A Happy Return to Happy Valley
Prolific Hollywood producer Gerry Abrams is back in State College to be honored at the Centre Film Festival.
If Gerry Abrams had had things his way, he never would have left State College—a town he’d grown to love dearly during his time as a Penn State student and where, it seemed to him at the time, life was perfect. But Abrams ’61 Com, a 1986 Distinguished Alumnus, did leave—unbeknownst to him at the time to embark on a prolific career as a producer of acclaimed and award-winning television series and movies.
The Emmy award winner is back in State College for the annual Centre Film Festival to accept its lifetime achievement award—an honor, he says, that is all the more meaningful because he’ll be joined by his children: his daughter, screenwriter Tracy Rosen, and his son, filmmaker J.J. Abrams, both of whom are acclaimed in their own right.
Now in its fifth year, the Centre Film Festival is the brainchild of Bellisario College of Communications professors Pearl Gluck and her colleague, the late Kurt Chandler. The festival, which runs from Oct. 30 through Nov. 5 at the State Theatre and at the Rowland Theatre in Philipsburg, Pa., showcases local films with global impact, and global films with local impact. This year’s highlights include an inaugural Indigenous Peoples Heritage Month track.
We spoke to Abrams by phone ahead of the festival.
Q: You began your career in television advertising sales. How did you make the leap from there to producing for TV?
ABRAMS: In the early 1970s, I was working for CBS in New York, and I was transferred to L.A. to head West Coast sales for the network. My wife, Carol Ann Kelvin ’63 Lib, got us a house in a very eclectic neighborhood filled with composers, directors, producers, and actors. One day, I asked one of these guys—whose wife was also called Carol—if I ever left CBS, would he let me apprentice with him. And he said he would.
Q: Was he a producer?
ABRAMS: Yes, he was a hugely successful guy working for Barry Diller. I asked him where the idea for movies come from. He said from plays, from news articles, or from your own imagination. The next morning, I was at his desk with four ideas. He called the head of ABC movies, Jim Green. We went over to see him, and I pitched him my four ideas. He bought two. The next week, we went to see the head of CBS and he bought the other two.
Q: And the rest is history. What were the ideas?
ABRAMS: One was an idea about something big in the news, a Lithuanian seaman who’d jumped ship. The Russians wanted to take him back and we decided to write a screenplay for it. The movie, The Defection of Simas Kudirka, won two Emmys.
Q: Growing up, did you know that you wanted to work in television?
ABRAMS: I watched a lot of TV when I was a kid. My favorite show was Peter Gunn starring Craig Stevens. Henry Mancini did the music for it. I loved that show. But when I was growing up, I had zero idea about what I wanted to do. The only thing I did know is when I got to Penn State, I wanted to stay forever in State College.
Q: Why’s that?
ABRAMS: No one there got divorced, no one died—which is why it’s such a happy valley. But I guess in your 20s, no one does divorce or die.
Q: Well, you didn’t stay.
ABRAMS: No, I didn’t stay because I met a lovely young woman who I fell in love with, and we got married. Carol was from New York and didn’t want to live in State College. I thought if I go with her to New York, where her family lived, if things didn’t work out, we could always come back to State College. So I went with her and got a job there.
Q: Did you enjoy working in TV sales?
ABRAMS: I loved it. It was the Mad Men era and I felt like I was going to Harvard Business School for free.
Q: Did you start scoping out production possibilities at the time?
ABRAMS: I had no idea at the time how I would go to the broadcast side of things. I happened to be at the right place in the right time with the right moments. I tell you, if I were starting in TV now, I would starve.
Q: Why’s that?
ABRAMS: Everything is different now. When I was making movies there were three networks; now, there are 3,000.
Q: That makes things more challenging?
ABRAMS: I think it always has been challenging. Now, it’s a different kind of challenging in that there are new buyers, new networks, new outlets, new rules.
Q: Did any Penn State courses or professors inspire you to become a producer?
ABRAMS: The class I really loved was salesmanship, which was taught by Mickey Bergstein, the general manager of WMAJ radio and the voice of Penn State football. He and I remained the best of friends.
Q: It seems like your Jewish heritage, the impact of WWII and the ensuing Cold War, have played an important role in the selection of films and series that you’ve produced.
ABRAMS: All those things happened in my generation, so they clearly influenced me. Have you seen Oppenheimer? It’s an important film—it’s the kind of film I would have made.
Q: The Film Festival showcases movies made by local filmmakers. You’re a Pennsylvania native—what’s your view on encouraging local filmmakers to tell stories about their surroundings?
ABRAMS: It used to be that in order to make a film, you needed professional equipment, especially professional editing equipment. Now, with technology being ubiquitous, anyone can make a movie. You don’t need anyone’s advice—I say just go make your movie.
Q: Many of us have only a vague understanding of what the term “producer” means in the television world. Can you explain it to us in the context of your career?
ABRAMS: Let’s say you wanted to build a house: you first have to buy a property, so that could be buying film rights to a play, or buying rights to an article, or coming up with an idea. Then, you have to have an architect, which is the screenplay writers. Once the house design has been submitted, you hire a contractor, which is a director, and from there you hire a carpenter, a plumber, etc. For a film, you put together a crew. In the end, it’s your “house,” and you are responsible for paying the crew, for how it will look and so on.
Q: How involved is a producer once the movie is ready to roll?
ABRAMS: I usually go in for pre-production, when the cameras are being set up. I am there for two or three days of shooting and then it’s in the hands of the technicians.
Q: How about your involvement with the actors?
ABRAMS: If you’re a real producer, you’re there for the auditions—and not just for the headline stars.
Q: You’ve worked with some major stars over the years. Any favorites among them?
ABRAMS: I liked Denzel Washington and Christopher Plummer. I respected Michael Caine.
Q: Tell us about your son, J.J. Abrams, and your daughter, Tracy Rosen, both of whom are hugely successful in their own right. Have you worked on anything with them?
ABRAMS: I’ve never worked with my son, but I’ve produced three movies with Tracy, who wrote them for the Hallmark Channel. I knew J.J. was attracted to this arena, but I never knew he’d be this successful, and he just wants me to be his father. I have five grandchildren. One of my granddaughters, Gracie Abrams, is the opening act for Taylor Swift.
Q: Are you working on anything at the moment?
ABRAMS: Nope, I’m happily retired, living between L.A. and Santa Barbara. I travel—I recently went to Paris with some friends; we then flew to Istanbul and to the Turkish isles and the Greek isles, ending up in Athens.
Q: Are there any memories from your time at Penn State that you can share with us?
ABRAMS: I was a sports announcer for WMAJ and a disc jockey on the radio. I had a show after every football game and the assistant coach would come down after the games and be on the show with me. His name was Joe Paterno.
For more information on the Centre Film Festival, go to centrefilm.org.