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MIDCAREER CHECKUP

Recasting Yourself in Hollywood

It takes more than just luck and persistence to make a transition into the entertainment industry.

May 20, 1996|JAMES BATES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

So you want to chuck a successful career to break into Hollywood? The first piece of advice: Don't do it.

Your screenplay is just one of a few thousand pitched to agents and studio executives each year. Everyone you meet in Hollywood is producing something, and most of it won't see the light of day. And quit wasting time writing the Oscar acceptance speech.

Still, some people have actually made a mid-career shift into entertainment after doing something completely different for a living, including some high-profile figures. Television producer David E. Kelley ("Picket Fences" and "Chicago Hope") was a Boston lawyer. Movie producer Jon Peters was a hairdresser. Lance A. Gentile was an emergency room doctor before becoming an Emmy-winning writer on "E.R."

It takes a combination of persistence, luck and networking with the right people. More important, don't quit your day job until you have something solid lined up. Put enough money away to allow yourself to chase your dream, and be prepared to weather plenty of skepticism from friends and family.

Here's how a few people did it.

Julia Sweeney

Even when she got her break as a cast member of "Saturday Night Live" after toiling as an accountant, Julia Sweeney's family still needed to be convinced.

The show came on so late in her hometown of Spokane, Wash.--it followed late-night wrestling, she recalls--that it wasn't until friends of her family began telling them it was a big deal that they finally took notice.

Sweeney's move from working as an accountant at Columbia Pictures to an actress and comic was done methodically. She says she had wanted to be an actress since winning a supporting part in "Romeo and Juliet" in high school, but, nonetheless, chose to study economics at the University of Washington.

She got into Hollywood through the business side, initially hoping to become a business affairs executive, until she concluded her heart wasn't in it. Still, she says, the experience gave her a valuable inside look at the business and what projects studios want.

Sweeney says she adopted a strategy of narrowing her efforts to improve her odds, in her case choosing comedy as the best route to chase. To do that, she realized she had to hook up with an improvisational group.

"I had to approach it in a businesslike manner and make intelligent choices on how to spend my efforts," Sweeney says.

She answered an ad for classes at The Groundling Theatre, attending workshops and learning the craft. Among her teachers were Phil Hartman, who would become a fellow Saturday Night Live cast member and who stars now in the television series "NewsRadio."

Sweeney set aside enough money to chase her dream, giving herself six months. She worked nightclubs, setting a goal of trying to make at least what she made as an accountant.

"I had one year where I really thought I had made a big mistake. I thought I'd have to go back to accounting in a big way," Sweeney says. She did return briefly to accounting at MGM/UA before she got her break in 1990 at "Saturday Night Live," where she was a cast member until 1994, known for such characters as the androgynous Pat.

After an ill-fated Disney movie based on her Pat character (she jokes that her accounting background allows her to determine exactly how much the film lost) and a successful fight against cancer, she is now working on a Fox TV comedy pilot called "Jules" and will open a solo performance piece called "God Said, 'Ha!' "in June in West Hollywood.

Oren Koules

A lot of people get roughed up in Hollywood. Oren Koules is used to it.

A native of La Grange, Ill., Koules' first career was as a hockey player, skating briefly for his hometown Chicago Black Hawks organization. He gave it up to work for eight years muscling his way through the frenetic floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, where he had a seat as a trader.

Koules made his move to Hollywood after making enough money as a trader to buy a vacation place in Aspen, Colo., where hanging out got him introductions to some of the Hollywood executives who vacation there, among them the late producer Don Simpson.

Like Sweeney, Koules set aside money as a cushion to make his move. He suggests saving enough to survive for a year to free up time to network as much as possible.

"I had the means to support myself enough to open up my own office and start to purchase scripts," he said.

Although frustrated at having doors slammed in his face, Koules made progress in setting up pictures at studios before being introduced to Dale Pollock, who himself made a mid-career switch to Hollywood after working as a reporter at The Times.

They formed Peak Productions, producing the current Tri-Star Pictures film "Mrs. Winterbourne" and the upcoming "Set It Off" for New Line Cinema.

"Everyone at one time or another is drawn to the lure of Hollywood," Koules says.

Brad Wilson

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