Feature: Spartans in Hollywood Home » Magazine » Archives » Spring 1999 » Article
Published: Spring 1999
A remarkable number of Spartans have had a major impact in film, which has emerged as this century's leading art form.
Once upon a time, creative young adults enrolled at Michigan State University might have aspired to write the next The Great Gatsby. But these days, because of the centrality of film in American life, many aspire to direct the next Citizen Kane. Since World War II, in all phases, from producing to directing to performing, many MSU alumni have contributed in a brilliant way to the development of the American cinema, arguably the most important artistic medium of the Twentieth Century. And the list of Spartan achievements in Hollywood is growing every year, signaling that MSU ranks with some of the nation's elite film universities--like USC, UCLA, Columbia or Northwestern--in the education of future Hollywood filmmakers.
One reason MSU has nurtured so many film people derives from the special mystique of its campus, a visually striking arboretum that inspires all who live and work in this unique setting. Spartans in Hollywood also have benefited from some unique courses offered by a variety of MSU faculty, including a wide range of film studies courses in recent years. Furthermore, the MSU campus has served as a meeting place for 'kindred spirits' interested in film studies and film production, sometimes in clubs. And, after such folk have left campus, they have maintained their ties with the university.
One major player in postwar Hollywood was Frank Price (Winter 1987, p. 10), '51, who rose to head two of the nation's largest studios. After a stint as a television writer, Frank joined Universal Television in 1959; he went on to produce popular dramas and helped pioneer the telefilm and the miniseries. Price became chairman of Columbia Pictures from 1978-83 and later president of Universal Pictures. Frank nurtured such celebrated features as Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Tootsie (1982), The Big Chill (1983), Out of Africa (1985) and Back to the Future (1985). Frank now chairs the Board of Councilors of the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television.
Walter Hill (Fall 1998, p. 14), '62, ranks as one of Hollywood's most important filmmakers, having produced, directed and written dozens of films. His most famous efforts include The Long Riders (1980), 48 Hours (1982), Extreme Prejudice (1987), and, more recently, Last Man Standing (1996). From his own scripts, he has directed such action thrillers as Southern Comfort (1981) and Streets of Fire (1984). No other contemporary artist has had a greater impact on the popular genre of the action-adventure film.
Actor James Caan (Winter 1998, p. 11), who came to MSU in 1956 to study economics and play football, went on to become one of Hollywood's most critically acclaimed performers of the 1970's and 1980's. Caan began his career on the Broadway stage and in television productions before landing his first film role in Lady in a Cage (1964). He received an Emmy Award nomination for the leading role in Brian's Song (1970) and an Oscar nomination for his legendary performance as Sonny in The Godfather (1972). James has appeared in such celebrated films as Cinderella Liberty (1973), Rollerball (1975), Chapter Two (1979), Thief (1981) and Misery (1990). James took part in MSU's Homecoming parade in 1997. He currently stars as the hard-boiled P.I., Marlowe, in HBO's Poodle Springs.
Other key Spartans in Hollywood from these years include producer Ed Feldman (Winter 1989, p. 12), '50, who became a top executive at Warner Brothers and later head of film production for Filmways. Among his credits are Save the Tiger (1973) and Witness (1985). Voice actor Dick Beals (Fall 1984, p. 10), '49, best known as the voice of Speedy Alka Seltzer, has appeared in film and radio drama. Beals credits his introduction to radio broadcasting on campus with initiating his career. A deeply involved alumnus, Dick returns to campus often, sometimes regaling students with his stories of Hollywood lore. Joyce Ramsay, MSU associate professor of theatre, attended MSU from 1949-50, moved on to the acting school at Pasadena Playhouse, and later appeared in several Hollywood productions, including Serpent of the Nile (1953). Returning to MSU in 1979, Joyce remains one of the few college professors who was trained as a Hollywood actress! Charles Cioffi, '57, M.A. '63, has had a brilliant career as a supporting actor, appearing in such classics as Klute (1971) and Missing (1982), among many others. Charles Engel (Spring 1989, p. 10), '61, son of legendary director Sam Engel, developed many hits at Universal Television such as It Takes A Thief, and the ABC Mystery Movie, and the new Leave It To Beaver.
Some noted MSU novelists also made a substantial impact in Hollywood. Tom McGuane (Winter 1990, p. 10), '62, has written screenplays for such films as Rancho Deluxe (1975) and Missouri Breaks (1976); he also directed 92 In The Shade (1975). Jim Harrison (Winter 1999, p. 11), '60, M.A. '64, wrote the novel on which Legend of the Fall was based; he co-scripted Cold Feet (1989, with McGuane), Revenge (1990) and Wolf (1994).
As important as this first postwar generation was, the next generation of Spartans in Hollywood, those who first enrolled in the 1960's and 1970's, solidified an enduring MSU presence in the theatrical film industry. For instance, two of Hollywood's most accomplished screenwriters, Jim Cash (Fall 1986, p. 8), '70, M.A. '72, and Jack Epps, Jr. (Fall 1990, p. 12), '72, first met at MSU in the early 1970's--indeed, Epps had begged his way into Cash's screenwriting class--and have since teamed up to write screenplays for some of the top hits of the 1980s and 1990s, including Top Gun (1986), Legal Eagles (1986), The Secret of My Success (1987), Dick Tracy (1989) and, more recently, Anaconda (1997). This duo symbolizes the MSU/Hollywood connection both physically and creatively. Jim still resides in East Lansing, while Jack lives in the Los Angeles area. Remarkably, Jim has managed to continue his instructional career on campus, where he has offered popular courses in the history of film and screenwriting.
Another celebrated Spartan team who first came together at MSU in the 1970's is director/producer/actor Sam Raimi (Winter 1991, p. 13) and the actor/producer Rob Tapert (Winter 1998, p. 13), '78. Essential to their creative enterprise was their favorite Professor, William Vincent, who has since become a close friend and even appeared in some of their films. Raimi--whose brothers Ivan and Ted also attended Michigan State--and Tapert first ventured into filmmaking with their cult horror yarn Evil Dead (1982); the Raimi/Tapert team subsequently fashioned two sequels, Evil Dead II (1989) and The Army of Darkness (1993). As a director, Raimi's first mainstream Hollywood feature was the horror thriller Darkman, which became the sleeper hit of the summer of 1990. In this film, Raimi demonstrated his command of some dazzling and, at times, humorous imagery drawn from his love of comic book art. In the early 1990s, Sam and Rob made a winning return visit to campus--to screen Darkman and to visit with students. Raimi would later direct the cult Western The Quick and the Dead (1995). Raimi's latest venture is Paramount's A Simple Plan (1998), which has opened to rave reviews.
Ivan and Ted Raimi have been involved in the film industry. Rob made headlines last March when he married New Zealand actress Lucy Lawless, star of Xena, a TV drama produced by both Rob and Sam. Bill Mechanic (Spring 1998, p. 12), '73, has emerged as one of Hollywood's most powerful executives. The CEO of Fox Film Entertainment, otherwise known as Twentieth Century-Fox, made the Top Ten of recent 'power' lists in Premiere and Entertainment Weekly.