TORONTO — The director Rob Lieberman likes to say, “Film works on a catastrophic standard.”
He says it with verve. His soft dark eyes allow a twinkle through his circular spectacles; his “Jesus-trimmed beard” (as his ex-wife, the actress Marilu Henner, once called it) bends into a smile.
Lieberman, a Buffalo native who moved to Hollywood nearly 50 years ago to chase "an impossible dream," is sitting at a conference room table on the 48th floor of a downtown Toronto hotel. Jason Priestley – yes, that Jason Priestley, now 47 but with his 90210 jawline still intact – is sitting nearby. Lieberman is directing an episode of the Canadian television show “Private Eyes.” Crew members are setting up dim lighting to transform this 48th floor of a downtown Toronto hotel into a shadowy office building.
Soon, at Lieberman’s command – “And, action!” – Priestley, who plays a detective, will be tiptoeing through the hallway.
There will be decisions, there will be problems. Lieberman will say yes to this lens; no to that angle. An elevator door won’t open. A cameraman will get caught in a shot. A couple of crewmembers wander into a hallway, clearly visible behind Priestley, while the cameras are still rolling. "Seriously? Come on, man," Lieberman groans.
Then, tragedy. In the midst of the shoot, word filters up from the hotel lobby that there’s been an accident in the building: A man was crushed and killed in a freight elevator. Police are investigating; media are gathering. The incident has nothing to do with “Private Eyes” but it casts a pall over the set. It’s Lieberman’s job to keep the shoot moving. He’s engrossed in the details of the story and he expects everyone to be on.
At one point, he asks a question into his headset. When no one responds, he charges out of the room, presumably to track down whomever he's addressing. “My favorite part of this is talking to myself!” Lieberman mutters. An assistant, seeking to break the tension, follows him down the hallway and asks brightly, “Do you answer?”
Everyone laughs. A couple minutes later, Lieberman is relaxed. If has lingering anger, it’s not apparent.
“You just move from one catastrophe to the next catastrophe to the next catastrophe,” said Lieberman, who is 69. He spends much of his year just like this: Wearing a baseball cap and hoodie and a lanyard with a lens that fits over his iPhone and helps him set up shots while he shoots television shows.
When he moved from Buffalo to Los Angeles in his early 20s, he dreamed of winning an Oscar.
“Aim for something that seems impossible,” he said, “because you’re never going to get it. And when you fall short of it, you’ll fall way ahead of where you would have fallen if you aimed much lower.”
Lieberman instead became one of the world’s most successful commercial directors, made eight feature films and shot dozens of television shows. He’s been married three times and divorced twice. He’s been fabulously wealthy, with a Hollywood Hills mansion and Aspen ski home, and then lived in an apartment — in that order.
But the Oscar? It hasn’t happened; he talks about that dream in the past tense.
“I was going to be something in this world, and I fought for it,” Lieberman said. “I’m not what I wanted to be. I wanted to be Steven Spielberg. I’m never going to be Steven Spielberg.
“But I’m Rob Lieberman, and a lot of people know who that is.”
* * *
Ten months earlier, on a Saturday night after a freezing day with Priestley and cast on the sidewalks of Toronto, Lieberman was reminiscing at bar table inside the Shangri-La Hotel. He was drinking a bottle of Okanagan merlot from British Columbia. His seat was tucked against a wooden wall with thumb-sized rectangles carved out, making it look like a giant stencil. It was a posh setting – “Zen,” Lieberman called it – so starkly different from where he grew up two hours from here.
“We were poor,” he said. “There was no question. We were poor people.”
Lieberman was raised in the lower level of a two-story home on Avery Avenue. His father was a door-to-door salesman; his mother, a fish market sales clerk. Young Rob was industrious: He converted the coal cellar of his parents’ tiny home into a makeshift office. He delivered the Buffalo Evening News. He landed a job selling peanuts at the Buffalo Zoo at age 11. By 13, he was managing concessions for the zoo, pulling in a couple of hundred bucks a week.
