my time. He would write down their contact info and nudge me to get in touch with them. He just thought we all should know each other. And inevitably when I did follow up, they would always welcome me into their lives because we shared Dr. Morgan…even if it was from a different era. That was the seed of the NCC right there.”

 

 

NebrStars

 

 

Among those UNL grads Nelson looked up was the late Barney Oldfield, a Tecumseh native who was a newspaper reporter and press aide to Allied commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower during World War II before becoming a Warner Bros. publicist and independent press agent to such stars as Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan and Elizabeth Taylor. In his post-Hollywood years he worked in corporate public relations and became a major philanthropist.

“Barney was an amazing guy. He became a big supporter of the Coast Connection,” Nelson says. “We hosted his 90th birthday party at CBS on the big stage. He regaled us with stories of his old PR days and knowing everybody under the sun.”

Another of the old guard Nelson called on was Guide Rock native Lew Hunter, a former network TV executive and script writer whose 434 Screenwriting class at UCLA became the basis for a popular book he authored. Hunter, who today leads a screenwriting colony in Superior, Neb., offered a model for what became the salon.

“He used to do what he called a Writer’s Block when he still lived in Burbank,” Nelson says. “It was a kind of salon. He’s seen that our salon continues that, so he’s a big supporter.”

Hunter says, “Todd and I often thought and spoke about a similar monthly gathering of Nebraskans and he pulled it off. It has been a wonderful spin and he really is the father of it all.”

But what really compelled Nelson to form NCC was the stark reality that even though hundreds of Nebraskans worked in Hollywood, few knew each other and there was no formal apparatus to link them.

“I’d been working in Hollywood already 10 years and meeting a lot of Nebraskans and nobody seemed to know each other. We needed to have access to each other.”

Thus, the all-volunteer Nebraska Coast Connection was born.

“People teasingly called it the Nebraska Mafia, but it was kind of like that – we could take care of each other.”

Variety managing editor Kirsten Wilder, yet another Neb. native in Hollywood, has a warm feeling for the group and marvels at its founder’s persistence.

“The NCC is near and dear to my heart. The reason the NCC is so successful is because of Todd Nelson’s staggering devotion to keep the group alive and thriving.”

Nelson defers credit to the natural conviviality of Nebraskans.

“You get these people that come out here from Neb. and it doesn’t matter where they’re from in the state, it doesn’t matter that they don’t have a direct contact with someone else, the fact that you are from Neb. is an instant welcome. It’s not entirely universal. I met Nick Nolte at the Golden Globes one year and I told him about our group and I said we’d love to have him come and talk to us sometime and he said, ‘Why would I want to hangout with a bunch of Nebraskans? I got away from that place.’ That’s a rarity, once in a while you run into it, but most of the time we find that everybody just connects instantly.”

 

 

A tribute screening of silent screen great Harold Lloyd’s work brought inspired NCC members to don replicas of the icon’s signature horned-rim glasses

 

 

Nelson says that in what can be a cold, rootless town NCC provides “a safe haven” that comes with the shared identity and experience of being among other Nebraskans .

“We call it Home Sweet Home in Hollywood and it has that quality to it. You need a home base I think if you’re going to do this kind of hard work of always having to put yourself out there and come up against the sharks of the world. I don’t think growing up in Neb. especially prepares you for how hard it will be to actually make it while you ply your trade and build your career. Hollywood just isn’t very nurturing. You can really use a community out here to help you get your bearings and give you a leg up. Or at least some friendly faces to be yourself with as you make your way.”

Bokenkamp admires what Nelson and the group provide.

“His love for Neb. runs deep, and he’s found a way to channel that love into a really positive networking group with the Nebraska Coast Connection. NCC is a warm, energetic and creative environment. Todd just wants to see people succeed.

“Thing is, in a land as strange as Hollywood, it’s just nice to have a place to go now and then that feels like home. NCC is that for a lot of Nebraskans.”

Payne says he can appreciate how NCC makes negotiating Hollywood less lonely and frightening for newcomers.

“L.A. is such a scary place to approach when you’re young and want a career in film or television. Everyone is telling you you can’t make it, perhaps you’re even telling yourself that, but you’ve giving it a try anyway. Add to that the fact you’re from Neb. and have no connections. Well, it turns out there is an organization that welcomes you and has people in exactly the same boat there to commiserate with. It’s a wonderful, caring organization.”

 

 

 

 

Nelson says without the NCC it’s easy for some to give up their dream.

“I’ve seen many people go back home after a few years of waiting for their break and not getting very far. Pressure from parents and friends is part of it. People in Neb. don’t really get how long and hard these careers can be to get started. There’s no distinct ladder to climb, no road map, lots of horror stories and kids here can run out of money or run out of steam. That’s when a ‘safe’ job back home near the folks looks more and more attractive.

“I’ve had many parents tell me they wouldn’t let their kid try it in Hollywood without the safety net we give them.”

Nelson says NCC offers a way to make foot-in-the-door contacts that parlay a kind of pay-it-forward, Neb.-centric nepotism.

“I know the NCC works because I see it over and over. People are constantly making job contacts, finding support, getting roommates, attending each other’s performances, hiring actors and crew for their films. It is going on all the time at every Salon. Hopefully it will happen even more with the interactivity built into the new website. Our goal is to have a kind of virtual salon to help everyone stay in touch with each other in between salons.”

“Even after some folks reach some level of success they come back often and say it gives them a friendly home base.”

Real jobs result from NCC hook-ups.

“As a producer who has hired or recommended over a dozen people to work at CBS-TV over the years, including a young Jon Bokenkamp, I know this group to be a huge resource of great talent. I don’t ever need to go elsewhere to find the best people,” Nelson says.

Nelson’s quick to point out he’s not alone in his home state loyalty.

Jeopardy executive producer Harry Friedman is from Omaha and he is famous for hiring Nebraskans on his shows. Many others out here from Neb. recommend Nebraskans first. Why wouldn’t they? It always makes sense to hire people you know, or know where they came from, and Nebraskans are almost universally loved for their work ethic, responsibility under pressure and humble ‘get it done’ spirit.”

Nelson says he’s pleased the NCC, which rated a fall L.A. Times feature article, has made it this far.

“I don’t think if you told me 21 years ago that we’d still be going this strong I would have believed it. In fact, it’s kind of moving into some new levels. For example, with the Nebraska screening at Paramount I was able to reach out to all these folks who’ve been salon guests and they were very excited about it.”

Besides Nelson and Payne, attendees at the screening included Bokenkamp, Chris Klein, actor Nicholas D’Agosto and actress turned-mystery author Harley Jane Kozak.

Celebrating success stories like these is part of the deal. But Nelson says the heart of the NCC “will always be a group focused first on the kid that’s been out here for a week, that drove out in his dad’s car full of stuff, is staying on somebody’s couch and has 500 bucks to his name. I mean, that’s really what we’re here to do and that’s going on every month at the salon – somebody showing up for the first time who’s in that circumstance. That’s the way it works.”

Cinematographer Greg Hadwick showed up like that out of Lincoln, recalls Nelson. “I think he drove all night to make it to the salon.” No sooner did Hadwick arrive then he learned Nelson and his then-very pregnant wife were due to move that weekend and he volunteered to help.

“He was just a trooper,” says Nelson. “He rented a truck and stayed late. He was such an incredibly hard worker. He didn’t ask for any money and he wouldn’t take any. The next salon I told the group what he did and somebody who was looking for an assistant hired Greg based on my recommendation, and that kid has gone on to work his butt off in Hollywood, He just showed up, open, ready to jump in. He’s now started his own production company and brought guys out here from his hometown in Neb., so he’s kind of doing his own giving back.”

Nelson says he can usually spot who has what it takes.

“I’ve seen a lot of those kids who try to make it for awhile who don’t stick. Then there’s the ones that right away I know, Oh, yeah, they’re going to do it. There is a certain confidence, I don’t think you can make it in this town without that confidence. But there’s so much more to it than that. In so many ways it’s about, Do they have something to give? There’s a lot of people that come out here and they think, Well, what can I get out of this? Almost without exception the ones who make it are the ones who want to give back.

“I’ll back these people a hundred percent and help them on their way because that’s what you do here, that’s what it’s about.”

The reciprocity continues. Nelson and Payne attended the dedication of Bokenkamp’s restored World Theatre in his hometown of Kearney. Nelson says,  “It was a great celebration of Jon’s good work.” Nelson also organized a group to attend a screening of Bokenkanp’s documentary about the waning days of drive-in theaters, After Sunset. Bokenkamp returned the favor speaking at the October salon. The home state contingent turned out in force for the Paramount Nebraska screening. And so it goes with the Coast Connection.

“There’s never been a time when it’s felt like a one-way street,” says Nelson. “It always comes back.”

Follow the Coast Connection on Facebook or at http://hollywoodsalon.org/.

 

 

Payne, Bokenkamp and Nelson at dedication of the restored World Theatre in Kearney, Neb.

Veteran Omaha TV Meteorologist Jim Flowers Weathers the Storm

August 28, 2013 1 comment

Jim Flowers may not be the boon to KMTV‘s ratings the station hopes for as it tries to climb out of last place among local network affiliates, but there’s no question he brings a recognizable name and face to TV weathercasting.  After his contract was not renewed by WOWT last fall  he had to deal with unfounded rumors that took him and his family aback.  All that’s behind him now as he leads the weather team at KM3 just as he did at WOWT and KETV before that, making him one of the rare on-air talents, if not the only one, to have worked for all three major Omaha stations.  My Omaha Magazine story about Flowers follows.

 

 

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Jim Flowers

Veteran Omaha TV Meteorologist Weathers the Storm

© Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Now appearing in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

Dapper Jim Flowers, with his trademark moustache and buttonhole flower, is a fixture in people’s lives after 31 years as an Omaha television meteorologist. This husband and father of two has invested himself in the community as a public speaker, Knights of Columbus volunteer, and churchgoer. He and his wife, Barb, are members of Mary Our Queen parish.

It all made the ugly rumors that surfaced about him after WOWT did not renew his contract last December more unsettling. With Flowers suddenly off the air and no official word from station management explaining his absence (due to contractual reasons), anonymous social media speculation filled the information void. The chatter was mostly innocuous, but some alleged Flowers had been caught in a 2012 FBI sting operation targeting a local massage parlor fronting for a prostitution ring. It’s not the image a public figure like Flowers can afford, especially when looking for a new job.

Flowers, who flatly denies involvement in any illegal activity, believes a parlor client used his name when procuring sexual services. Unfortunately, Flowers found his good name sullied when the sting broke.

