In 1986, I had transferred to SC from a small college back east, primarily to study writing and filmmaking though I actually ended up with a BA in psychology. When there was an overload of transfer students that fall, the SC housing department rented dozens of rooms at the newly built Promenade Towers at 1st and Figueroa, so, without a car, I rode the 81 bus south towards campus that whole first year. Since there were naturally many female transfer students at the time, the housing people set up a shuttle service going back to the Promenade at night. Living in a luxury high rise, we were surely the most spoiled amongst the Spoiled Children at the school, and we knew it, but it was loads of fun.
Shortly after registering as a legitimate SC student, I waited on the “fourth line” for the Thursday night Cinema 466 class to hear a former SC student filmmaker speak. My growing group of film-friendly friends had recently heard about him and it was a must-see. The crowd was even greater on this night than the one at another evening that fall at which a legitimate Vietnam veteran presented his epic film about the Vietnam War (that director would be Oliver Stone). This other guy had recently graduated from the film school and was hired by Steven Spielberg, largely on the basis of his CNTV 480 film, a sound-synced drama that he called “Last Chance Dance.” While waiting on this fourth “everyone else” line – the first three lines being set aside for people enrolled in the class, cinema students, and cinema faculty – I met another young aspiring filmmaker, though he proudly stated that he was already a director. That student’s name was Bryan Singer. We sat together in awe that this recent grad was able to make a polished technically perfect and ideally cast feature film entitled “Three O’Clock High.” As this director spoke after screening this feature at the Norris Cinema Theater, we hung on his every word as he described being hired to direct episodes of Spielberg’s new TV series, “Amazing Stories.” This young man was our model: we were all going to ascend just as surely as this articulate poised bohemian person had just after his SC days ended. Of course, this director, Phil Joanou, famously went on to direct the U2 concert film “Rattle and Hum” and many additional features in Hollywood thereafter.
While I gravitated towards writing, comedy, and science-fiction, Singer clearly wanted to be an edgy director of cutting material. Years later, when I was back on campus hunting for part-time jobs, I ran into Singer who was eagerly planning a feature film; he was as driven as anyone I knew at the time. Thus, it wasn’t surprising when I saw his posed face on the cover of the LA Times Calendar section five years onward from our last meeting-the buzz was already abounding over his second feature film, “The Usual Suspects.” That film went onto win Oscars for Best Original Screenplay (Chris McQuarrie) and Best Supporting Actor (Kevin Spacey), and Singer’s directing career in Hollywood has been cemented ever since.
Along with spending nights at screenings and taking adult education film classes offered at the school, one notably by Phil Frank Messina who had written Brainstorm, I checked out everything else I could on campus taking place that year. We had some of the best on-campus comedy shows at that time, right up there with the shows at the Comedy Store and Laugh Factory up the street in Hollywood. Many of these were hosted by a young student comic who I recognized from back east. As I hailed from Long Island, New York and was a lifelong student of comedy, in the mid-1980s, I had frequented a comedy club in the NYC suburb of Levittown called Governor’s, and I clearly remembered this young comedian from several opening slots at that club. Later, I learned that this “back east” coincidence made sense as the man was from Syosset while I was from nearby Plainview. At USC, this effortlessly funny man organized and hosted the comedy shows, often performing in the warmup spot himself. He was wholly approachable, very personable, and quite easy to befriend. According to this person, the best working comedian of the 80s (a very rich period for standup comedy) was Charles Fleischer, who most famously created the voice of Roger Rabbit in the 1988 feature film directed by SC alumnus Robert Zemeckis. Indeed, Fleischer was a marvel onstage at SC, doing a mixture of physical comedy, vocal impersonations, jokes, songs, and assorted visual shtick. Of course, the young man who arranged these shows was Judd Apatow. He had some great personal material, riffing on reading an instruction manual for how to have sex. It went along the lines of “insert A into B and then rapidly repeat A-B, A-B, A-B.” I had the occasion to talk with Apatow at many of these shows. I distinctly remember him noting me as the guy who “comes to every comedy show” and talking about comics with him. Apatow proudly told me that he had three comic favorites: Robert Klein, David Steinberg, and a third which I will keep to myself for now.
Towards the end of my senior year, in spring of 1988, Apatow produced another of these SC comedy shows, only this time, he opened it up as a student comedy competition with a nationwide sponsor. Getting up the gumption, I sat at Dedeaux Field watching the USC baseball games and created tons of material, not writing anything down but instead going over it repeatedly in my head. This was challenging not only in having to remember 15 minutes of ongoing monologue (really, one minute is already challenging), but also because the baseball team was so good, they were a distraction. Among the players were future major leaguers: centerfielder Damon Buford (son of one of the coaches, Don Buford, himself an accomplished ex-big leaguer), third baseman Rodney Peete (also quarterback of the football team), second baseman Brett Boone (of the famous Boones), and shortstop Brett Barberie. You could run into these guys out and about, around the SC campus. I once met Peete getting ice cream at University Village and did my laundry with Jim Campanis, a great hitting catcher who had ties to the Dodgers but somehow never made it to the big leagues. As an aside, Peete saved our senior season at the USC-UCLA football game at the LA Coliseum that year in an odd way – he threw an interception at the end of the first half which a defensive back caught with only air between him and the SC end zone; just after the gun sounded ending the half, Peete, running full speed, caught the guy deep in SC territory, preserving what would be a 17-13 victory. For any who don’t know, Peete played for years in the NFL, as a starter in Detroit and Philadelphia, and ironically, in Dallas, backing up his adversary from that UCLA game in November 1987 – Troy Aikman.