Lieberman saw his first movie, the Audie Murphy flick “To Hell and Back,” at 10. He returned the North Park Theatre on Hertel Avenue for the double matinee nearly every Saturday. As a teen, he sent 700 letters – each typed on a Smith Corona – to directors, producers, and studio executives. He asked for advice, not work. “They throw those (letters) away,” said Lieberman, who heard back from 50 or 60 of them. “They don’t give away jobs.”
As a film major at the University at Buffalo, Lieberman wanted to spend his summers working toward that Hollywood dream. The closest he could come in Buffalo was landing a part-time job with a video production company on Hertel — one that happened to have the contract shooting game video for the Jack Kemp-era Buffalo Bills.
The job foreshadowed the grit and glitz he’d experience in Hollywood: For away games, Lieberman flew on the team’s charter plane to places like Miami, where he’d grab a nice dinner, shoot the game, and be back in school Monday morning. For home games, in Buffalo’s since-demolished War Memorial Stadium, he froze in the windy rafters, camera in hand.
Still, Lieberman said, sipping his British Columbia merlot, “It was a dream job for a young guy.”
When Lieberman shifts into storytelling mode, he weaves and churns details and emotions like a narrative machine. His voice swells at dramatic moments, shudders at tension, and goes staccato over excitement.
Names and years are liable to switch; for Lieberman, life isn’t a chronology of facts. It’s a pliable collection of experiences: feelings, images, memories, and dreams.
The stuff of stories.
He pulls out his phone and shows a picture of a collection of current and former family members sitting in the studio audience for ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”
“This is my granddaughter,” he said, pointing to a middle schooler. “This is my ex-wife’s new husband — her step-grandfather. Behind him is sitting my first ex-wife.”
Translation: Lieberman’s second wife, the actress Marilu Henner, was cast in the most recent season of “Dancing With the Stars.” Lieberman and Henner have two sons, Nick, 22, and Joe, 21. He’s also friendly with his first wife, Myrna, with whom he has a daughter, Erin, 44 and a son, Lorne, 42.
Lieberman remains friendly with his first wife and close to his second wife. So much so that Henner and her current husband, Michael Brown, have double dated with Lieberman and his third and current wife, the former model Victoria Peters.
He continues sliding through pictures on the phone.
“That’s me and my wife,” he said, meaning Peters.
“Your wife is very beautiful,” said an onlooker.
“Thank you very much. She was a Playboy centerfold.” (This is true: April 1972.)
He finds an old photo. “This is what I looked like at the beginning of my career,” he said, then points to a picture of his first wife. “This is the mother of the Tibetan priest.” (Sort of true: Lieberman’s eldest son Lorne is a religious man – but not a monk – who is on a long walk from Berlin to Tibet. “His vow is to ask nothing of anybody,” Lieberman said. “He doesn’t ask for food, he doesn’t ask for shelter. Nothing. He meets people. He tells them who he is. If they offer it, he will accept it. But he can’t ask for it.”)
He talks about packing up his bright yellow, black-striped Camaro in 1971 and driving to Los Angeles with his first wife, Myrna Narad. She supported them with her teaching job while he worked his way into show business, eventually landing a job as a question-writer for the game show Hollywood Squares. From there, he broke into the commercial business, first as an editor, then as a director. At the end of his first full day as a director, he called his dad back in Buffalo.
“Dad are you sitting down?” he said. “I just got paid, for one day, what you make in a year.”
The pay was $7,000.
By his mid-20s, Lieberman was cashing in as a commercial director. But something was wrong. Something he couldn’t identify, much less voice. He ultimately ended up checking himself into a psychiatric hospital for several weeks, where he unlocked a deep-buried memory from his childhood in Buffalo.
When Lieberman was five, his mother gave birth to a baby boy, Jan. Rob had been an only child till then, and adored his tiny sibling.
“I would get up early just to look at my little brother,” Lieberman said, a quiver in his voice. “I couldn’t believe it. My mother picked him up and his head fell back limp. She started screaming like I’ve never heard anyone scream, a noise I’ve never heard before or ever again in my life.”
