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8 lessons for the New Year from Buffalo's Hollywood connections

These are called red-carpet lessons:

A storyteller whose Disney movies impacted a generation makes choices in his own life as if he's onscreen.

A director whose work was assailed by a gossip columnist confronted him, politely and firmly, with much of Broadway watching.

A writer whose work earned millions, and whose vices led to the loss of it all, has simplified to the things that matter the most.

Over the past year, we've traveled around North America interviewing former Western New Yorkers who have become influential in popular culture. Those stories have been published in an occasional series called "The Buffalo Connection," which has offered salient life lessons that extend far beyond Broadway, Vegas and Hollywood.

Here's a glimpse at what we learned:

Longtime Disney Channel executive Michael Healy, in Hollywood , has injected movie decision-making into his own life. (Jenna Schoenefeld/Special to The News)

1. Live life like a movie

Michael Healy, former Disney Channel executive

Michael Healy was responsible for the making of nearly 100 Disney Channel movies, including the smash franchise “High School Musical.” But he grew up in Buffalo in a setting you would never find in his movies: an “alcoholic household” with a father who drank too much and a mother who was the “the source of any warmth.”

“Trying to put together what a decent father and a good family would have been is an ongoing puzzle to me,” said Healy, who often sought the help of counselors to sort out life’s issues. One of them gave him advice that he has applied ever since. When facing a difficult decision, she said, imagine you’re watching characters play out the same situation onscreen.

“What would you be rooting for in the movie?” Healy said, echoing the words of his counselor.

It's a way of applying Hollywood-style heroism to your own life.

“It was an interesting psychological lesson for me," Healy said. "If you can’t feel it, at least you can fake it by doing what the movies would tell you to do.”

Pam MacKinnon, posing outside a Broadway theater last winter, spent much of her childhood in Clarence.

2. When people are watching, show you belong

Pam MacKinnon, Tony-winning director

The Broadway “community,” as people within New York’s theater industry call it, is famously small. A year ago, director Pam MacKinnon, who grew up in Clarence, found herself at a holiday party with the New York Post’s acerbic Broadway columnist Michael Riedel. Days earlier, Riedel wrote a story trashing the inner workings of MacKinnon’s play “China Doll,” starring Al Pacino.

Rather than avoid Riedel, MacKinnon approached him. According to the Post’s gossip column, she said, “I hear you’ve been attacking me, but I don’t care because I haven’t read any of it,” while onlookers reportedly urged, “Hit him, Pam!”

She kept it calm.

“I don’t feel the victim,” MacKinnon told The News. “I just wanted to sort of nip it in the bud. We had a fine conversation. A lot of Broadway theater owners were there," MacKinnon said, "and I put myself forward as part of the community.”

Legendary talent agent Shep Gordon was in New York City this fall promoting the release of his book, "Supermensch." His friend Mike Myers made a movie, also called "Supermensch," about his life. (Derek Gee/The Buffalo News)

3. Fear safety, not risk

Shep Gordon, talent manager

Shep Gordon built his career – and the careers of dozens of entertainers – by making choices that tiptoed the line between ingenious and insane. As a University at Buffalo student, he staged a visit by a fake foreign dignitary and sent the city into a tizzy. As a young manager, he exploded Alice Cooper's fame by pulling stunts like shooting the shock rocker out of a cannon.

Years later, wanting to see his chef friends like Emeril ("Bam!") Lagasse make more money, he made deals to get them on TV. Chefs as entertainers? What seemed like a crazy notion at the time is commonplace today. Gordon invented the celebrity chef.

The actor Mike Myers, who made a movie (“Supermensch”) about Gordon’s life, told The News, “He reminds us that great work comes from being safe-averse, and not risk-averse.”

Hamburg native Ken Baker, pictured in his Los Angeles office, is an author and E! News personality. (Jenna Schoenefeld/Special to The News)

 4. Find humor in an unfunny experience

Ken Baker, E! News personality and author

As a young man, Ken Baker battled a foe he didn’t know. Playing hockey as a teen in Hamburg, and especially during his college years at Colgate University, he constantly felt fatigued. He could never muscle up in the gym, or rustle up confidence with girls.

Years later, at 27 and working in Hollywood as a magazine writer, he learned why: A benign brain tumor was pressing on his pituitary. He never finished puberty. Medicine and surgery led to a flow of testosterone that put his body through puberty in a month, unleashing years’ worth of teen-boy experiences inside the body and mind of a grown man.

Fifteen years ago, Baker wrote a memoir, “Man Made,” about the experience. The book is raw, heartfelt, harrowing … but not funny. A Hollywood producer saw it differently, though, and pitched Baker on the idea of turning the book into a romantic comedy. The movie's humor would hinge on the absurdity of adult pubescence. Baker agreed. After a decade-plus in development, “The Late Bloomer” premiered in 2016 and Baker’s memoir was re-released under the same title.

Which means movie-watchers are laughing at a story based on a decidedly unfunny part of Baker’s past. But he realized that humor is a vital tool for delivering his message: “There’s a lot more to being a man than just being male.”

