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‘Mad Men’ writer among Hollywood heavy hitters helping University of Michigan program grow


ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The history between Hollywood and the University of Michigan goes back decades.

For example, there are 1955 alumnus and Darth Vader voiced James Earl Jones and the 1983 film “The Big Chill,” in which all the protagonists graduated from UM together.

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Today, Ann Arbor’s ties to Hollywood remain strong in the university’s film and television production department. From fellowship grants from Columbia Television’s founders to visiting professors who helped create “Mad Men,” the department’s members are industry heavyweights.

Since the 2020-21 academic year, the Department of Film, Television, and Media, which is part of the College of Letters, Sciences, and Arts, has been partially funded by the John H. and Patricia W. Mitchell Scholarship. The scholarship is named after the Columbia Pictures founder and his wife.

UM alumna Mitchell died in 1988, but his estate donated a total of $60 million to media production programs at UM, USC and UCLA. Yeidy Rivero, head of the UM department, said the money was used to support media careers for students from lower-middle-class backgrounds.

“We want to attract students who wouldn’t normally consider studying film or media because maybe they think it’s too expensive,” she said.

Students need a lot of money to gain access to educational opportunities in New York and Los Angeles, Rivero said, so scholarships can help those without financial means. The program can support up to seven students in a cohort, she said.

To connect these students with the entertainment industry, the department attracts the talent of key players, such as award-winning “Mad Men” writer and producer Janet Leahy. Last school year, she served as a visiting professor.

“I think it’s important to have people who really know people who are very successful in this industry,” Rivero said, noting that Leahy has shown sensitivity to issues of diversity and inclusion in her work, which has implications for students is crucial.

Leahy, who also won an Emmy for her work on “Boston Legal” and “Cheers,” worked with UM professor Jim Burnstein to teach students the fundamentals of screenwriting and programming. Bernstein’s film credits include the 1994 comedy “Renaissance Man” and the third “Big Duck” film.

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“The original class was that we were going to market an original show, so students would work on creating an outline, a beat sheet, a first draft and a second draft,” Leahy said.

“I was able to plug in all kinds of lessons. How to work in a writer’s room, how to market right, dos and don’ts of working in business, how to get your first breakthrough in business, and how to turn that breakthrough into more.”

The web is an important part of business, so UM’s project is an interesting way to help the next generation of creatives get their feet wet, Leahy said.

“UM provides access because a lot of people (in Hollywood) work at UM,” she said, pointing to United Talent Artists board member Peter Benedek and others. “There are a lot of opportunities to meet people, and that’s exactly what you need. You need that kind of foot that gets in the door.”

Beyond the specifics of the course, Leahy appreciates communicating to students that success is more about expressing yourself fully than spelling every word in a script correctly or always having the best grammar.

“What has to happen is you need to have an incredible thirst for knowledge and an incredible curiosity, and you need to find out the truth about how people really feel and what’s really happening,” she said.

A third cohort of students in the program will be assisted by visiting professor Nancy Savoca, perhaps best known for the 1996 Demi Moore play “If These Walls Could Talk.” Rivero said that if Leahy helped students master the world of television, Savoca would help them enter the world of film, given her decades of experience in independent film.

“She was one of the pioneers of independent female film in America,” Rivero said. “Her films often focus on gender and identity, human rights, immigration and family relations.”

The development of this program is exciting for Rivero, who has his eyes on future student internships in Los Angeles and New York.

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