“…in social media, people can say anything about anyone they please without identifying themselves or taking responsibility…just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s the truth.”

Despite the cloud, Flowers landed at KMTV. He debuted there June 3 as part of a long-term contract he reached with the station, thus making him perhaps the only on-camera talent to have worked at each of Omaha’s three major network affiliates.

The Ohio native and Penn State University grad came to Omaha in 1982 to work at KETV from a TV weathercaster post in South Carolina. After 10 years, he moved to WOWT. He was there 20 years, the last several as chief meteorologist.

He says he and his wife found Omaha to be “a great place to raise kids.” Even though their boys are now men, he says all the roots he and Barb put down here and all the relationships they built here make it a hard place to shake.

 

 

Barb and Jim relaxing at home.

Barb and Jim relaxing at home.

 

 

But in the wake of what happened over the winter, he seriously considered moving to another market.

With his exit from WOWT fueling the gossip mill, he posted Facebook and TVSpy responses that reflected his resolve to lay the tittle tattle to rest.

“…I have never been involved in a massage parlor prostitution investigation. I have not been arrested, questioned, or told by the authorities that I am a suspect [a statement confirmed by Omaha Magazinewith Omaha Police Department public information officer Lt. Darci Tierney]…those lies have been very hurtful to me, my wife of 34 years, and our family…I appreciate the loyalty of the many fans who have continued to support me, and I want to assure them that there is nothing behind those rumors.”

He more extensively addressed the situation in June 3rd guest spots on the Todd-N-Tyler radio show and KM3’s own, The Morning Blend.

“Doing that interview with Todd-N-Tyler literally put an end to it,” he says.

But when the rumors were still fresh, they stung. “When this first happened, I was like my life has been an open book, people know me, who’s going to believe this stuff? Obviously, people do, and that was the surprising part of the whole thing. Some folks want to bring people down, for whatever reason. It’s the human psyche.”

“When this first happened, I was like my life has been an open book, people know me, who’s going to believe this stuff? Obviously, people do, and that was the surprising part of the whole thing.”

His initial reaction was to get mad.

“The first thing you feel is anger because you know you’re not a part of it. That’s what’s frustrating. It had an effect more on my wife and my family, especially my two boys. My two boys were angry…They wanted to find out who used my name, how the stuff got out there.”

His wife has had his back the whole way. She offered this statement about the rumors: “I knew it wasn’t true. It was hurtful to me and my family to think that people would believe those rumors about Jim. I would like to thank those that supported us with positive comments.”

Flowers, an outdoorsman who loves fishing, hunting, and chasing storms, isn’t the type to run scared, but there was little he could do about this.

He gained insight into how his name got dragged into the mud when he contacted authorities, none of whom could speak to the specific case, then active in the judicial system. However, they did lay out a likely scenario.

“I was told by the Omaha Police Department’s public information officer Lt. Darci Tierney that, in general, this is the way it works. The guys that go [to massage parlors] wind up on a list. They don’t use anything that will identify themselves. They don’t use credit cards, they don’t use checkbooks, and they don’t use their real names. She said, ‘Obviously, someone decided to use your name and guess what, now you’re a part of it.’ I said, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ and she said ‘no.’”

 

 

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He says the local FBI office and U.S. Attorney Jan Sharp confirmed the same.

Unfortunately for Flowers, someone used his familiar name. It comes with the territory of being a
public figure.

“Our exposure to this kind thing is not unusual, but this form and how it took off seemed to have a life of its own,” he says. “The constraints that exist for print, television, and radio don’t exist for social media. There are no checks and balances out there. So if there’s a lesson, it’s that, in social media, people can say anything about anyone they please without identifying themselves or taking responsibility. But just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s the truth.”

He’s satisfied with how he’s managed the incident. “You take the high ground and have faith that things will work out. The night before I went on The Blend and Todd-N-Tyler, I told my wife, ‘I’m starting tomorrow [on KM3], and I feel really excited about it. There’s all these opportunities. But the one thing that’s still out there is this whole rumor thing. I don’t know where, I don’t when, and I don’t know how, but at some point in time this thing will be put to rest.”

He says he and Barb put their “very strong faith in God” that this bad dream would disappear. “I’ve had people compliment me and say you handled it professionally.”

KMTV General Manager Chris Sehring is pleased how it all worked out, too. “Jim’s a great guy, and we are thrilled to finally have him on our KMTV Weather Alert team.”

“You take the high ground and have faith that things will work out…I don’t know where, I don’t when, and I don’t know how, but at some point in time this thing will be put to rest.”

Though Sehring couldn’t comment on what steps the station took or on how much the incident played in its hiring decision, he did say, “Journal Broadcast Group is second to none in its commitment to integrity and the highest ethical standards. I still believe we live in a society where one is innocent until proven guilty…It’s truly a shame Jim and his family have had to endure these unsubstantiated rumors and malicious speculation. After all, it could happen to any of us.”

Both Sehring and Flowers are focused on making KM3, currently in last place in the ratings, number one. Flowers helped bring both KETV and WOWT to the top spot and feels confident he can work magic a third time.

“I’ve been down this road before. I know what it takes to win,” says Flowers. “Whoever wins weather in Omaha wins the ratings; that’s what it boils down to. You can ask every general manager, and they’ll tell you the same thing. It’s not only in Omaha; it’s in a lot of weather-sensitive markets. I didn’t decide that, the public did.”

He feels his experience and attention to detail set him apart from other weathercasters in this market.

So do his fishing skills. Once a competitive bass tournament champion, he takes his boat and fishing gear out these days purely for relaxation. With the rumors behind him, he’s forecasting nothing but clear skies and calm waters ahead.

Visit the Omaha Magazine website to see the story and the rest of this issue’s stories at: http://omahamagazine.com/

Omaha Film Festival Highlight: Yolonda Ross Adds Writer-Director to Actress Credits; In New Movies by Mamet and Sayles as her Own ‘Breaking Night’ Makes the Festival Circuit

February 28, 2013 1 comment

If you appreciate really good acting then a name you should know is Yolonda Ross.  Her face may be familiar but her name likely isn’t.  She doesn’t get the high visibility film and television parts that another Omaha native actress of color , Gabrielle Union, gets but it’s not for lack of talent.  It certainly isn’t for a lack of looks either.  No, it’s hard to say why she hasn’t had the major breakthrough that other actresses have but it’s not as though her career is wanting either.  She’s done lots of good work on the big and and small screens and three new movie projects are sure to bring her more attention than she usually gets.  She appears in new movies by noted filmmakers David Mamet and John Sayles and her own writing-directing debut, the short Breaking Night, which she also stars in is making the festival rounds.  Indeed, her dramtatic narrative short is screening at the Omaha Film Festival on March 8.  She’ll be there for that screening and she’ll also participate in an acting panel on March 9.  I’ve been following her career for several years now and you’ll find my earlier stories about her and her work on this blog.  I’m hoping she finally gets the due she deserves.

 

 

Yolonda Ross

 

 

Omaha Film Festival Highlight: Yolonda Ross Adds Writer-Director to Actress Credits; In New Movies by Mamet and Sayles as her Own ‘Breaking Night’ Makes the Festival Circuit

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

You may not know the name but for more than a decade now Omaha native Yolonda Ross has been a stalwart actress in American independent cinema and quality television movies and episodic dramas.

Before recently working with a pair of star indie writer-directors – David Mamet, on the new HBO movie Phil Spector, and John Sayles on the coming feature Go for Sisters – she’d previously been directed by Woody Allen (Celebrity), Cheryl Dunye (Stranger Inside), John Cameron Mitchell (Shortbus) and Todd Haynes (I’m Not There).

Ross played the recurring role of documentary filmmaker Dana Lyndsey in season two of the acclaimed HBO series Treme. She’s guested on such prestigious network shows as Third Watch, 24, Law & Order and New York Undercover.

Spector and Sisters come on the heels of her turn as a mother and wife in the well-received 2012 indie feature, Yelling to the Sky, that deals with issues of race, violence, bullying and relationships. It was shot in Queens, NY.

A measure of the esteem Ross enjoys is that both Mamet and Sayles wrote parts for her in their new films. Though she’s only in one scene in the Spector biopic, which premieres Mar. 24, it’s with the great Helen Mirren. Her co-lead role, opposite LisaGay Hamilton, in the Sayles  cross-cultural suspenser Sisters marks her first lead in a prestige feature.

2013 also marks Yolonda’s writing-directing debut with the short drama Breaking Night, an official selection of the Mar. 6-10 Omaha Film Festival unreeling at the Regal Stadium 16, 7440 Crown Point Avenue. Her dramatic narrative short screens Friday at 5:30 p.m. The coming-of-age story stars Ross as a young woman riding the throes of first love to escape a harsh home life. The film was selected for the New Voices in Black Cinema series in Brooklyn, NY.

Ross is a veteran of workshops at the Sundance Institute‘s screenwriters and directors labs, where she’s worked with her “dear friend” screenwriter-director Joan Tewksberry (who scripted Nashville). The actress filmed her short last summer in St. Charles Parish, New Orleans and in Baton Rouge, whose spell she’d already fallen under from her work on Treme, the post-Katrina Big Easy-set drama. She recruited some of her crew from the show.

Fellow Omaha native Alexander Payne served as a Breaking Night producer.

A longtime New York City resident, Ross will be at the OFF screening, where  Omaha friends and family will lend support.

Though she hopes Sisters leads to acting offers and Breaking Night establishes her directing cred, she’s taking matters in her own hands by writing new scripts for her to direct and/or star in. She’s currently penning a feature family drama she plans to direct in Houston, Texas next year. She’s also writing a spec pilot. She has more short scripts she’d like to develop.

She clearly views Breaking Night as the start of her career as filmmaker.

“It’s like one down and many to go. Once I got it finished it was just onto the next one. It doesn’t stop at one,” she says.

 

The many faces of Yolonda Ross:

 

 

Ross, a Burke High graduate who left Omaha in the mid-1990s to work in fashion, also sings (jazz, R&B) and paints (acrylic abstracts) and thus she views writing-directing as simply two more expressions of her creativity.

“I can do a lot of things. I happen to be one of those people that’s gifted in a lot of ways creatively. I mean, that’s just how I function. To not be utilizing all the parts of yourself sort of feels like you’re wasting yourself .”

Her writing’s evolved to where she’s confident she can craft her own vehicles.

“I feel as time has gone on my writing has gotten more defined. I know what my voice is, I know I have a unique point of view, I know I see things in a way that I feel are not being seen. Also, so many things are from a male point of view. I find it refreshing to see somebody else’s point of view, and you know I’m a black woman and one that I don’t feel is stereotypical,” says Ross, who’s worked with several women directors.

