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. This part social mixer and part professional seminar allows foiks totout their projects. 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.
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 Intelligence), writer-producer Jon Bokenkamp (The Blacklist), filmmakers Nik Fackler (Lovely, Still) and Dan Mirvish (Between Us), actor Chris Klein (Election).
Nelson and two-time Oscar-winner Payne remain close. They did the Cannes Film Festival together in May for Nebraska's world premiere. Nelson arranged with Paramount, for a Nov. 11 on-the-lot screening at the Sherry Lansing Theatre for an invited NCC and Californians for Nebraska audience. After the screening Nelson led Payne in a Q&A.
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 (Taking Lives) and directing features (Bad Seed, aka Preston Tylk).
"I'm sure there are all kinds of people at NCC who have similar stories," says Bokenkamp.
Nelson confirms there are and he 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."
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."
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 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."
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."
Cinematogrpaher 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 Bokenkamps'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/.
Leo Adam Biga is the author of "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film." Read more of his work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.