Jan, at 9 months old, died of sudden infant death syndrome.
Rob’s parents sent him away to live with friends for two weeks. By the time he came home, his parents had sat shiva, the weeklong period of mourning in the Jewish faith.
Jan’s name was never mentioned again.
“I forgot I even had a brother,” Lieberman said. “I didn’t even remember anything happened. I just blocked it out. I just pulled down an iron curtain.”
Two decades later, by then a husband and father, Lieberman entered the hospital and finally grappled with the loss of the brother he’d forgotten.
“I came face to face with the fact that I had never grieved for a brother that I lost,” he said. “And I cried, I swear to you, nonstop for days. For three days I couldn’t stop crying. And then I came out of it on the other end and became this guy.”
He’s smiling now.
“And this guy went on to great things.”
* * *
Great things, yes, but not everything he wanted. Lieberman’s highest success came as a commercial director. That initial fee of $7,000 a day eventually grew to $20,000; he co-owned a commercial company, Harmony Pictures, that by the '90s was grossing more than $60 million a year.
At that point, Lieberman was thriving as a commercial director, with regular clients including Hallmark and McDonald’s. When he sold Harmony Pictures in the mid-90s, he bought a four-story, eight-bedroom house in Aspen that slept 28 people.
As recently as a year ago, though, he was living in an apartment in Southern California “to keep overhead down.” Lieberman grew up poor, became fabulously wealthy, throwing $150,000 Christmas parties at his home in the Hollywood Hills.
Lieberman offers this explanation of how he “mismanaged my money”: “My Achilles heel is because I was a poor kid, the minute I saw money I went, 'Wow, I can’t believe I can do these things. I can’t believe it.' So I was amazingly generous, just like MC Hammer. I was the MC Hammer of Jewish commercial directors.”
Lieberman’s goal was always to be more than a commercial director. He achieved that, but not quite the level he envisioned when he decided to pursue his “impossible dream.” He’s made eight feature films, including “Table for Five” with Jon Voight, “D3: The Mighty Ducks” for Disney, and the sci-fi tale “Fire in the Sky.” None, however, were box office smashes.
“(Rob) is always getting very excited about something new and different: ‘How do I do this?’” Henner said. “If he gets down on himself, it’s just he feels like, ‘Aw, why didn’t I think of this first?’ Or ‘Now what can I do?’ And I think he’s always comparing himself to Stanley Kubrick.”
Which fits the strategy Lieberman set as a young guy in Buffalo: Aim for the impossible, and if you fall short, you’ll still be in a fantastic spot. It worked. Last year, Lieberman shot 10 hours of television. That’s the equivalent of five movies.
“I am pretty busy,” he said, and at the same time, acknowledged his Oscar dream is out of reach. “But I don’t think the trajectory is upward.”
Lieberman’s most consistent opportunity to work is in television directing, particularly of late in Canada. A few years ago, recognizing that more television jobs were available north of the border, he applied for permanent citizen status in Canada. That’s given Canadian-based productions the ability to get tax credits for hiring an experienced director with Hollywood street cred.
“He has a complete mastery of the craft of storytelling and is able to move fluidly between the technical aspects, the creative aspects and directing actors,” said Adi Hasak, creator and executive producer of USA Network’s “Eyewitness.”
Lieberman shot two episodes for Hasak last summer. For one, a car-and-motorcycle chase ending had to be “scrapped because of budgetary concerns,” Hasak said, and Lieberman was “was pivotal in coming up with a much more effective and personal ending” which involved a foot chase through a foggy forest.
“His sense of visual storytelling — he’s world-class, black-belt 10th-degree good at it,” said Gil Bellows, co-star of the series and Lieberman’s longtime friend. Bellows and the other “Eyewitness” actors had been tucked away for three months on location in northern Ontario when Lieberman arrived last summer to shoot episodes seven and eight of the 10-part series.