“I can tell a story and my writing has been really going places.

Breaking Night realizes a long-held goal to put her ideas on screen.

“I wanted to get the visions out of my head and see if I can do it, see what I can make, see what comes out of me. I actually had something else written but I didn’t feel like doing that so the story of Breaking Night just kind of came about. I had just been up at the Sundance film labs the summer before working on a project and it just made me want to have my own project to work on and to see what came of it with a collective group of people.”

Helming her own film proved to be everything she thought it would be.

“It was like an amazing, magical event. Little by little it all came together. It was a four-day shoot. Our last day of shooting was a night shoot that went into morning and the sun came up and we watched the sun rising. We all broke night together and nobody wrecked anybody’s nerves. We all worked together, there were no like attitudes, it was just beautiful.”

She says the film’s story is “a universal one with a different face on it.” Her inspiration was the classic ’70s rock song “Blinded by the Light,” a personal favorite that always conjured romantic and rebellious images for her. She set the story, which all takes place in the space of 24 hours, in the same decade to stay true to the song’s roots.

“I tell a universal story of a young person going through problems at home who doesn’t have support and leaves home. That’s every race, every generation.”

In her script the song becomes an anthem for breaking free of shackles that define or limit us. Her choice to infuse an interracial love relationship into the mix was about overturning stereotypes but in the end her film’s less about that than it is about finding one’s identity and following one’s destiny.

“There are definitely images that would always come to mind when I would listen to the song, knowing the time period it comes from, knowing which stations it would be played on and who the audiences would be for it. But in my thoughts it’s universal because everybody I know loves that song and rocks that song and I wanted to put a different face on who the characters were in it.

“If a film from the song was made in the ’70s when it came out I’m sure those characters would all be white. In TV and film then most times you would see black people either in the city on drugs or selling drugs or trying to get out of the ghetto or in the South trying to flee the South. In this case I wanted to put certain constraints on myself to fit the story and these elements into this seven minute song and tell this story.”

She’s satisfied she delivered a tale of youthful angst and longing that transcends cultures.

“I feel I’ve succeeded because race is not the issue at all in it. The story happens to have a black family. What I used as reference were movies like Silkwood and Norma Rae. It’s a rural home where the mom, even though it’s not said, has like a factory job and she’s got a dude she shouldn’t be with. He’s not a dad, he’s kind of living off them and taking advantage.

“The boy the girl is in love with is her escape. He’s the only one that understands her. At that age you have that person and he’s that person. They both run away. She’s got him as protection. That’s a young romance, so who knows what’s going to happen to it when she gets to wherever she’s going.”

Ross has the girl she plays cross paths with a posh black couple out on the town getting their disco down. The couple represent to the girl a sophistication and life far removed from her own.

“It’s like they symbolize to the girl that she can become that. So then she does take her life and her future into her hands and makes a decision. She’s not going to be a person who gets run over and taken advantage of, she’s not going to allow herself to be in the same kind of situation as her mom.”

An actress who never looks the same from part to part, Ross deftly plays both the ingenue and the ethereal disco mama.

Ross shot and edited the encounter to indicate the disco couple also see in the girl the possibility of something she’d never seen in herself. The girl becomes empowered by accepting a knowing look from the woman and a kiss and a business card from the man. All affirmation of her worth and  emancipation – that her time has come, that her path will be different.

“It’s like, ‘This fabulous couple sees something in me? OK, I’m out of here.’ The kids don’t know where they’re going, they’re just running away, but now she’s going wherever the disco man’s card says he from. It’s that kind of feeling.”

Ross went after a late ’70s-early ’80s Pop style look for the film, which plays like a good music video. She doesn’t mind the music video comparison but is adamant the story stands on its own.

“It has the aspects of a music video to it but it really is a short film because without the music the story is still there. I would like people to understand that there’s a lot actually happening there. All those frames in it have meaning.”

The visual palette changes as the drama plays out.

“It’s got three parts to it. It starts off light and kind of generic but once you get into the home it gets dark, it gets more real because it’s a messed up situation that happens. Once she’s out of the home that night it goes through a kind of surreal take. It leaves you wondering did this really happen or did she dream it.”

 

 

Breaking Night

 

 

In one shot the two young lovers have a kind of out-of-body experience while making out and to convey that feeling Ross wanted a visual effect she recalled seeing from that era. But she couldn’t find an example and she didn’t know what to call it.

“That was like the hardest thing,” she says. “In describing seeing that thing on TV or in videos in the early ’80s I could not find anybody who knew what that thing was. I finally found somebody to actually do it for me. It’s called a trail.”

The ending unfolds in an other-worldly rural idyll flush with Spanish Moss trees. There’s a sumptuous quality to the imagery throughout, even the gritty parts, that she credits her director of photography, Justin Zweifach, with.

“My DP was amazing. He literally came on a week before us shooting because my original DP dropped out and it was a blessing because he understood everything that was going on in my head. I made storyboards and there’s a full script but him asking me certain questions about the feel of things, the feel of characters, how I saw things, that was way more helpful in him capturing how it looks. It’s above and beyond what I expected. I mean, he shot it beautifully.”

She says crew embraced the project because with its minimal dialogue and luscious images their work can be readily seen on the screen.

Others who helped ease her through the first-time filmmaking process were executive producer Tim Mather and associate producer Sasha Solodukhina.

About Mather, she says, “When you’ve got somebody who’s got your back and understands the whole production part of it to guide you through it’s a lifesaver because there are so many little things. I come from acting, so I know about emotions, I know about all that kind of stuff. Before I did this i really didn’t even know the difference between a gaffer and a grip. I hate to say this but I didn’t know what the jobs were, but now I know. I know in front of, I know behind, I know these things now.

“And Tim is great dealing with people and places you need to have connections to to get better deals and to get things done.”

She says Solodukhina was “like wonder woman because she got me so many people. She knows everybody.”

As for having Payne’s imprimatur on the film, she notes, “What can you say? How can that hurt? I’m glad that our friendship made him come on and contribute. I still have to show him the film though.”

With the likes of Payne, Mamet and Sayles in her corner, she knows her work is getting noticed by the right people.

“It’s like how I feel most of my career has been, you just do your work and a lot of times you don’t feel anybody’s paying attention or whatever but then you get these offers from these great directors, so it’s amazing who watches and who does think of you.”

The offer from Sayles came while she location scouted for her short. She knew him from auditioning for his Honeydripper, losing a part in it to her Go for Sisters co-star, LisaGay Hamilton.

Sisters is the fictional story of childhood best friends whose different life paths have separated them for 20 years until events reunite them as adults. Ross is the newly released from prison Fontaine, who finds her old friend Bernice (Hamilton) assigned as her parole officer. The street wise ex-con becomes a lifeline when Bernice’s son is captured and held for ransom by drug dealers in Mexican border towns. Edward James Olmos becomes the third amigo in this search party that courts danger at every turn.

 

 

 

 

Edward James Olmos, LisaGay Hamilton, Yolonda Ross in Go for Sisters

 

Olmos, Hamlton, Ross in Go for Sisters

 

 

The low-budget, guerrilla-style shoot in Mexicali, Calixico and Tijuana required a huge number of locations in a short number of days, which kept cast and crew hopping.

“It was fun but just different logistically for me,” says Ross. “It was sort of like you wake up and you just go. You don’t even look around. You’re like, OK, who am I? What are we doing? It’s almost a road movie because we’re on the move so much. The story takes you on a nice trip. There’s lots of familiar faces in cameos and it’s fun to see who you come across next.”

About the enigmatic Sayles, she says, “Pretty much he gives you the blueprint and you do it. He has said, and now I see it, that his directing is choosing the right actors,. He lets us do our work.” By contrast, she says Mamet “is more verbal than John. I think he’s really funny, I really like him a lot. The one way they are alike is they both tell stories while working  and they both have people around them they’ve worked with before, so there’s a level of comfort with the crew.”

She’s excited to see who next notices her work. though she says she’s been around long enough to know that some filmmakers “go after the same people or who they think are hot or whatever,” adding, “You can be talented all day but that has nothing to do with them hiring you.” She says if box office performance is the arbiter then she’ll always be at a disadvantage because the small indie work she does rarely makes much of a splash or a profit.

“It’s unfortunate. The rest is just all crazy business stuff, which makes no sense. That’s why I’m writing.”

Ross is also part of a March 9 panel, Actors on Acting, at 3:15 p.m.

The Omaha Film Festival is a curated assemblage of narrative feature films, documentaries, live action and animated shorts as well as workshops and panels. Now in its eighth year, the fest has a strong track record of bringing film artists with and without Nebraska ties to discuss their work.

For schedule and ticket details, visit http://www.omahafilmfestival.org.

Ron Hull Reviews His Remarkable Life in Public Television in New Memoir

October 6, 2012 Leave a comment

Everyone has a story.  Ron Hull’s is a doozy.  In the following story you’ll only learn a few things from the jam-packed adventure his life;s been but those tidbits alone should be enough to engage you.  Because this piece is angled on his new memoir, Backstage: Stories from My Life in Public Television, you’ll learn a fair amount about the very eventful and accomplished professional side of his life.  As you’ll read, it’s fair to call him a television pioneer  because his career in public television goes back so far.  You’ll discover some of the famous figures he’s befriended.  You’ll also be introduced to the colorful way he came into the world.  And you’ll get a select sampling of his world travels.  None of these aspects are explored in much detail owing to the limited space the assignment dictated.  For a fuller account of his life and some of these features of his life you can search or select on this blog the profile I did of Hull a few years ago.  Or you can get to it via-

http://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/?s=ron+hull

That earlier story will put in perspective the remarkable journey he’s been on and continues making today.

 

 

 

 

Ron Hull Reviews a Remarkable Life in Public Television in New Memoir

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Public television was a dream when Ron Hull joined what became the Nebraska Educational Television network in Lincoln. It was 1955 and the broadcast school graduate arrived inflamed with the possibilities of the fledgling medium.

Fifty-seven years later he’s still enthralled even though he misses live television and finds himself at 84 having outlived his contemporaries from those pioneering days. It’s been quite a ride for Hull as a NET host, producer, director and executive.

He personally brought major arts figures to the network, including authors Mari Sandoz (Old Jules, Crazy Horse, Cheyenne Autumn) and John Neihardt (Black Elk Speaks, A Cycle of the West) and comedian-talk-show host Dick Cavett. Sandoz and Neihardt became friends. Cavett remains a close confidante. He’s enlisted Cavett’s interviewing-vocal talents for many NET and University of Nebraska-Lincoln projects. Hull’s a UNL emeritus broadcasting professor and Nebraska Broadcasting Hall of Fame inductee.

