How many degrees of separation between VDO & The Vault?

Music ‘Your Number Or Your Name’ by The Knack

I know a lot of people have thought about their possible connections to famous people whom they don’t know because of the movie ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ or the online goofiness that is ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’. The premise of these is that every person is no more than six persons removed from every other person.

I can trace myself to one degree of separation to VDO through a handful of journalists I know who have interviewed VDO, through over a dozen crew people I have dealt with who have worked with VDO, and through email exchanges with 4 of VDO’s directors (Jacob Burkhardt, Leonard Schrader, Alex Cox and Robert Greenwald).

There is a slightly more interesting way to connect myself to VDO but that involves two degrees of separation.

I am a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. I went there as an undergraduate from 1987-1991. CMU was a very small school then with maybe a couple of thousand undergraduates and even fewer grad students. It was entirely possible to meet really interesting people just walking across campus and it was never difficult to bump into someone who had already written and sold a novel, had won awards at the Westinghouse Science Fair Competition, was a grand master at chess — you get the idea. I was probably something of an underachiever when compared against my classmates there, but I loved every minute of being there, and I am still as close as I can be to a lot of people I met there.

One person whose name you might recognize who also went to CMU for a very brief period of time is Ethan Hawke. He started CMU in 1988 and lived on the 7th floor of the E tower of the dormitory known as Morewood Gardens (I had my best friend look up his old address — that year I lived on the 7th floor of C Tower in the same dorm building and my best friend lived on the 7th floor of B Tower, just right down the hall and through a set of fire doors. Where Ethan lived was something of a hole (and a somewhat rowdy floor) compared to where I was living but then that’s because I was a sophomore and Ethan was a freshman, so Ethan was assigned to less than the poshest room.

I never met Ethan (at least I don’t remember meeting him and neither does my best friend) although it’s entirely possible we unwittingly rode together in the same elevator (I had friends living on 7E and on the floor just below Ethan’s, 6E) or passed by each other in the Morewood Cafeteria or something like that. But I’m sure someone in my circle of acquaintances met Ethan at least once — I put the word out for my friends to get their hands on a CMU book called The Word (which has all the freshman pictures in it for a given class) for the year 1988 — when one materializes, I’ll get someone to email me the pic and post it ;)

Depending on whose accounts you believe, Ethan stopped being a ‘dramat’ as we called them back in those days and left CMU never to return possibly on his very first day of classes to as much as five months after enrolling.

CMU’s drama program is an outstanding one. Back in the day the musical ‘Pippin’ was written by an *undergrad* dramat and was debuted there before going to Broadway. CMU also educated Jack Klugman, Albert Brooks, George Peppard, Holly Hunter and Ted Danson. While I was there, aspiring dramats were crowding the TV rooms of the dorms to watch ‘L.A. Law’ – the show’s creator Steven Bochco and about half of its cast were all graduates of the drama program of the College of Fine Arts (CFA) of CMU.

At the time, there was much discussion of Blair Underwood and how he had interrupted his education at CFA to go star on ‘L.A. Law’. The CFA was extremely strict with undergraduate students and did as much as they could to discourage them from accepting professional work before they graduated the four year program. Blair did return to CMU while I was there and got his degree, but I understand CFA grudgingly counted a lot of his work on ‘L.A. Law’ as sort of an independent studies project and that got Underwood a lot of the required units (what other colleges and universities call credits, CMU called units) he needed to graduate.

The other tough thing about CFA was that it had a reputation for cutting students from its programs every semester, especially the Drama department. Dramats (and other fine arts majors for that matter) endured a kind of educational boot camp the likes of which few other schools could match, and most of those schools were the other colleges of CMU! While we geek types (I was a biological sciences major and most of my closest friends were engineering and computer science majors) would whine about how much work we had to do (and I won’t gloss over tough problem sets and exams and the rigors of having to take a lot of advanced physics and math, etc) at least we knew that if we were academically average for CMU, we’d be back the next semester studying in the same program. And generally we slept in our dorm rooms — dramats tended to crash in their assigned studio workspaces!

The CFA folks who were cut were allowed to transfer into a different major at CMU (of the ones who stayed, most chose a humanities program like English, psychology, or economics, but there were a brave few who changed over to the sciences or industrial management, CMU’s unique approach to an undergraduate business degree). But I know it was hard for them whether they left or whether they stayed in a second choice program.

I think in a way Ethan got lucky to be offered ‘Dead Poets Society’. It was a film that had a great star attached to it (Robin Williams before anyone knew Robin could do serious dramas) and a wonderful director (Peter Weir also directed ‘Witness’). Whether Ethan was doing well in the CFA program or not, whether he may have done anything there that would make the faculty want to cut him is now immaterial. But even if Ethan was their best student, the school was wedded to the ‘no professional jobs for undergrads’ policy and having made an example out of Blair Underwood, it would have been hard for Ethan to have come back and graduated from CMU, especially on the success of just one film (Blair didn’t come back to CMU until he had a few seasons of ‘L.A. Law’ under his belt).

So why am I going on about Ethan? Because in a recent interview with VDO that appears in Newsweek

VDO has the following exchange with interviewer Ramin Setoodeh:

RS: Do you have celebrity friends?
VDO: I have a couple of friends. Ethan Hawke is a very good friend of mine. There are friends that I see every once in a while from back in the day—every once in a while, if I go to Hollywood—but they’re not my best friends.

I vaguely remember sometime soon after ‘Dead Poets Society’ was released on home video, my friends and I gathered together for one of our numerous marathon Chinese food & movie fests (it was my turn to provide the VCR & TV) in the lounge just outside my dorm room (I hung onto my little piece of dormitory shangri-la for my last 3 years at CMU). I do remember someone remarking of Ethan ‘you know, he used to go here’ and I think I sort of nodded but didn’t think too much of that bit of trivia. But then again I hadn’t really noticed VDO although by then I had seen him in ‘Adventures In Babysitting’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket’.

Now I am blown away by how small the world really is. And I’m psyched to learn VDO is so tight with someone who has the kind of personality (i.e. not quite mainstream, creative, and driven) that would try to tackle being at CMU. Carnegie Mellon marks you for life, even if you don’t do the whole four years there, and the interesting thing about having gone there, is that far more likely than not you were inclined to get along with people whose only common ground with you was that they had been there too. I never understood why I thought Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks were so appealing to me until I learned of their CMU connections.

I’m pretty sure had I known Ethan, he would have been interesting to talk to. And I strongly suspect that VDO would have fit right in with my CMU friends (although virtually none of them studied drama).

P.S. My best friend tells me Albert Brooks new movie is genuinely funny — I’m looking forward to it. We both loved and hated his film ‘Mother’ because we both had lived through some similar experiences with our own mothers.


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