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The Buffalo connection: Michael Healy’s star shines in Hollywood

HOLLYWOOD – Michael Healy settled into the C-shaped booth at the Musso and Frank Grill, a wood-paneled, white-tablecloth restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard.

“This is one of the few places where you really, really can feel the history of Hollywood,” he said. He was wearing gray slip-on loafers and an argyle sweater. His slightly beaten metallic gray BMW is parked in back.

He recommended the flannel cakes – imagine thick crepes with strawberries and cream – and “the best martinis in the world.” But he’s having none of that.

To the waiter, a slight, older man with a round face and sparse patch of gray hair, he said, “I’d like the chicken a la king, please.”

Healy set down his menu.

“Not a lot of places serve that anymore,” he said.

Not a lot of places in this palm tree-lined metropolis, at least. That dish is heaping and indulgent, far from the appetizer-sized portions typically served in these parts. L.A. may be the land of showbiz kings, but chicken a la king is far more Buffalo. Though Healy has lived in Southern California for nearly three decades, his Western New York roots remain, and he’s dished them out in ways that will last far longer than this creamy chicken platter.

For 16 years, Healy oversaw the development of original feature films for Disney Channel. That put Healy and his boss, Disney Channel chief executive Gary Marsh, in charge of well-known franchises like “High School Musical” and “Cheetah Girls,” and stand-alone kid classics such as “The Luck of the Irish” and “Twitches.”

Have you had a teen or tween in your life over the last two decades? Has that kid broken into song, or squeals, at the mention of someone like Zac Efron? Has the kid aspired to become a Disney star?

That’s Hollywood a la Healy, coming straight into your home. And the deepest influences that underlie the former journalist’s work, which include the development of more than 100 feature films for Disney Channel before his 2013 departure, are rooted in his Buffalo childhood. He grew up in a starkly un-Disney-like home – an “alcoholic household,” in his words – as the eldest child of a father who was a “very harsh, Irish Catholic, angry fellow” and a mother who was “a very nice woman, long suffering, and the source of any warmth there was in the household.”

That set Healy on a lifelong pursuit of the ideal family. That happened in his own home – Healy, now 67, is married with two adult children – and it happened onscreen too.

“Trying to put together what a decent father and a good family would have been is an ongoing puzzle to me,” he said.

He was between bites of his lunch, but his eyes were momentarily distant. He was chewing on more than his chicken.

“I don’t stay up nights thinking about it anymore because I’m a father myself now,” he said, “but I think it certainly deepens some of the work we’ve done.”

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It was 2004 when television writer Peter Barsocchini first entered Healy’s office. Barsocchini earned a good living writing shows for adults. Now he wanted to write one that his 9-year-old daughter, Gabriella, could watch, and Disney was one of the few networks where you could pitch a movie for kids.

“Those kinds of situations are stressful,” Barsocchini said. “You’re basically trying to sell your idea, sell yourself.”

But Healy’s 21st-floor corner digs in Disney’s Burbank complex put him at ease. The room was filled with memorabilia and props from Healy’s previous movies: the flying bus from “Halloweentown”; the snow-making machine from a Christmas movie. The lightheartedness was belied by Healy’s presence. He is sharply intellectual, with a mane of thick white hair, dark-rimmed glasses and a penchant for quoting classic authors and their books. He’s an intent listener, the type whose eyes wander not when he’s bored, but rather when he’s deep in thought and about to pose a pointed question.

Barsocchini nicknamed him “The Professor.”

“Michael is a force to be reckoned with, but also whimsy,” Barsocchini said. “The first two or three times, before I got to know Michael better, I’d say to everybody, ‘OK, we’ve got to go see The Professor and pitch this.’ ”

Barsocchini was pitching a movie concept that stemmed from a conversation he had 35 years earlier, when he was a high school basketball player. Barsocchini’s star teammate pulled him aside to share a secret.

“Barsocchini, I’m going to tell you something,” he said. “If you tell anybody, I’m going to kill you … I always wanted to be a ballet dancer.”

That would-be dancer was a guy named Lynn Swann, who went on to become an NFL Hall of Fame receiver.