History exerts a strong pull on Hull. He maintains ties to the Sandoz and Neihardt legacies through his work with the Sandoz Society and the Neihardt Center. He emcees the annual Neihardt Days. He’s served on the board of the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial in Red Cloud and headed the state’s  Lewis & Clark Bicentennial Commemoration committee.

His own background reads like a dime novel. At 15 in Rapid City, S.D. he discovered he was adopted and that his birth mother had been a prostitute in a brothel run by one of the West’s legendary madams, Dora DuFran, who’d befriended Calamity Jane in infamous Deadwood. Among her other talents, DuFran was a midwife. When one of the girls in her Rapid City house got pregnant DuFran delivered Hull into the world. Soon after his birth she put him up for adoption. A respectable family raised him.

Buoyed by his search for identity and belief in a shared yearning to find meaning in our lives he’s made history a priority at NET, particularly Nebraska stories. He nurtured the film production unit, whose Oregon Trail, Willa Cather, Standing Bearand Monkey Trial documentaries have aired nationally.

Hull also founded the Nebraska Video Heritage Library that’s preserved NETs archives. He loves that programs are accessible to anybody online. “Young people need to know who they are and why they have this rich culture to enjoy,” he says.

As one of the network’s leading ambassadors, he co-chaired the NET Foundation’s Inspire Nebraska endowment campaign that raised $25 million. A special fund for telling Nebraska stories is endowed in his name.

Today he’s a special advisor to NET.

Hull also served stints with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in Washington D.C. and the U.S. Foreigh Service in Vietnam. At CPB he held large pursestrings and expedited memorable programs,. As a Foreign Service officer he shepherded a project that set-up public TV stations in Vietnam in our government’s attempt to win the people’s hearts and minds.

Stories from this singularly rich career comprise his new book, Backstage (University of Nebraska Press). The long-in-making memoir is his gift to the field he loves, to the network he helped build and to the people he’s met along the way.

“So many interesting people I’ve worked with are no longer here and I wanted to extend their lives by giving other people an appreciation for what they did for us. Teachers. Performers. Poets. Writers like Sandoz and Neihardt – people I was fortunate enough to know over a long period of time. They all contributed so much to our cultural heritage by telling us who we are.”

He writes that working in public TV is “the best way to get a liberal arts education every day.” In an interview he elaborated, “You’re constantly sitting at the feet of scholars. It’s a great pleasure and one of the best parts of the job. I’ve been really fortunate to connect with a whole lot of fascinating people.”

Ron Hull, ©newsroom,unl.edu

 

 

A measure of Hull’s enthusiasm and vision is that he persuaded two brilliant writers of the Great Plains, Sandoz and Neihardt, to do TV at all. He actually produced-directed a seven-hour series with Sandoz talking creative writing.

“I think my (main) contribution was getting her to illustrate her philosophy about writing with anecdotes, with personal things in her life. which to me tells a story and brings it authentically to life.”

He recalls. “She would look you or the camera straight-on and say, ‘You have a great story to tell and I’m going to tell you what it really takes to tell it.’” In the course of shaping his memoir Hull says he came to appreciate what she preached. “She used to say writing isn’t writing so much as rewriting, refining, polishing, reading it, throwing it away, starting over and writing it again. If you’re going to write anything worth other people’s time, you’ve got to be totally honest, you cant soften it, you owe that to yourself and to good writing. You must tell the truth.” He tried to follow that advice in his own book.

He says while “she was absolutely driven she had this wonderful interest in other people. I always loved that about her. When she was in the studio and students came she always had time for those students. Or anyone. And she always listened to people because she learned so much from them.” He recalls she compulsively made notes of her observations about people and places, storing the scraps in shopping bags inside her apartment, and drawing on them when she needed real life details for her writing.

Hull developed a strong rapport with Neihardt as well.

“We connected instantly,” says Hull, who produced three half-hour programs with him in 1962. “It truly was a new beginning for him and his books.”

A particularly memorable program saw Neihardt read from his account of the death of Crazy Horse in Black Elk Speaks.

“He recited that section of the book for 24 minutes from memory in one take. There were no mistakes. He was 80 years old when he did that. His memory was just phenomenal. He was a mystic and I know part of his appeal for me was he was always looking for the allegorical. He believed in the spirit world and that fascinated me. And he was just so accessible. Everybody loved him. Every time he opened his mouth he said something that we all wrote down. He was just one of those people.”

Another mystic became a household name indirectly due to Hull, who was with CPB in the mid-1980s when he and then-director of programming, Suzanne Weil, brought PBS icon Bill Moyers back into the fold. Moyers had left for CBS and Hull says the journalist “was dying to get back to public television.” Hull and Weil jointly controlled a Challenge Fund that helped finance Moyers’ new production company. It wasn’t long before Moyers produced his landmark PBS series with mythologist Joseph Campbell.

Hull hasn’t lost his belief in the medium he’s given his life to.

“I personally believe public broadcasting is more important to America today that it has ever been. We have the only channel that in my view consistently brings top of the line cultural programs, unbiased news programs, documentaries, the best that our culture or world culture has to offer. We are presenting the best media there is.

“That isn’t to say commercial broadcasting doesn’t do wonderful things, they do, but we do it without the tyranny of ratings and profits. We want to edify and inspire.”

He marvels at TV’s technical advances but he says it’s still all about telling stories.

Hull will discuss highlights from the NET archives on Sunday, October 14, from 2 to 4 p.m., at the Joslyn Castle. The event is free.

Michael Beasley Follows His Pops John Beasley as a TV-Film Actor, Son’s on a Roll with a String of Small and Big Screen Projects, including ‘Steel Magnolias’

October 4, 2012 1 comment

 

 

Actor John Beasley is by now a fixture in television, film, and theater.  What you  may not know is that his son Michael Beasley is charting a career path that may soon surpass his father’s, at least on the small and big screens.  I’ve been reporting and writing about the father for many years and now I see I’ll be doing the same with the son.  There’s another son, Tyrone Beasley, who’s also an immensely talented actor.  You can find my previous stories on John, his theater, and his family on this blog.

 

 

 

 

Michael Beasley Follows his Father John Beasley in Becomng a TV-Film Actor, The Son’s on a Roll with a String of Small Screen and Big Screen Projects

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Don’t look now but Michael Beasley is carving out a film-television career rivaling that of his powerhouse father John Beasley (Rudy, The Apostle).

The nearly 20 feature and made-for-TV pics he’s booked the last few years have him on the verge of being one of the industry’s next breakout character actors.

He’s doing it all too from his adopted home of Atlanta, Ga. and surrounding region, together known as Hollywood South for all the productions shooting there.

“It’s really happening here. A lot of work is moving down here,” he says. “I’ve just been blessed to be kind of the big fish in a small pond at the time when it’s starting to rise.

Papa John says, “He’s been doing quite well. I’m very proud of him.

Many of Beasley’s supporting roles have been in major Hollywood projects, including, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, Contraband, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, I Love You Phillip B. Morris and The Great Debaters.

Smaller scale projects have included Mississippi Damned, American Violet, American Reunion and Hero.

Two of his biggest films, both helmed by name directors, have yet to be released. Flight, directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Denzel Washington, is due out in November. The Bay, directed by Barry Levinson and starring Kristen Connolly, is slated for an early 2013 release. Then there’s Arthur Newman, Golf Pro .

He has the lead in a new indie film, Mystic Rising, still in post-production..

He’s also guest starred in episodic TV, most recently in USA Network’s Necessary Roughness. He has a recurring role in the Starz Channel’s series Magic City.

Sunday, October 7 is the world premiere of a much anticipated Lifetime movie he’s in, the all-black version of Steel Magnolias. The super cast includes Queen Latifah, Phylicia Rashad, Jill Scott and Alfre Woodard. He plays Spud, the husband of Scott’s character Truvy. He and Scott have some scenes together. He’s also a presence in ensemble scenes. At 6-foot-5, he’s hard to miss.

“It was an amazing experience working with all these legends,” he says. “The energy on the set was awesome. I feel we made another classic.”

Trading lines with big names is nothing new for Beasley, who’s worked twice with both Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg and shared screen time with Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Colin Firth, Jennifer Garner, et cetera.

“Being able to work with these actors and hold my own with them has given me total confidence I can do it in any setting. I know i can because I’m putting in the work to do what it takes to be prepared for whatever the role is.”

Beasley, who came to acting after a pro basketball career overseas, looks at every set he’s on, whether a commercial (he’s done one with Shaquille O’Neal, TV show or feature, as “a learning experience.” He’s learned the truth behind the adage there’s no such thing as a small part. Every line, gesture, expression counts.

“It’s exciting to me to get on the set. It’s not like a, Oh-here-we-go-again type of thing. It’s basically a feeling of, ‘Hey, I’m getting paid to do this?’ I think every set is important because I’m learning and building relationships, and so every chance I can be on the set helps me hone my craft.”

Sometimes he talks shop, as he did with Michael Caine and Luis Guzman on Journey 2. Then there’s the fountain of experience he draws from his father, whose extensive film-TV credits are two decades long.

“I’ve always got my father to fall back on and ask, ‘What can I do?’ and with his wealth of knowledge he helps. I was able to see my father’s career and whatever he did, good or bad, and say, ‘I can do this and do it different.’”

Father-son have worked together a few times, mostly at the John Beasley Theater & Workshop in South Omaha, where Michael’s brother, Tyrone, is artistic director.

Michael’s smart enough to know that when surrounded by serious, veteran talent it’s best to be a sponge.

“Yeah, it’s a blessing and I look at it as basically on-the-job training. As soon as I shoot my scenes I run to the monitor to see what these guys are doing. John Goodman is amazing. I mean, I knew his acting was amazing but when you see him do stuff in person, it’s like, ‘Wow.’ It’s stuff you can’t really get in a classroom setting, I don’t think. These guys are actually doing it for real and it works for them.

“It’s seeing what their process is and how they pay attention to detail. They really bring a lot more to just the words on the page. Even working with my father it’s the same way. Unfortunately, I’m down here and he’s up in Omaha. We haven’t been on a set together as far as a movie (though that’s a goal of each).

 

Michael Beasley, head bowed, next to Jill Scott in a scene from Steel Magnolias 

 

 

 

Even when he’s not “working,” Beasley’s still working it.

“I’m always studying my craft. Even when I’m out in public I’m watching what people do and trying to take from that. I’ve always been like a student of the game.”

Steel Magnolias marked his second time acting with Woodard after American Violet, and his first with director Kenny Leon, who’s directed his father on stage in several August Wilson productions.

