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‘This is Us’ producer Charles Gogolak gets a kick out of its success

As the NBC hit “This Is Us” illustrates weekly, some childhood memories never fade.

When my brother attended Princeton University in the 1960s, I remember the cheer “go, go, Gogolak” when soccer-style kicker Charlie Gogolak came on the field during college football games.

Some Buffalonians said it, too, when Charlie’s older brother Pete kicked for the Bills when they won two American Football League titles.

So naturally, I was curious when I saw the name “Charles Gogolak” listed as an executive producer in the opening credits of the NBC family series hit “This Is Us.”

Once I confirmed Charles was Charlie’s son, I decided I had to “go, go, see Gogolak” on my recent California trip.

Producer Charles Gogolak, here attending the attending the "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" world premiere in 2016 in New York City (Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)

We met at a Los Angeles restaurant to discuss the influence his father and uncle had on college and professional football and the road Charles took to “This Is Us.” Not even “This Is Us” writer-creator Dan Fogelman might have imagined the football part of the story.

[RELATED: Budd Bailey's short piece on Gogolak's career]

Charles, who is tall and lean, recalled going to a National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame ceremony in New York City in 2015 in which the Gogolak brothers were honored as players who changed the game.

“They are proud to be associated with it and have a sense of humor about it,” he said.

He noted his father was the first-round pick of the Washington Redskins and received a $5,000 signing bonus.

“He tells the story of walking in the locker room and, by and large, the entire team turned their backs on him,” said Charles. “He kicked a winning field goal in the third week and it thawed a little bit.”

Things really improved when Charlie tackled a returner a few games later.

“Kickers have to do their jobs but have to show some mental toughness and physical toughness along the way,” said Charles, who noted the Gogolak brothers are very different.

“Pete’s an incredibly funny guy,” said Charles. “My dad gives him a lot of grief. He kept the Hungarian accent. He knew it was good for sales and good for women.”

[RELATED: Larry Felser on Gogolak's introduction of soccer-style kicking]

The Gogolaks had an unusual way of preparing for football after the family came to Ogdensburg, near the Canadian border following the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Pete was on Hungary’s junior international soccer team and Charlie was on track to join him. But schools in Ogdensburg didn’t offer soccer.

“The closest approximation was football and they said, ‘We can do that,’ ” said Charles. “They used to kick the football over the house to each other. That’s the story I grew up with. I don’t know if it is embellished.”

Initially, soccer style kicking confused teammates and coaches.

“They couldn’t make sense of it until they convinced the holder to stay still while they kicked it,” said Charles. “That’s how soccer style kicking was born in this country.”

The Hollywood part of the Gogolak story took a while to develop. Charles played soccer for a year at Princeton, where he was an English major. Upon graduation, everyone he knew at the prestigious Ivy League school was going into finance. His father and uncle were in that world, too.

“I learned just enough about it to be disinterested,” said Charles.

He was interested in storytelling so he came to Los Angeles on a lark in 1995.

“Somewhere between stubbornness and having a fundamental interest in storytelling above all else, I stuck with it,” he said. “In Hollywood, you sort of muddle about for a while.”

[From 2014: 50 years ago, the Bills won it all]

He worked briefly for the William Morris Agency, got a job as a story editor for an Oliver Stone project and worked for the late producer Jerry Weintraub.

“It is a relationship business,” he explained. “It is getting to know people, the vocabulary of the town, its rhythms. It’s an odd business.  There is no straight path in Hollywood. You learn writers you like to work with and opportunities arise…  It’s all little steps. As long as you can take little steps, you end up being okay. The people who get into trouble think there is one big thing. Producing is finding material, finding relationships and putting it all together.”

Buffalo Bills kicker Pete Gogolak, here in a game against the Kansas City Chiefs at War Memorial Stadium, played for the team during its AFL championship years of 1964 and 1965 (News file photo)

His producing career started with a 2006 science fiction series on ABC Family, “Kyle XY.”  He formed a production company, Zaftig, (yes, it is from the Yiddish word) in 2011 with a couple of directors and former clients, John Regua and Glenn Ficarra. The trio’s resume includes the films “Focus” and “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” the short-lived ABC series, “Back in the Game,” the upcoming USA Network series “The Sinners” and the new Amazon series “Patriot.”

But the big one is “This Is Us,” which came from a relationship that Regua and Ficarra had with Fogelman directing the 2011 film “Crazy Stupid Love.”

“At one point, ‘This Is Us’ was geared to be a feature script,” said Gogolak. “Dan is one of the writers who is very thoughtful, very smart guy who lets things rumble around in his head and gestate before they go on the page. That was one where lightning struck. It came in, he showed it to us, we said, ‘Wow. It is fantastic.’ ”

Then came time to convince a network to carry it.

“We were part of selling the show to the networks,” explained Gogolak. “A lot of it was Dan. In TV, the writer is the most important. We cast the pilot. One of the reasons the show has taken off is the characters are incredibly well-written and we had the luxury of finding the actors dead on from the get go because the script came in early… We weren’t on the normal pilot schedule.”
Casting the actors who play three siblings and their parents certainly was key.

“It was a matter of finding the right fit to go together,” said Gogolak. “It is a real skill that Dan, John and Glenn have in finding actors not only strong on their own but strong with each other.”
They had known Sterling K. Brown – who was showcased in the incredible Feb. 21 episode about a road trip to Memphis that his character, Randall, took with his biological father – from a previous project.

A key casting decision was hiring Chrissy Metz, who has become one of the show’s most popular characters as the sister, Kate, who struggles with weight issues.

“One of the things that Dan wanted to do is to get to someplace real with this show,” said Gogolak. “Dan has a sister who has struggled with her weight. She certainly is some inspiration for that character. … Dan hired her as a consultant. She has a lot of input. It is a topic that is close to the family, has affected them all, as it does characters on the show.”

Gogolak credits Metz’s courage in shooting a scene in the pilot where she takes off her clothes and steps on a scale.

Mandy Moore as Rebecca and Milo Ventimiglia as Jack in a scene from "This is Us" ( Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

“I’ve been in the business a long time and I think it is so great for America that we have an actress courageous to do that, never questioned it,” said Gogolak. “She had no special requests. It was willing and daring to put herself out there as something so real. People respond to her and her character and her relationship with Toby (Chris Sullivan, Kate’s boyfriend) so much and it is just that honesty.”

After casting, it was time for an honest assessment of where the family program had the best chance to succeed. It was produced by 20th Century Fox Television.

“Dan had an overall deal with Fox studios that they could see his material first,” explained Gogolak. “They liked it.  The feeling on the marketplace was that NBC -- for the tenets of what the show was and what they are trying to do -- was the best fit for it. They felt it was not quite a Fox network show.”

The show’s success has exceeded Gogolak’s expectations.

“We knew we had something special,” said Gogolak. “But you’ve been around long enough to know that special doesn’t always mean appreciated.”

As the first season draws to a close March 14, Gogolak certainly is getting a big kick out of its success.




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