Swann’s confessional became Barsocchini’s muse. He developed an idea for a story in a high school where the star basketball player wants to also become a musical star. The jocks-versus-drama geeks clash takes on a Shakespeare-esque, Disney-tinged Capulets and Montague feel, which is how Barsocchini and his producer colleagues pitched it.

Healy and his boss, Gary Marsh, bought the idea, which turned into the blockbuster three-part movie franchise we now know as “High School Musical.” Those movies launched the career of, among others, Vanessa Hudgens, who played the leading female, Gabriella (named after Barsocchini’s daughter), and Zac Efron, then the Swann-inspired Troy Bolton and now a Hollywood leading man.

Therein lies an example of Healy’s influence as a decision-maker. When casting “High School Musical,” Healy said, director Kenny Ortega and the producers didn’t want Efron. They preferred another actor with more natural singing ability.

Healy and the Disney executives, however, saw Efron’s comedic ability and connected with Hudgens (whom he later dated) as golden. They had rank and pulled it: Efron was in.

“It was a matter of controversy,” Healy said, sipping his Diet Coke at lunch. “My boss and I, thank God, were on the same page about it. But there were other people involved in that who didn’t want him, didn’t think he sang well enough, didn’t think – you know, there were real discussions. We won that one and got him cast in it. But we could have lost that one and I think the whole franchise would have been very different.”

Healy was the gate-opener for Disney stars, one of a select few people with the power to decide which young performers would have the chance to become, as Efron has, an icon for their generation.

But there was a more subtle directive Healy made around the same time that had an even bigger impact. As the “High School Musical” storyline was being developed, Healy told Barsocchini, “Don’t make the father-son relationship stupid.”

He was talking about Efron’s Troy Bolton, the star athlete and wannabe thespian, and Troy’s dad, who was also his basketball coach.

“Let’s make that as real as possible,” Healy told Barsocchini, who developed Coach Bolton as hard-drive, sports-minded dad who dreams of athletic greatness for his son but ultimately accepts Troy’s wont to be his own man.

Call it another piece in the lifelong puzzle Healy has been trying to solve.

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Healy grew up with three siblings in a Burke Drive home on the Buffalo-Cheektowaga border. The Healy kids spent a lot of time planted in front of the television “trying to not to pay attention to what was going on behind our backs,” he says.

Healy won’t talk much about what happened in that house. Though his sister Patty died at 45, his siblings Edward and Paula are still alive, and he’s reluctant to violate their privacy. He will reveal just enough to give you a sense of the darkness he’s tried to escape.

His father, Edward G. Healy, was a physician who served in the Army in World War II. Healy describes his father as an “angry, high-functioning alcoholic, so everybody was always on edge a lot.”

His mother, Vera – “a nice, loving woman” – was a nurse in the war and become a housewife.

“It was a tense household growing up, and it became particularly tense when I became a teenager and my father and I had a lot of out-in-the-open conflict,” Healy said. “Up to that time, I’d just been submissive, but when I started talking back, it was tough on everybody.”

In a very Disney-like way, however, Healy finds the light in those fights.

“The great thing is he gave me the better side of the argument,” Healy said. “He was so wrong about everything that I got the chance to take the side of, um …”

He paused in thought.

“You know, civil rights, for instance – all the kind of liberal values that I brought to everything that I do. So I think I was lucky that he made me articulate my positions on things before the blows rained down.”

That ability to make logical arguments, that intellect under pressure, is a skill Healy carried throughout a career that took him from the Ivy League to the newsroom to Hollywood.

After earning his undergraduate degree from Canisius College and a master’s degree in English from Harvard, Healy returned to Buffalo in the mid-’70s. His father died young, at 59, and his mother (who would live to 83) was in a wheelchair from a surgery. He took over the household and, after a short stint driving a cab to get by, landed a job as a columnist and reporter for the Buffalo Courier-Express.