Leon says, “Michael’s a very talented young man, I guess it’s in the blood. He really delivered for me in the film. It’s a really honest portrayal. Everybody wants to know, ‘Who’s that guy? Where’d he come from?’” Leon says the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. “Both John and Michael are authentic. They both bring it from an organic place. They’re just being. There’s no tricks. They find a simplicity to the life of the people they portray. It’s honest, it’s real, and you can’t teach that.”

He sees big things ahead for the son. “Michael can do anything he wants.”

Every new relationship Beasley cultivates and every new credit he adds to his IMDB page only reinforces his reputation as the hardest working actor around. It’s been one project after another.

“That’s how it’s been. It’s been just like a major ride,” he says.

His goal’s to become a familiar face and name to TV-film viewers and an in-demand talent producers and directors seek out.

“I think I am on the radar. It only takes one movie for you to become famous.”

In no sense does he feel he’s arrived yet.

“Every year I’m like, OK, what can I do that I haven’t done to get me closer to my goal? Every day I try to figure out something I can do, even if I only have an hour to do it. I can read this book or I can workout to enhance my look or I can work on an accent. Whatever I need to I just  find a way to do it.”

He hopes to inspire other others to follow their dreams.

“I want people to know it’s a matter of deciding, whatever your dream is, to just go after it and don’t be afraid of failure. That’s what I’m doing, I’m going after my dream, I’m not changing, and I’m going to get it.

“I just have this drive. Whatever it is I do I try to be the best at it. Otherwise, I’m wasting my time in my opinion.”

 

 

John Beasley (actor)

John Beasley

Gabrielle Union Takes Serious Turn in BET Drama ‘Being Mary Jane’ and PBS Documentary ‘Half the Sky’

September 29, 2012 4 comments

Gabrielle Union.  She’s hard to ignore because of her beauty, intelligence, confidence, grit, and good heart.  All those qualities and more are on display in a new PBS documentary event, Half the Sky, premiering Oct. 1 and 2 that features her as one of six celebrity  advocates who travel to different corners of the world to explore women and girls overcoming oppression.  Those traits are reportedly also on display in her title role performance in the new BET movie, Being Mary Jane, that’s set to premiere early next year before developing into a series.  My cover story on Union below is the latest among three cover stories I’ve done on the actress over the years.  You can find the previous stories on this blog as well.  I expect I’ll  file more Gabby stories in the future as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gabrielle Union Takes Serious Turn in BET Drama ‘Being Mary Jane’ and PBS Documentary ‘Half the Sky’

by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Gabrielle Union has reached a point in her film and television career where she’s doing more meaningful projects. Not by accident either. The maturing actress known for her assertive persona and frank views has been ever more deliberate about her personal and professional choices.

“Probably since 2006 I’ve been concentrating on making sure I’m happy and doing things for the right reason and surrounding myself with good, positive people and eliminating the rest,” says the Omaha native with mega family and friends here. “I’ve got a peace of mind I’ve never had and I’m just really happy.”

It seems hard to believe but this glam goddess is 40 now. She’s still enough of a pop culture presence and sex symbol to grace the cover of the new EBONY magazine. She’s the perfect age, too, for the driven title character she plays in the new BET movie Being Mary Jane. The drama, slated to air in early 2013, is leveraged to become the network’s first original dramatic series.

The movie premiered at the recent Urbanworld Film Festival in Manhattan.

Her character Mary Jane Paul is a smart, popular Atlanta TV host striving to have it all in a male-dominated field while her biological clock ticks.

It might as well be describing Union’s real life as a single black female juggling career, family, living large and causes. Mary Jane’s another in a long line of her together black women roles. As she puts it, “I don’t mind creating positive images for women of color.” She says she and her two adult sisters, both successful in their own right, are confident, capable people today in large measure because of her mother, Theresa Glass Union, a former social worker and corporate manager.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gabby’s no stranger herself to career and relationship issues. After her marriage to former NFL player Chris Howard ended in divorce she was a free agent. Then she met NBA icon Dwyane Wade, whose own marriage dissolved. Since finding each other on the rebound they’ve become a favorite power couple in celeb circles.

But it’s a project that didn’t require Union to do any acting that may make her most enduring impression. She’s one of six celebrity advocates in the new PBS transmedia documentary series Half the Sky. It premieres October 1 and 2. Union and Co. serve as witnesses and guides for this sprawling, multi-continent media event that examines the oppression of girls and women in developing nations.

The despairing realities revealed are offset by the courageous actions of individuals and organizations, so-called agents of change, working to improve conditions on the ground.

The title comes from the best selling book by noted New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sherly WuDunn. The series explores how girls and women in poverty become trapped in family-society restraints that limit opportunities and enable abuse, servitude and discrimination. The film finds education the most powerful liberating force for freeing people from bondage.

Girls are often discouraged from completing their education and even if they do they must still confront serious obstacles. Some do. Many don’t.

Producers invited Union to participate along with fellow actresses Diane Lane, Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Olivia Wilde and America Ferrera. Each was assigned to travel to a separate developing nation (Liberia, Sierra Leone, India, Pakistan) with Kristof. Their mission – to investigate what problems females face and report on proven remedies. Union and her peers acted as citizen journalists – their curiosity, empathy and questions complementing the professional reporter’s work.

Having a celebrity tag along is nothing new for Kristof.

“Nick has a history of engaging witnesses in his travels as a reporter,” says Half the Sky executive producer and director Maro Chermayeff. “He does his yearly Win-a-Trip where readers apply to go on an extensive journalist’s trip with him and he’s also traveled with Angelina Jolie and George Clooney (the actor intros the series). He has a very hard core following and what he’s often said about that is he wants to ‘bring fresh eyes.’”

In whatever corner of the world the celebrities, Kristof and filmmakers went they met females in distress as well as advocates working on their behalf. Chermayeff  profiles select girls and women, whose stories become the prism through which we view the problems and solutions.

Union spent two weeks with Kristof and Chermayeff for a segment set in Vietnam‘s Mekong Delta. The actress got close with two girls there, Duyen and Nhi, both of whom contend with barriers to try and further their education.

“Their stories are amazing and their overcoming adversity kind of puts everything in perspective,” says Union.

During her Delta stay she met John Wood, co-founder of Room to Read, an NGO providing books and support to millions of children worldwide. It got its start in Vietnam. Duyen and Nhi are both Room to Read scholars. She also met a pair of Vietnam nationals who work as program facilitators with the girls and their families.

Half the Sky promotional materials brand the project’s ambitious aim as “turning oppression into opportunity” through programs and efforts that “seek to engage, educate and motivate the world to action.”

Union says the experience opened her eyes to the “very skewed idea Americans have of Vietnam.” She says she went “open to hearing the stories from the war and the rebuilding that happened after the war.” She adds she was most surprised by how “for the most part the Vietnamese are very openly welcoming of Americans.”

Chermayeff, who made the HBO doc The Kindness of Strangers in Omaha, says some colleagues questioned using celebrities

“But we knew celebrities could do two things. They could be fresh eyes and they could also shine a light, bounce a little bit of their ability to draw in a different audience on these very important issues.”

At a screening of the finished film she says skeptics acknowledged how effective the advocates are as “a bridge between the audience and the experience.”

“We knew we didn’t want the talent to distract from the stories or to be playing the role of an expert. They’re not experts. But we knew we were reaching out to women who were socially engaged, who had walked this walk and talked this talk before. They were working in this space. Gabrielle Union’s done extensive work with young women and girls on gender based violence in the States.”

Union’s heavily involved in supporting rape victims and raising money for cancer research. While a student at UCLA she was raped at the job she worked. From the time her film-TV career took off in the late 1990s she’s spoken candidly about what happened and she encourages victims to become survivors whose voices are heard. After close friend Kristen Martinez died of breast cancer Union devoted herself to spreading the word about the need for breast cancer screenings, which she does as a Susan G. Komen for the Cure ambassador.

When asked to carry her activism to Half the Sky she balked at first, only because she was coming off an especially busy period, but after seeing how it aligned with her own values and interests in empowering females, she signed on.

“I just couldn’t say no. i just wanted to be part of telling the story. It was incredibly humbling. I mean, I do a lot of work for women and girls on behalf of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Planned Parenthood, the UCLA Rape Crisis Center. I lobby state legislatures and the U.S. Senate and Congress to create funding for rape crisis centers. I’m on the President’s Committee to stop violence against women.

“I was happy to do be asked to take part in such a huge project as Half the Sky in bringing awareness to the issue of girls and women living in oppression.”

The much-anticipated series is the kind of prestige, serious endeavor that might gain her a whole new following. Most of her recent film work has been in black-themed soap operas featuring her niche as a sharp-tongued shrew with a heart-of-gold (Deliver Us From Eva, Think Like a Man, Tyler Perry’s Mr. Good Deeds) though those pictures do have wide crossover appeal.

While not apparent at first there’s a thruline from Half the Sky to Being Mary Jane to other work she’s doing because they’re all projects that matter to her.

Mary Jane is produced by Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil, the hot writer-director team whose BET series The Game is a phenomenon. They’ve also collaborated on the network’s Girlfriends and the feature Sparkle.

 

 

 

 

 

Mary Jane Paul may be no stretch for Union, whose real life intelligence, strength and independence have sustained her in a rough business, but it represents one of the few times she’s gained the lead in a straight dramatic role. The Akils promise to give her more to work with than the bitchy divas she initially drew attention with or the stalwart, largely thankless wifely supporting parts she’s lately assumed.

She says she’s long wanted to work with the couple and recalls a conversation she once had with Mara Brock Akil about the types of roles and projects she desired. Ones with substance and relevance. She feels Mary Jane realizes those aspirations, saying it’s the best TV pilot script she’s read since Scandal, the ABC thriller series she wanted but didn’t land (Kerry Washington got the lead).

Besides the creative team behind it Union says what ultimately sold her on Mary Jane is its very real, true depiction of aspirational single black women just like herself and her friends. The dramatic situations, whether with family or romantic relationships or work dynamics, seem drawn from her and their own lives.

Not surprisingly, she often calls actor friends for feedback when weighing a possible career-changing role.

“Anytime I have a question about acting and should I do it, should I not do it, I call Sanaa Lathan (the star of Something Different).”

Mary Jane was such a natural fit Union didn’t necessarily need her friend’s counsel this time. She did on the underrated and undersign Cadillac Records (2008).

