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Badgerwood: Video series features UW-Madison alumni in Hollywood

February 16, 2015

The stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame are red for a reason: University of Wisconsin–Madison alumni are all over Tinseltown.

Some of the most accomplished names in moviemaking and television are Badgers, along with many of the industry’s fastest risers. Seven of them recently sat down to talk about their paths from Madison to Los Angeles — and to reminisce about how their time on campus has influenced their careers on set.

Finding his true calling: Phil Johnston

After graduating in 1994 with a degree in journalism, Phil Johnston moved to Minneapolis to work as a television news reporter. However, the Neenah, Wisconsin, native soon realized he hadn’t gone far enough west. After recalling his experiences in a film study course with David Bordwell, a now emeritus professor of communication arts, Johnston realized his true calling was in writing and directing movies. He went back to school to study filmmaking and spent a few years working on scripts before getting his first major break with “Cedar Rapids,” a movie starring John C. Reilly, Ed Helms and Anne Heche.

Johnston went on to develop Disney’s animated blockbuster “Wreck-It Ralph,” which garnered more than $470 million worldwide and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2013. Johnston is now a sought-after “script doctor.” He contributed to the Oscar-nominated “Nebraska,” and his many upcoming projects include the spy spoof “Grimsby,” co-written with Sacha Baron Cohen, and an adaptation of “Confederacy of Dunces” with producer Scott Rudin.

The ‘fast-rising’ star: Richard Schwartz

Dubbed by The Hollywood Reporter as one of the industry’s “fastest-rising stars,” Richard Schwartz is based on the Sony Pictures lot as head of television for Olive Bridge Entertainment. He’s produced several groundbreaking sitcoms, including the “Michael J. Fox Show.” Most recently, Schwartz has worked as the executive producer for CBS’s “The McCarthys” and “Moonbeam City,” an upcoming Adult Swim animated series starring Rob Lowe and Elizabeth Banks. He was also involved with “Eagleheart” and “Outlaw” and spent five years as the vice president of creative affairs for Conan O’Brien’s Conaco Productions. Schwartz graduated from UW–Madison in 1998 with a degree in history and political science, and he says his well-rounded education and ability to “sift and winnow” has helped him advance his career in Hollywood.

Getting ‘Lost’ in Los Angeles: Eddy Kitsis and Adam Horowitz

Writers and producers Eddy Kitsis and Adam Horowitz met as undergraduate students in Communication Arts 350: Introduction to Film. They both graduated in 1993 and moved to Los Angeles, where they’ve been working on hit television shows and movies ever since. Their credits include “Felicity” and “Popular,” and they spent several years writing and producing episodes for ABC’s mega-hit “Lost.” They also wrote the blockbuster movie “TRON: Legacy,” released in 2010. Most recently, Kitsis and Horowitz created and now produce ABC’s “Once Upon a Time.”

Looking through an original lens: Jill Soloway

Award-winning writer, producer and director Jill Soloway began her television career on “The Oblongs,” “Nikki” and “The Steve Harvey Show.” She then wrote four seasons of HBO’s “Six Feet Under” and become an executive producer and showrunner for Showtime’s “United States of Tara” and HBO’s “How to Make it in America.” She’s also written for “Dirty Sexy Money,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Tell Me You Love Me.” She wrote and directed two films that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival: “Una Hora Por Favora” and “Afternoon Delight,” which was nominated for multiple awards. Most recently, Soloway created the pilot for Amazon’s critically acclaimed “Transparent,” which became available online earlier this month.

Soloway credits communication arts Professor J.J. Murphy and others in the Department of Communication Arts for sparking her interest in becoming a filmmaker. And she says her time in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies has greatly influenced her artistic voice. Soloway is a strong supporter of feminism and has co-founded the website, as well as the East Side Jews collective. She’s also written a novella and a memoir.

From the Badger Family to “Modern Family”: Steve Levitan

Emmy-winning Steven Levitan is the creator, director, writer and producer of several television comedies, including “Modern Family,” “Just Shoot Me!,” “Stark Raving Mad,” “Stacked” and “Back to You.” He’s also worked as a writer, producer and director for “Wings,” “Frasier” and “The Larry Sanders Show.”

As a journalism student at UW–Madison, Levitan was active in the Integrated Liberal Studies program and with Wisconsin Public Radio before graduating in 1984. He credits the university with helping him learn the skills and work ethic needed to succeed in Hollywood, and he says the many opportunities on campus helped him hone in on the interests that would eventually become his career. He moved to Los Angeles in 1989 after working briefly as a television news reporter in Madison and as an advertising copywriter in Chicago.

A legacy of more than 100 films: Walter Mirisch

Walter Mirisch is the producer, in whole or in part, of more than 100 films. His work has led to 87 Academy Award nominations and 28 Oscars, including three for best picture: “The Apartment” (1960), “West Side Story” (1961) and “In the Heat of the Night” (1967). Mirisch served three terms as president of the Producers Guild of America and four terms as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

UW-Madison has presented Mirisch, who graduated in 1942, with an honorary doctorate in humane letters. He has also received two honorary Academy Awards, including the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, along with the Cecil B. DeMille Award, presented by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and the David O. Selznick Lifetime Achievement Award in Theatrical Motion Pictures, presented by the Producers Guild of America. Additionally, the Republic of France has decorated him with the Order of Arts and Letters.

—Justin Bomberg