By Susie Allen, AB’09

Chicago was really instrumental in forming who I have become.”
—Hal Lieberman
AM’76

The movie business wasn’t panning out the way Hal Lieberman planned.

He had spent eight years eking out a living in Hollywood, first as a production assistant on the Warren Beatty/Elaine May movie Heaven Can Wait, then as a screenwriter. But his screenplays weren’t selling, and Lieberman, AM’76, was worried. “That was the first time I experienced real fear,” he remembers.

In the midst of his anxiety, Lieberman had an epiphany. Although he was struggling with his own writing, his master’s degree in English literature made Lieberman confident he could help fellow screenwriters. “I went to Chicago; I’ve always been strong in critical analysis. There’s no reason why I can’t be good at your material,” he thought.

Lieberman decided to transition from screenwriting to producing, and doors quickly opened. “That was when my journey really began,” he says. Lieberman, the former president of production for Universal Pictures and current head of the Hal Lieberman Company, went on to produce Terminator 3, Vacancy, Around the World in 80 Days, and Bridge to Terabithia.

Back in Chicago during January to give career advice at the Taking the Next Step event, Lieberman told students in the Theater and Performance Studies program, “Chicago was really instrumental in forming who I have become.” That message is common among Chicago’s alumni in the entertainment industry—a diverse group that includes directors, producers, studio executives, screenwriters, and actors.

Many of them say their UChicago background shaped the substance and style of their work, helping them cultivate a level of wit and knowledge that offered an edge in that competitive industry. In Hollywood, as in other arenas, an education in liberal arts and critical thought can yield unexpected rewards.

From My Girl to Chicago, Then Back to Hollywood

Like Lieberman, Anna Chlumsky, AB’02, had doubts about her career. After achieving success as the childhood star of My Girl, Chlumsky struggled to find her footing in the industry as a teenager.

At UChicago, Chlumsky put acting aside to focus on other passions. “I thought I was going to be a history major,” she says. “I tended to like history about other nations and other cultures. And I was fascinated by it. I was fascinated by war and peace and politicking … That was what plunged me into the international studies major.”

By graduation, “I thought I was done with show business,” Chlumsky says. She moved to New York and pursued a career in publishing.

But Chlumsky realized she couldn’t give up on acting. “I [died] every time I saw a Broadway show,” she remembers. “And I had a friend who told me, ‘You know what your problem is? You need to act.’”

She enrolled in acting classes at the famed Atlantic Theatre Company—and found the experience oddly familiar. “Atlantic Theatre Company reminded me so much of the U of C,” she says. “The first week they have you reading the Stoics. It was so up my alley.”

She soon returned to work, making guest appearances on the TV hits “30 Rock” and “Law and Order” before landing a role in the Oscar-nominated 2009 film In the Loop.

UChicago Education Paves Way for Success

Although international studies and English literature may seem unrelated to a Hollywood career, several alums say they have drawn on their University of Chicago experience in their work as writers or performers.

“For a writer, you just have to find some kind of inspiration, whether it’s in a book or a board game,” says screenwriter Chuck Leavitt, AB’76, whose credits include Blood Diamond and The Express.

At a UChicago alumni event in Los Angeles, Leavitt said he relies on strong characters to drive his screenplays. “If there’s some character that I can sink my teeth into or invent, that’s the basis of inspiration for me. I wasn’t the most exemplary student at the University of Chicago, but a little bit of inspiration did rub off on me. What I kept from [Aristotle], in the Poetics, is that from character springs all action.”

Stephen Gilchrist, AB’00, also credits his success with the University’s rigorous academic environment. Gilchrist, currently the director of development at Lin Pictures, has worked on a number of high-profile projects, including The Departed, The Invention of Lying, and Sherlock Holmes.

“I do think that the rigorous nature of the University, the course load, and the atmosphere, prepped me for the amount of time and the hours you need to maintain in the competitive Hollywood environment,” he says.

‘Reckless abandon’

Chlumsky’s role in In the Loop brought back memories of her academic work, giving her added confidence as she tackled the part. In the film, Chlumsky plays a young aide to the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State. “It was about this girl who basically could have been me,” she says. “I had the application to take the Foreign Service Exam. [My character was] the girl who really did that … It gave me the reckless abandon to start spouting anything and everything that came into my head.”

For Lieberman, who wrote his master’s essay on Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the connection between his academic work and career is less direct, but equally important.

“There was no course that made me Mr. Hollywood,” he says. “It was the cumulative sense of reading great writers, of accessing themes and characters, and ideas, and getting them clear in my head, that gave me the desire to do the same thing with screenplays.”

Originally published on March 1, 2010.