“I asked Sanna about it and she said, ‘Baby, if it doesn’t scare you, you shouldn’t do it.’ And if you look at her choices she definitely lives by that and I’ve tried to incorporate more of that. Even auditioning for things where I’m like, ‘Oh, gosh, there’s no way in hell I’ll get that,’ and most often I don’t but to even put myself in a position of trying and to stretch myself as an actor and to put myself out there as an actor and to take more risks feels pretty good.”

Union’s embraced her share of risks, too. In Neo Ned (2005) her character and a neo-Nazi played by Jeremy Renner fall hard for each other in the confines of a psych ward.

 

 

 

 

 

On the surface her Cadillac Records part as Geneva Wade, the girlfriend of Muddy Waters, may seem safe but she says it was a stretch because, “one, there was no glamour to it, and two, there was no humor.” Thus, it exposed her. “Yeah, it’s scary to not be able to have a lot of hair and makeup and to not look glamorous and to not always get the punchline, so it was a little nerve wracking for me.”

“And if you’re going to put people in victim or hero mode she was a bit of a victim of Muddy Waters,” says Union. “She took a lot of grief, she was the long-suffering partner but she stood by him and she supported him and she dealt with whatever came her way and she did it with quiet dignity and class.”

Union says, “It reminded me so much of my mother’s story and so many women of that generation or now who deal with that same thing, and I tried to portray it with as much respect as I could.”

The star’s parents divorced years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

Half the Sky took Union out of her comfort zone again. Minus a  script. she wasn’t asked to be anyone but herself. No where to hide. Minus a wardrobe of styling outfits, she wore practical casuals for negotiating dikes and roadways and coping with rainy season downfalls and repressive tropical climes.

Chermayeff admires that Union threw herself into this immersion experience with poor working class families living on dikes in the delta.

“I love her, she’s a great girl.”

Dueyn’s family lives in a makeshift tent after their shack was flooded. Just to get to school is an epic journey for the girl, who must cross waterways in boats and then make a 17-mile trek by bike, each way. To appreciate how much effort all that takes Union retraced the route alongside the girl, including making the bike trip.

 

 

 

As Kristof shares in a voice-over, “Duyen is kind of a classic situation in rural areas where you have a girl who’s so bright and so capable but she’s a long way from any school…and that is far from unique in the developing world.”

Union explains in her own voice-over, “I think I realized just how long, how lonely her journey home is. Crap roads, crazy vegetation where anyone can hide. Anything could happen to her in 17 miles, and she’s just rolling by herself. I asked, ‘Does anyone ever bug you as you’re riding home?’ and she said, ‘Oh yeah… men have stopped me before.’”

Human predators prey on targets like Duyen. In certain parts of the world it can mean being sold or kidnapped into the sex trafficking underworld.

Sometimes the abuser’s right inside the family. Nhi is forced to sell lottery tickets by her father, whom, she reveals, beats her when she doesn’t sell her entire allotment.

“It’s probably a lot worse than even what she’s shared because she can’t control it,” Union tells the Room to Read facilitator. “With Nhi everything she’s feeling you can see. She’s trained by her father you don’t tell the neighbors what’s going on, you don’t tell your teachers, you don’t tell anyone what happens in this house but her emotions are betraying her.

“For a lot of children in disadvantaged situations and households education’s a safe haven. (School’s) a place where for the most part you can trust the people there and it’s a few hours every day where you are physically safe and good things are happening.”

“That’s a story that was very, very close to Gabby’s heart because Nhi was really working and struggling,” says Chermayeff.

 

 

 

Maro Chermayeff, Executive Producer and Director

 

 

 

As Union tells the facilitator, “When I was 19 and I left home I ended up getting raped…When you’re raped it’s the absence of control, so the one thing I could control was school and I just dove into my school work and I became an amazing student. So I can relate to Nhi being so driven in school and I just wish for girls who have to go through any kind of adversity that they have education as an outlet for healing.”

The actress says she came away from Vietnam inspired by “the perseverance of these young girls, who move hell and high water to get an education. If that means paying for it themselves, they pay for it themselves, if that means living away from their families they do that.” She says Nhi’s situation so moved her that she and Dwyane Wade have set up a scholarship fund for Nhi to complete her studies.

Union’s helping Wade raise his two sons and a nephew. She has three new young siblings to dote on now, too, since her mom, who lives in Omaha, recently adopted three pre-school aged children. The children’s biological mother is a niece to Glass and a cousin to Union.

“It’s like we’re starting over,” Union says . “I’m coming back in big sister mode trying to mold a set of young people and provide as much as we can. It’s kind of like we’re going back in time and we get to do it over and fix some of the mistakes we made in the past. My mom very much believes in we-are-our-brother’s keeper and you’re only as strong as your weakest link, and she refuses to let our family down.”

For more on the documentary, visit http://www.halftheskymovement.org.

 

 

Thy Kingdom Come: Richard Dooling’s TV Teaming with Stephen King

August 16, 2012 3 comments

I have only read two things by Stephen King and I thoroughly enjoyed them both:  his celebrated novel The Shining and his equally well-regarded book for aspiring and emerging writers called On Writing.  I’ve read much more from author Richard Dooling and have thoroughly enjoyed his work, too, including the novels White Man’s Grave and Brainstorm and the cautionary  of the singularity, Rapture for the Geeks.  So when I learned that these two had combined talents to collaborate on writing the miniseries, Kingdom Hospital, I jumped on it.  I interviewed Dooling about the project but never landed my hoped-for interview with King.  The result is the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) just as the series was about to air.  I don’t believe I watched more than a few bits and pieces of the series because I find most horror dramatizations done for television don’t much work for me.  This wasn’t the last time Dooling and King collaborated. Dooling, an Omaha native and resident, also adapted King’s short story Dolan’s Cadillac into a feature film.  In my story I try to give some insights into how these two writers work together and apart.

 

 

 

 

Thy Kingdom Come: Richard Dooling’s TV Teaming with Stephen King  

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Omaha author Richard Dooling has collaborated with the Master of Fright, Stephen King, in creating the new prime time television miniseries Kingdom Hospital, a darkly comic supernatural fable The Horrormeister himself calls a cross between ER and The Shining. Dooling, whose novel White Man’s Grave was a National Book Award finalist, said comparing the show to the venerable NBC series and King’s own classic horror novel “would be a good way to describe it because…in the same way the Overlook Hotel (in The Shining) was haunted by things that happened there in the past, the setting for our show, Kingdom Hospital, is haunted by spirits from the past, and…there’s a lot of medical stuff going on, hence the reference to ER.”

The fictional one-hour drama is inspired by the acclaimed Danish miniseries Riget (The Kingdom) from director Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves). Consistent with the new prime time TV trend of limited run series, Kingdom is slated for a straight 13-week run. The opening and closing episodes are two hours apiece.

It may be a surprise that Dooling, the social satirist, has teamed with King in writing this original 15-hour miniseries debuting March 3 on ABC. Then again, Dooling, who came to literary prominence from legal-medical careers, has made a name for himself exploring the moral-ethical quandaries facing protagonists caught up in the foreboding, labyrinthian maelstroms of: the law (Brain StormWhite Man’s Grave); medicine (Critical Care); and insurance (Bet Your Life); three strange, intimidating fields and fraternities built on people’s fear of the unknown and of losing control.

In Brain Storm, a lawyer struggles with the Genie-out-of-the-bottle implications of constructing a biomedical defense for a virulent racist murderer, whose violent outbursts may or may not be triggered by faulty brain chemistry. In White Man’s Grave, a young American goes missing in the charm-filled Sierra Leone bush and his father’s well-ordered life back home comes undone when totems sent from Africa unleash malevolent forces that pull him to their source. Critical Care essays the inexorable, by turns absurd dance of death in an intensive care unit. Bet Your Life examines the elaborate insurance fraud schemes computer savvy scam artists use to bilk people of their money and, in so doing, to turn victims’ lives upside down.

Dooling was unsure himself how his work meshed with the horror genre until, he said, King reassured him with, “You don’t think you write horror, but you do.’ In White Man’s Grave…there would certainly be some elements of horror and there’s a little medical horror in Bet Your Life, especially towards the end. So, I’ll trust him, I guess.” Dooling said a horror pedigree doesn’t matter much as Kingdom Hospital is “all over the place and is so many different things,” not the least of which is its taking wicked, scatological aim at such solemn subjects as faith, life and death, thereby displaying the satiric sensibility shared by both authors.

“I never really thought he was scary, but that he always had his tongue in his cheek,” Dooling said of King. “His Misery is one of the best books ever written. I mean, it’s gruesome and everything, but it’s a very funny book. He’s a great writer, especially of slang, which I really like.” A book of essays by Dooling, Blue Streak, makes the case for colorful, colloquial language of the offensive kind. If there’s anything that connects the two men, Dooling said, it is their penchant for “black comedy. I think most of what I did with this series was black comedy, which is what I always do. So, it’s satire with some horror. And he’s funny, too.”

Ultimately, Dooling was sold on the show by a promise from King, who is its executive producer. “He said from the very beginning, ‘We can do whatever we want to.’ Since I’d never worked with him before, I didn’t know whether to believe him…I mean, I was afraid that might mean he could do whatever HE wanted. But he was telling the truth. Besides, it’s not like he’s doing it for the money, right? Steve’s in a position where he can get done what he wants…within reasonable limits. He has total control. It was important to me we could do what we wanted because I didn’t want people saying, ‘Oh, you can’t do that.’ I wanted to be able to show open brain surgery, for instance, and I didn’t want somebody telling me, ‘No’.” All that creative freedom, he added, will either have been “a blessing or a curse. I won’t know which until the Nielsen ratings.”

Such dramatic license, he said, resulted in a non-linear narrative, some of it occurring inside the heads of characters, that combines disparate elements, themes and styles. “I don’t know whether it will succeed or not, but you’ve never seen anything else like it on television, I can guarantee you. I mean, I’ve never seen drama, black comedy, spiritualism, psychics, ghosts…everything. In 30 seconds, you can go from one scene where you feel like you’re going to cry because you’re so involved with this character who’s been injured in a car accident over to slapstick or black humor and then to some appearance by a ghost during surgery.”

ABC, which has struggled finding a prime time drama hit, is eager to try something different. “Television executives are not stupid. They know they’re losing viewers,” Dooling said, “and so they’re looking for new stuff.”

Kingdom Hospital is set in arch, eccentric, God-fearing King Country — Lewiston, Maine. The well-spring for the apparitions and disturbances at the hospital is the unsettled grounds upon which the facility is built — the long destroyed Gates Falls Mill, a terrible 19th century imagined sweatshop where, the story goes, many child laborers died in an 1869 fire. The children’s restless spirits seem to inhabit the place, variously bringing peril and relief to those they encounter.