At the tail end of his Courier career, Healy wrote a movie, “Vamping,” which was filmed in Buffalo shortly after the newspaper closed in 1982. After that opening stint in moviemaking, Healy returned to journalism, spending five years as a Denver Post film critic before moving to Los Angeles in 1987 to do the same job for the Los Angeles Daily News. He met his future wife, the journalist Beth Shuster, at the newspaper, but his career there didn’t last long.

Healy’s childhood friend from Buffalo, Gregg Maday, was an executive at Warner Bros. Television and needed a director of development.

“I thought, ‘Michael is really a smart guy, I need to hire somebody, so hire Michael,’ ” said Maday, now a professor at Arizona State University. “It was that simple.”

For Healy, a consummate storyteller, the move gave him the chance to develop longer-form stories (albeit on camera, not in print) and make more money. He was good at it, moving up the Hollywood ranks with executive jobs at Reeves Entertainment and CBS before joining Disney in 1997.

By then, the Healys had two children. Claire is now 23, and Charlie is 22, but at the time, they were fortuitously positioned for their dad’s new line of work. He was raising children while making movies for children. He brought home Disney costumes for his daughter’s Halloween while reflecting his own kids’ interests in his work.

When the director Stuart Gillard first met Healy to talk about making a Disney movie, Healy handed Gillard a toy. It was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, one that belonged to little Charlie Healy.

“I’ve always wanted to work with you,” Healy told Gillard, who was the writer and director of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III,” a movie Healy loved.

The man may be professorial, and he adores classic literature, but to him, a good story is an artform to be respected – even when it’s for kids.

Gillard calls Healy “a brilliant storyteller,” whose movies “always had some philosophical point to them.”

Director Paul Hoen, who made “The Luck of the Irish” and several more movies for Healy, explains how that happened.

“He really respected the audience as far as what they might be into. It wasn’t always just slime or stupid comedy or fart jokes,” Hoen said. (Though Hoen doesn’t point this out, slime and slapstick humor are the hallmarks of Disney Channel’s chief competitor, Nickelodeon.)

“I also as the filmmaker have to remind him how much he’s changed the world and has affected children,” Hoen said.

You needn’t dig deep to detect Healy’s effect on culture. Take “High School Musical” and that directive to Barsocchini to make the father-son relationship real. The “High School Musical” franchise became a hit in large part because it was popular with boys. Until then, Disney movies had captured a primarily girl audience.

After the 2006 debut of “High School Musical,” Barsocchini started receiving letters from drama teachers across America saying that more kids than ever were auditioning for their school musicals. A teacher in Pennsylvania who normally had 60 kids audition in a 2,000-student school now had 600 aspiring actors.

“All the jocks came out because it was now safe for them to come out,” Barsocchini said. “A lot of that, in my personal opinion, had to do with the father-son relationship. Michael putting a pin in that early on caused a lot of ripples down the road.”

At the height of his Disney tenure, Healy and his staff were developing 10 or more movies a year. About six years ago, as the network’s strategies changed, that pace began to slow. Healy, who liked the volume, preferred moviemaking to “going to meetings and trying to convince people to make the movies.” He found himself doing more of the latter, and in 2013, left the network.

With a buyout, a pension and a penchant for living modestly in a comfortable-but-not-showy home built near Coldwater Canyon in the San Fernando Valley, Healy has the luxury to be creative.

“I did business,” he said. “I would love to make some more money, but I don’t need to, thank goodness. I’m not that ‘hungry young man, gotta make it at all costs.’ But I would like to keep my hand in the game.”

That hand is writing again. Healy is shopping around a script based on the science fiction novel “The Mount” by Carol Emshwiller. The story, written to become a limited series (and not a Disney-type project, Healy said), has a teen lead.

That, of course, is if it’s made.

For Healy, this is new.

For decades, he was the buyer. He was the decider. Now he’s the writer, the producer, the creator. For his ideas to reach the screen, somebody else needs to say yes. Somebody in one of those lofty corner offices Healy used to occupy.

“Time’s a wasting,” he said.

His plate was clean. His creative slate is also clean. But he’s changing that.

“I have a lot of stories that are just sitting there in yellow pads in my terrible handwriting.”

email: toshei@buffnews.com