Robert Kinkel, a Williamsville native who helped create Trans-Siberian Orchestra, works out of this studio in New York City. (Derek Gee/The Buffalo News)

5. Find your fit and become a star.

Robert Kinkel, co-founder, Trans-Siberian Orchestra

The holiday season just wrapped, which means you have been hearing the orchestral-meets-metal tones of Trans-Siberian Orchestra for, oh, about two or three months now. The uniqueness of TSO is a tribute to the vision of the group’s chief wildly creative visionary, Paul O’Neill. But the ubiquity of TSO can largely be credited to one of O’Neill’s co-creators, Williamsville native Robert Kinkel.

A physics major-turned-musician, Kinkel was next to O’Neill from the early days of TSO in the mid-1990s. O’Neill would envision genre-bending musical ideas and voice them in a series of esoteric DAH-da-das and RAH-tuh-tuh-tuh-tas.

Kinkel had a talent for absorbing O’Neill’s vision and arranging it in a way that could be recorded in studio and played live by two dozen TSO performers

“I call him a musical translator,” said TSO keyboardist Mee Eun Kim.

Every Paul O’Neill needs a Bob Kinkel: O’Neill had the vision; Kinkel had the ability to make the vision real.

Kinkel found his fit, and positioned him to play a role in music history.

Choreographer and Buffalo native Marguerite Derricks stands inside a set from "ShowStoppers" at the Wynn Las Vegas. (Ronda Churchill/Special to The News)

6. Own your work

Marguerite Derricks, choreographer

More than a decade after leaving Buffalo for New York and Hollywood, Marguerite Derricks landed her first big-screen gig: She was paid $200,000 to choreograph the 1995 Elizabeth Berkley movie “Showgirls.” After that came Demi Moore’s “Striptease.”

Both movies tanked, and Derricks heard the whispers in the industry: Oh, she just destroyed her career, dude.

But instead of recoiling from her work, Derricks owned it. She knew she was more than a “strip choreographer,” as people were saying, but used the label (and the dance moves). She concocted a series of slapstick strip routines for Mike Myers’ “Austin Powers” movies. “And I used the same moves on Mike that I did the girls to make fun of myself,” she said, “and it (the ‘Showgirls’ roots) never hurt my career.”

Quite the opposite: "Powers" powered Derricks’ career, which spans film, television, Broadway and Vegas. And get this: “Showgirls” is largely regarded as a cult classic.

Buffalo native David Milch now works in a simple Santa Monica, Calif. office, where he develops shows for HBO. (Jenna Schoenefeld/Special to The News)

7. In the face of adversity, simplify

David Milch, TV writer

Creating shows like “NYPD Blue” and “Deadwood” made David Milch rich. The Buffalo native has earned an estimated $100 million in his career, according to a Hollywood Reporter estimate. But Milch, an avid gambler, lost it all. According to that same Hollywood Reporter story from early 2016, he was $17 million in debt.

His fortune gone but his creative vision and family support intact, Milch simplified. His wife Rita intervened, reportedly putting him on a $40 a week allowance to prevent him from gambling. He worked with a small staff and focused on developing shows for HBO and mentoring aspiring writers.

“All I do is work and be with my family,” Milch told The News in an interview at his office, a modest Santa Monica home converted to a workspace. He seemed humble and content; simultaneously open about his past and relieved to not be living it.

“Yeah, he’s complicated and he can be difficult, but he’s also wonderful and generous and sweet and to me, very touching," said Rita Milch, speaking separately from her husband. "He just melts my heart.”

For the Milches, that's the simple truth. And, as Rita said, they "cleared away all the rest."

Television writer Diane English maintains an office outside Los Angeles. (Jenna Schoenefeld/Special to The News)

8. Speak out in the best way YOU can

Diane English, TV writer

She has homes in the Pacific Palisades, New York City and Martha’s Vineyard. She now has the social life she could never quite achieve during her 30s and 40s, when he was a hard-driven Hollywood showrunner. Diane English had a richly successful TV writing career, highlighted by her creation of the sitcom “Murphy Brown,” and she never has to work again.

Though her mother, who still lives in Western New York, wants her to create “just one more” hit TV show, English insists, “I’m happy to just be living my life the way I’m living it.”

But when the state of TV news hit rock bottom, she decided to speak up by writing what might be “just one more” hit.

“When we did ‘Murphy’ in 1998, journalists were still heroes,” English said. “And now they’re lying about being show down in helicopters, and slow-jamming the news on the late shows. It’s just really different.”

A couple years ago, English teamed up with TV anchor Katie Couric and actress Michelle Pfeffier to create a show called “Good Morning.” The half-hour comedy, which remains in the idea stage, is centered on a 50-something newswoman (Pfeiffer) who takes a stand against ageism the disintegrating state of morning television.

“I appreciate her desire to put women front and center and deal with some of the issues that aren’t talked about and get rid of societal taboos,” Couric told The News.

Whether “Good Morning” gets made remains an open question, but even by developing and sharing the concept, English is speaking out in the best way she can: by telling a story.



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