 

 

Dooling said the show’s premise — strange goings-on in “a wild place” — and its structure — episodes opening outside the hospital — encouraged he and King to “write about almost anything. You can bring almost anybody in there you want. All you have to do is make them a patient. For example, I have an earthquake scientist who gets admitted. And that’s the beauty of a series. You can bring in a character and you can either kill them right away or keep them around if they work out.”

The prospect of maintaining dramatic cohesion within such a sprawling story and among many recurring characters worried Dooling at first, but to his surprise it proved manageable. “I was afraid it would be hard, but by the time you spend so much time with the characters, you feel like it writes itself in a way because you already know them so well and you know what they would do. You have a large story that spans the whole season and then you try and make short stories that fit within that large story…and I think we held it together.” Accenting the story, he said, is the series “beautiful” cinematography and “spectacular” production design.

The staff and patients at Kingdom Hospital are as odd as the incidents befalling them. A paraplegic artist, Peter Rickman (Jack Coleman), is miraculously cured. The brilliant surgeon Dr. Hook (Andrew McCarthy) lives in the hospital’s basement, tending to his collection of medical equipment. The cynical Dr. Stegman (Bruce Davison) is the arrogant face of medicine. The addled Dr. Ehrlich (Ed Begley, Jr.) is oblivious to the crazy events around him. The heart of the series is the psychic hypochondriac Eleanor Druse (Diane Ladd), the older mother of a hospital orderlie, and the unstable link to a tormented girl trying to reach her from the other side.

“The driving force is Mrs. Druse,” he said, “and her attempts to contact the little ghost girl she hears crying in the elevators. Mrs. Druse tries to find out why the little girl’s spirit is stuck between the here and hereafter and how she can find rest. I really like Mrs. Druse. Everybody will. She’s a great character.”

The Druse character is lifted from Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom, a series both King and Dooling admire. “It’s a little slow for American audiences, but it’s funny and it’s creepy. I recommend it,” Dooling said. “We added a lot of characters and stories and stuff of our own, but we got the main characters basically from there and we just kind of Americanized their concerns and endeavors and Steve, of course, added the whole” back story and subtext.

A lifelong New Englander, King’s fiction often takes stock of locals’ stoic, enigmatic determination even in the face of bizarre goings-on. In episode one, he dramatizes his own well-publicized brush with death in the scene of an artist, Peter Rickman, walking on a rural road and being struck by a van, which happened to King near his home in Maine. The incident places Rickman in Kingdom Hospital, where he’s left open to its many wonders and dangers. King’s own weeks-long stays in hospitals were enough to convince him, Dooling said, “that hospitals are scary places.”

When King conceived the series, he wanted a collaborator with a medical background and Dooling, who worked as a respiratory therapist in the ICU at Omaha’s Clarkson Hospital, fit the bill. Long before enlisting him as a medical consultant and writer-producer, the literary superstar had his eye on Dooling, whose work he is a fan of. King quoted from Dooling’s Brain Storm in his own book, On Writing. King also contributed a glowing back cover tribute for Dooling’s Bet Your Life, calling him “one of the finest novelists now working in America” and describing the book as “by turns horrifying, suspenseful and howlingly funny.”

In his ongoing role as consultant, Dooling ensures the accuracy of all things medical in scripts, even tweaking King’s work as needed. To do this, Dooling draws on his and others’ expertise. “If I don’t know, I have to find out. I have a lot of friends that are doctors and nurses and I call them and ask them questions.” A med tech on the set acts as another check and balance, even training actors to draw blood gases, to intubate, to hold surgical instruments, et cetera.

After consulting in the series’ early preproduction stage, Dooling began writing episodes, first in concert with King, then by himself, in the winter of 2002. The two worked intensively through March 2003. Although the scripts are long finished, “it’s never done,” Dooling said. “Things happen. They can’t get a set, they lose an actor, an actor insists their character wouldn’t say a line. Or, trying to save money, the producers change locations. That stuff goes on all the time…up until the day it’s actually shot. There’s always something to do. I’m still doing a lot of work on Kingdom Hospital, and they’re 120 days into a 140-day shooting schedule.”

King-Dooling are hardly ever in the same physical space and rarely communicate by phone. Instead, they share work and comments via cyberspace.

“A lot of it is just passing files back and forth,” Dooling said. “We do it episode by episode. We attach notes. You say, ‘Tell me what you think of this. If you like it, add some more. If you don’t, cut it.’ Or, you say something like, ‘It might be funny if we did this.’ Or, ‘What if Mrs. Druse said that?…Blah, blah, blah.’ It’s just like talking. I didn’t really mess around with his stories, except to add or fix medical dialog and medical procedures, and he really didn’t mess with my stories either. We did get together once (at King’s winter home in Florida), shortly after episode nine or ten, to figure out what to do about the end because, you know, there was still four hours left and the last episode was a two-hour segment.”

 

 

Working with the prolific King proved exhilarating and taxing. “When you work with him, it’s night and day. It was night and day for three-four months. He just works all the time. He’s working right now, I’m sure,” said Dooling, who soon found there was no point in trying to keep pace. “Well, there’s no way you can keep up. A couple times, he just passed me. He would start episode nine while I was starting eight. He just got tired of waiting, I’m sure. I mean, he never said that, but that’s probably what happened. When he gets an idea, he’s not going to sit around and wait while I catch up. He’s really a fast, fast, highly-productive, laser-beam concentration type of guy. It’s been a good experience. A definite collaboration-synergy and all the good things you want to have working with somebody.”

Dooling, who periodically goes to Vancouver, British Columbia, where the series is shooting, loves the “cosmopolitan” city but loathes visiting the set.

“I don’t really like being on the set all that much. You don’t really have much to offer there. The script is done and, you know, the director is the person who decides how the scene plays. As a writer, I feel about this teleplay the way a famous screenwriter once described screenplays: It’s not a work of art, but it’s an invitation to a bunch of other people to make a work of art. Once you have the words on the paper you have every right to complain if they’re not saying the words, but once you let go of the script an actor who’s being well-paid and who’s well-qualified is going to render those lines in collaboration with the director. And, really, to have a writer there injecting their opinion into something where it really doesn’t belong, doesn’t make sense.

“However, that said, there are times they ask the writer to come down because they have a question about the way a word is pronounced or emphasized or they ask, ‘Why did you write that she had a tissue in her hand — was that because she was crying?’ or something like that. That’s a legitimate question.”

Otherwise, the set gets to be a drag as set-ups and takes mount. “They have to do things over and over. I don’t know, I suppose it’s like rewriting a sentence.”

The buzz is that if Kingdom Hospital hits big, ABC may pick it up for the fall season. In that event, Dooling, who expects to stay with the gig, has been brainstorming story ideas with King for a new slate of episodes. “Yeah, very vague type what-might-we-do-if-there-were-another-season conversations. And then we have things we didn’t really use, because there wasn’t time, that we could use.”

Even if the show isn’t renewed, Dooling may do more TV, a medium he entered with reservations. “I was skeptical of television. But this experience has made me more accepting of it and I could see myself working in it again if I find a show I like that’s funny and dark.” Unlike film, where not one of his several screenplays has yet to be produced, he said, “the nice thing about television is, you write it, and it gets shot. So, this has been fun. There’s not the big hold up there is with feature films, where you write it and you wait three years and maybe it’ll get shot, maybe they’ll ask you to rewrite it, maybe another director will pick it up. Maybe.”

Jill Scott Interview

August 8, 2012 2 comments

I did the following interview with singer-actress Jill Scott a few years ago on the eve of an acclaimed Lifetime movie she starred in called Sins of the Mother.  In it she plays a recovering alcoholic trying to mend the fences broken between herself and her daughter, who’s now a mother herself, years before.  In the depths of her addiction Scott’s character Nona emotionally and physically abandonded her daughter, Shay.  The daughter, played by Nicole Beharie, has become estranged from her mother.  When Shay visits her mother the old wounds get reeopend and the story becomes one of forgiveness, redemption, discovery, and transformation as the two women work through the pain to find a new truth.  Scott’s portrayal of Nona rings absolutely natural and authentic.  The movie was adapted from a well-received novel, Orange Mint and Honey, by Carleen Brice.  You can find on this blog stories I’ve done about Carleen and her work.

 

 

A Jill Scott montage

 

 

Jill Scott Interview

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

LAB: In preparation for your role as Nona in the Lifetime movie Sins of the Mother did you do much research?

JS: “Well, honestly I put the energy out there that I wanted to talk to people who are recovering and oddly enough I just kept meeting people. I met a lady on a plane, I worked with an artist on a project and I found out they were in recovery and had been for 10 years, and I just kept meeting people – at the grocery store, Target and Walmart. This is the reason why I love these places. You just get an opportuniy to meet so many different people just by talking about the weather. And people who are in recovery I find tend to really want to talk about their growth and their process. So it was pretty weird the way it just all started coming together, just random people on the plane and in stores and friends of friends over dinner.

“It’s not even I was bringing it up to find out anything. I didn’t even have to mention it. It’s really true what Thoreau says: ‘When a man truly commits, the universe will conspire to assure his success.” And that’s what it felt like. It seemed like everywhere I went I kept meeting people that wanted to talk about their recovery. Eight different people in all.”

LAB: As your character of Nona is written and as you play her she’s someone who really embodies the whole one day at a time philosophy.  I mean, she’s just focused on doing the best she can, one day at a time.

JS: “Period. And I think that’s the real truth of recovery. It is a process, it is an every day, every hour, every difficult situation, every happiness. You get happy, you want to drink. If something stresses you or vexes you, you want to drink. I learned a lot about that particular part of recovery, about how it’s ongoing and it does not stop.”

LAB: How did the project come to you and were you aware of the novel Orange Mint and Honey upon which the movie is based?

JS: “No, not at all. My agent, who I absolutely adore, mentioned it to me. She sent me the script. She said, ‘I think you’re going to like this.’ I read it, and believe me I read a lot of scripts, and I turn down quite a bit and some things I don’t get but this was something I really wanted to do. I enjoyed playing a grown-up, a genuine grown-up, and I felt Nona was a grown-up person actually facing her demons. It’s just my opinion but when you face yourself then you become an adult. As an adult person you make an effort to look at yourself, pay attention to yourself, analyze yourself, check yourself and hopefully better yourself.”

LAB: So did you end up reading Orange Mint and Honey?

JS: “I did not. Sometimes I will read the book but this time I didn’t. I try not to actually. You start tweaking things that really you may not need to or that you shouldn’t. I read the script and I come up with my own conclusions based on my research and the script itself and then after that it’s just communication with the director, because more than likely they’ve done far more research then I have, they’ve been on board before I was. That’s pretty much my process.”