“He was like a breath of Southern California air,” said Julianne Nicholson, the star of the series. “He came with a really vibrant energy. It was like a little B12 shot as we were getting into the end of our episodes.”
* * *
That recent night on the 48th floor of a Toronto tower, with Priestley creeping through a shadowy hallway and Lieberman trying to keep the production on track in the wake of an unrelated tragedy, the director was worn.
“I’ve seen my wife for four weeks of the last seven months, so it’s been kind of a long grind for me,” said Lieberman, who the next morning was boarding a pre-dawn plane for L.A.
He isn’t inexhaustible, but he’s eminently earnest about ideas, stories, big projects, even daunting dreams.
“There’s still this genuine enthusiasm and genuine passion for the possibility,” said his son Nick Lieberman, who last spring graduated from Columbia University and is pursuing a career as a filmmaker. “Even now, he’s asked me to come over early to dinner tonight so he can pitch me six ideas. I think that’s a really beautiful quality.”
Among Lieberman’s projects for this year is writing an autobiographical play – which he’s never done before – about his time in the psychiatric hospital. The protagonist is Mitchell Pearl. (Mitchell is Lieberman’s middle name; Pearl, he said, represents “a beautiful growth.”) Mitchell falls in love with a fellow patient named Grace; this happened to Lieberman, though the relationship was never romantic. He battles demons. He finds himself.
Lieberman’s Mitchell opens the play with the line, “In the song of life, I always knew I had a song to sing. Unfortunately, I spent most of my life clearing my throat.”
Today, his throat is clear.
Robert Mitchell Lieberman
Why you know him: Lieberman is a prolific director whose body of work spans eight feature films, several dozen television shows and movies, miniseries and more than 1,000 commercials. He was named best commercial director twice (1980, 1996) by the Directors Guild of America, and his commercials won 29 Clios (the industry equivalent of an Oscar).
His diverse filmography also includes the John Voight drama "Table for Five," the sci-fi film "Fire in the Sky," the horror/thriller "The Tortured" and two hockey movies (Disney's "D3: The Mighty Ducks" and the Canadian movie "Breakaway"). Among the better-known television shows he's directed are "Criminal Minds," "Brothers & Sisters," "The X Files," "Lost Girl" and "thirtysomething."
Career: Lieberman was the first film major at the University at Buffalo. During that time he also got a part-time job shooting video for the Buffalo Bills. After graduation, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue his dream of directing film. During an interview for this story, he was asked to re-create his career progression: "Game show question writer" – that's Hollywood Squares – "to commercial editor to commercial director" – which was his greatest success – "to TV movie director to movie director to pilot director to episodic director."
Residence: Los Angeles; Lieberman also has permanent resident status in Canada
Family: Married to Victoria Peters; formerly married to Myrna Narad and Marilu Henner. Lieberman has four grown children — two (Erin, Lorne) with Narad and two (Nick and Joe) with Henner. He also has three grandchildren.
WNY Roots: Lieberman grew up on Avery Avenue in Buffalo. His late father was a door-to-door salesman; his late mother, a sales clerk. His sister Fern, who is seven years younger, lives in Los Angeles. His brother Jan, who was five years younger, died as an infant.
Lieberman on his goals moving to Los Angeles: “I really went out there believing and wanting to win an Academy Award. It was a simple idea. I just wanted to make the finest films. I never got there. But it’s not like I didn’t have a very rewarding life. I had an amazingly rewarding life."
Actor Gil Bellows, Lieberman's friend and colleague on multiple projects: "You need to stay connected to the kid inside you who dreamed about doing this when you were very young Rob is solidly connected to that part of himself."
Actress Marilu Henner on her ex-husband Lieberman, with whom she remains close: "He's very tenacious. That's why he's had such a long career. He doesn't give up, which is great. I love that in him, and I love that both our boys have that too."
Lieberman to his sons Nick and Joe: "When I came out to California, my dream was to win an Academy Award. I'm never going to have that dream. But nothing in this life would make me happier than to sit in the audience when you get yours."