When I finally performed standup comedy at Café 84, my act mostly consisted of on-campus observations and examining strange advertisements in the Daily Trojan. One such ad was “Sperm Donor Needed.” I wondered aloud who answered that ad and how it all worked. I actually got a lot of laughs, many of which were unexpected! One audience member that night was ongoing friend Mark Christopher Lawrence who had a lengthy acting career, appearing as an orderly in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and starring in a popular 1990s beer commercial shot at the Coliseum. Hosting the whole show that night was professional comic Steve Heitner who informed me that he liked my writing and delivery even though I stayed onstage too long. I was a bit upset since the most well-received student comic that night stole his centerpiece bit from professional comedian Scott La Rose; the sequence was a silent physical imitation of a porn film on fast forward. Alas, the experience was huge in that I went over well, and also that the writing worked. And again, I was not in the least surprised when some eight years later, I saw Apatow’s name as a writer on the comedy film Celtic Pride. Surely, the massive explosion of success which awaited Apatow was impossible to predict, but one could see the seeds of what became today’s Judd Apatow way back in the garish guilty pleasure that was the decade of the 80s.
In what I like to call an independent study, I took every film class at SC I was allowed to take as a non-major. I found my way into Paul Lucey’s screenwriting class and was taken somewhat under his wing. A no-nonsense teacher who was quick to call you out if he sensed ingenuous tendencies, Lucey taught me to analyze film, to pick out what works and why, and to look at writing in a logically scientific as well as artistic manner. Later, I would discover, he mentored another young writing student “from the neighborhood,” who would go on to write and direct a story about that same neighborhood called Boyz in the Hood. That writer, John Singleton, has had a rich career in Hollywood for over 20 years since. I took classes with another Promenade Towers transfer non-major named David Bertman who would later be accepted into the CNTV program and make a deep and wide mark in the industry as an editor; he was largely responsible for assembling numerous episodes of the hit TV series The Gilmour Girls and continues to work regularly. Another young man and friend in the program, John Axelrad, had come from Chicago to study film and is now a prominent film and TV editor with projects such as the films Crazy Heart and The Switch.
One of the best film classes which we non-majors could take was the Wednesday night camera class taught by an aspiring cinematographer. This genteel knowledgeable craftsperson had our ultimate respect with his calm manner and realistic take on penetrating the thick veil of Hollywood. He taught us about lenses, light, cameras, film, framing, and all manner of technical and aesthetic elements of cinema. He even took the entire class to what were then the main offices of Panavision in Tarzana, but I had caught the chicken pox and missed all of my classes for two weeks. Not only did I miss that field trip, but I also missed a key directing class (which was astonishingly open to non-majors) by Edward Dmytryk, who was a guest professor and had made huge pictures in Hollywood in the 1950s and 1960s, including The Caine Mutiny and Mirage. When I made it back to camera class, in the days before Internet and laptops, I felt like I had missed a huge chunk of life experience. My only hope was that my good friend and aspiring writer-director Kyle Tucker from Albuquerque would have taken good notes. In what may be shocking news now, the astute camera teacher imparting his immense reserves of information to us was none other than Jay Roach, future director of the Austin Powers and Fockers films among many others. I recall him telling us that you basically “have to beg” in Hollywood to have them let you direct film, but Jay was living proof that the good guys sometimes win. Many years later, at the grand opening of the Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts, I ran into Roach, who remarkably remembered me and that I was in a class for non-majors.
Obviously, being an SC student isn’t all classes, games and seminars. There is also due hangout time by Tommy Trojan. I got my hours in there as well, usually around lunchtime, again with my slowly building group of friends and acquaintances. One recurring pair of Tommy Trojan friends were both Daily Trojan artists: Dan Povenmire wrote and drew “Life is a Fish” featuring his gently sardonic character Herman, while Gordon Gary drew the more bitingly satirical Yah Dude, which made fun of fraternity members and their female counterparts, amusingly archetypal Southern Californian characters. Both of these guys were pure artistic spirits, so it was again not a shocker when Povenmire’s name came up in the early 1990s on the key crew list of The Simpsons and later at Warner Bros. Animation while Gary, going under his birth name, Gordon Tokumatsu, has long been a prominent on-camera broadcast journalist with KNBC-4 in Los Angeles.
All of these memories are not so eye-opening now that they took place a quarter-century ago; they are more amazing insofar as how many truly talented people were all assembled on campus at once. Not only have my peers gone on to reach incredible heights, they have all made their individual marks in an industry which we all only dreamed about back then. The only question that remains is how much further this remarkable group will continue to progress in the coming future.
Sincere apologies to any USC late 1980s students-staff-faculty members whose names I unknowingly omitted.