LAB: In the movie Shay does not readily accept Nona’s amends and it’s heartbreaking for Nona.

JS: “That’s probably the worst part of it all for people who are in recovery. When you actually make the decision to apologize whole heartedly and have that person not accept it, it’s almost like a block in your recovery, you can’t seem to move that much forward without the understanding and I think that’s Nona’s difficulty. She loves her daughter and she really wants her to understand and to respect her growth and accept her apology. Nona knows what she did was wrong.”

LAB: The movie makes a real effort to explore the whole mother-daughter relationship dynamic.

JS: “Anytime you can explore that it’s cool. I grew up with my mother and my grandmother and just to watch them – the older versions of my mother and I now, that was an interesting ride, just the bucking of Alpha women in one house. And now as I’m an adult just the bucking of my mother and I. We love each other very much, but there’s a time to go home, there is.”

 

 

Sins Of The Mother

Jill Scott and Nicole Beharie in a scene of healing from Sins of the Mother

 

 

LAB: What did you find most challenging in getting your character right and in realizing the script?

JS: “Uhhh, trying to make sure it wasnt sappy. I think if you tell someone there’s a story of redemption or a story of someone on the road to redemption the mind can take you to a place where it’s going to be a tear fest or sappy or a chick flick and maybe there’s some of that somewhere in there but it’s not the whole meat of the story. And for me I didnt want to make Nona a bleeding heart because Shay is right, her feelings are fair and just, she had a difficult childhood because of her mother.”

LAB: You and Nicole Beharie have some very tough emotional scene together. Did you two do any specific prep work together to prepare for those moments?

JS: “No, as a matter of fact we didn’t. In the beginning we were tense with each other, you know just feeling each other out. I think it was good for both of us just to stand back and kind of watch each other and be a little tense, like the characters. We kept ourselves slightly friendly until our characters were warmer towards each other, and then we got warmer towards each other.”

LAB: So when you’re working on a project like this, do you leave yourself open to self-discovery and growth? Is that part of the attraction of what you do as an actress, as an artist?  Does your life and art inform each other?

JS: “Well, I’m now a mother and when I did the film my baby was newborn, we had just come through that whole transition of not sleeping, me being sleep deprived. I think I began to understand by playing Nona how much you can love a child and how it just doesn’t go away. As a new mother you don’t know what to expect, you don’t know anything except that you have to feed this baby, you have responsibilties, and when the love kicks in it’s life altering, even if you make mistakes.

“I actually fell down the steps with my son a few weeks ago, and that whole forgiving myself process was a trip because he was fine, I was the one that ended up black and purple. But I went through that whole process of, Oh, man, I shouldn’t have worn those slippers, I should have been paying attention better, all of those things. There’s a certain level of guilt that lends itself to you as a parent.

“Anytime I play anyone I learn something a little bit more about life and a lot of times about myself but mostly it’s about life and I think that’s a cool part.”

LAB: Did you have any trepidations about playing any of the scenes, particularly the one in the church where Shay calls out her mother in public before the assembled congregation?

JS: “No, I didn’t honestly because I’m a believer in the director. I like to work with people I can put my trust in and if it’s too much I’ll hear it and I look for that. I like to hear from one to ten. ‘I think that was on seven, I’m going to push it back to five, are you comfortable with that?’ That’s just the way that I like to communicate.”

LAB:  Your acting career has really taken off the last few years but it’s something you’ve been working on for awhile.

JS: “It’s 15 years in the making. I’m not upset at all about my journey as an actor. I’ve been enjoying it. I did Rent (in a touring stage production) and after Rent I put out an album and then the music took off but it was working for me before as well in theater and now from television to independent filma to major films, back to television and major films in one year. It’s working now, I get to do the things I really enjoy, so there’s no complaints over here.”

LAB:  I know you’re very loyal to your Philly roots because Philadelphia is where it all started for you

JS: “My girlfriend and I used to put together an artistic night of words and sound, all kinds of people would come through to sing or dance or do a monologue or perform their poetry. We did it every other week faithfully.”

Dick Cavett’s Desk Jockey Déjà Vu


 

Dick Cavett hasn’t hosted an actual talk show in a long time but occasionally he still settles behind a desk or a table to do a faux version for charity. A few years ago Turner Classic Movies featured him in a special tete-a-tete he did with Mel Brooks.  TCM’s also showed some of his classic interviews with Hollywood legends.  He also has DVDs out of his best programs with film and rock icons.  The following piece appeared before the TCM specials.  You’ll find several more stories by me about Cavett, whom I’ve had the chance to interview multiple times.

 

 

 

 

Dick Cavett’s Desk Jockey Déjà Vu 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

The Dick Cavett Show. Ladies and gentlemen, Dick Cavett …… ”

That intro, silent for a generation, is back, thanks to Turner Classic Movies. The cable channel (Cox 55) is presenting interviews the Nebraska native comic, author, actor and talk-show host did with screen giants on his ABC late-night  The Dick Cavett Show of the late 1960s, early 1970s. On Thursday nights this month and next, TCM resurrects these originals just as a new DVD is out with him and Hollywood legends.

In this spirit of revival, TCM’s produced an hour special, recreating Cavett’s old show. In it, he goes one-on-one with comic dynamo Mel Brooks before a live studio audience. The TCM special marks his desk jockey return of sorts. The Dick Cavett Show’s many incarnations over 30 years ranged from daytime and late-night runs on ABC to versions on CBS, PBS, USA and CNBC. A radio gig in 1998 was his last.

Cavett, born in Gibbon, raised in Lincoln, educated at Yale and schooled in comedy by some of the greats, displays the same ease and wit with Brooks as he did in his exchanges with Golden Age legends. Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Groucho Marx, Woody Allen, Robert Mitchum and Alfred Hitchcock headline the guests he adroitly draws out and trades barbs with in the TCM re-airs.

It must be surreal for the 69-year-old to relive his talk show past. Indeed, as he glides on stage for the special, wearing a perplexed face, the first thing he utters, with senatorial incredulity, is, “That was dééjàà …… something, all over again.” The timing’s just right. “It puts me right back stage at our studio on 58th in New York, right next to the Zip Your Fly sign,” he says, switching from highbrow to low.

A call to his place in Manhattan finds him begging off an interview for another hour. He explains it’s so he has time to finish a letter to the New York Times in which he chides a staffer for her “absolutely, unforgivably erroneous, mean-spirited crappy review” of the special. It’s not the first time he’s taken on a Times’ scribe. His last diatribe, he says, was “to my amazement, spread …… all over the front page of the Sunday entertainment section.”

On the call back, he’s ready to get nostalgic about Hollywood royalty. The thought of those full-blooded figures reminds him today’s stars are, by comparison, “almost entirely” devoid of gravity or grandiosity. “Who would be Tracy or Fonda or Mitchum today? Who do we have? They just aren’t there,” he says. “Cagney (James), there’s nothing like him around. De Niro is about it.” He can’t put his finger on what this means, except, “ …… that’s something gone wrong in the gene pool or something.”

The mention of his odd 1973 show with Marlon Brando, then fronting the American Indian Movement, reminds Cavett how dismissive the actor was of his own craft. “Yes, because of his silly notion he kept peddling all his life that acting was a kind of offhand profession that anybody could do,” he says. “I don’t know if it was on the show or off, but he said, ‘You know, when they ask — Did you pee on the toilet seat? You lie and say no, and that’s acting and that’s all acting is.’ I know I did say to him, ‘In other words, I could have been as good a Stanley Kowalski as you?’ That kind of stopped him for a moment.”

Mitchum, “his eyelids at half-mast,” affected similar disdain for acting, despite all evidence to the contrary. “Yeah, he talked about walking through parts. That it was not really a manly profession,” Cavett says, “but Mitchum was a superb actor and anybody who thinks he wasn’t let’s see them get up and do what he did. He could have done Macbeth. I had to use pliers virtually to get him to admit he wrote poetry. I saw some of it and it was wonderful. He wrote music for some other things as well …… the score to the first movie he produced himself, Thunder Road.”

Of his hero Groucho, whom he did several shows with, Cavett says, “I knew a lot about him going in, so I wasn’t surprised by much, except by how much he liked to read and he was virtually always funny.” Groucho’s perfect one-liners came so fast and often, he says, “somebody should have been around” to record them.

A highlight for Cavett was writing for Groucho, among many temp hosts of The Tonight Show after Paar quit and before Johnny took over. “Groucho was the thrill, of course, for us writers or ‘the Shakespeares’ as he called us.”

Cavett first met Groucho and Woody Allen only a day apart. At the time Cavett wrote and coordinated on-air talent for Paar. Woody was a standup in New York clubs. “I was sent by the Paar show to scout this young man who they said had written for Sid Caesar when he was 17. I just thought, ‘I’ve got to know this guy.’ We met at the Blue Angel where he was appearing and vomiting back stage from stage fright, the master [emcee] making him go on and the audience sitting there talking during his fledgling act. He was a dud. His material was the greatest I’d ever heard. Genius.”

 

 

 

For those who only know the guarded sophisticate filmmaker Allen is today, Cavett says they “will be amazed he was ever a standup comic, in a period of his life he hated, and went on talk shows. Pure gold.”

Cavett, whose sardonic tone and neurotic persona make him a kind of WASPish Woody, would have killed to have been a staff writer, as Allen and Brooks were, for Caesar, whose stable included Neil Simon, Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart. “By the time I got to New York, damnit, Show of Shows was no longer,” Cavett says. He expresses similar regret to Brooks on the special: “God, I wish I’d been in the room with those guys.” When Cavett tells Mel he imagines those writing sessions as times when “countless gems were flying around the room,” Brooks deflates him with, “They could be counted. A lot of bulls*** flew across the room.”

Brooks played a wild, 2,500-year-old brewmeister to Cavett’s deadpan reporter in Ballantine Beer radio spots that Cavett says showcased Brooks’ “God-given, outrageous, eccentric comic talent.” The crazy Jew and placid Gentile played off each other well. During the special, Brooks ribs the host for being “spectacularly Gentile. You should be in a wax museum as THE Gentile.”

Cavett says there are enough star segments from his old show for more DVD-TCM revivals. His interviews with jazz greats will be on a forthcoming DVD. Still mourning the July death of his wife of 40 years, actress Carrie Nye, Cavett busies himself as much as he can. There’s still that letter to get out and so he excuses himself with his trademark, “I’ll be seeing ya.” We’ll be seeing you, too, Dick.

Check tunerclassicmovies.com for Cavett on TCM.

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