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Confessions of an HBO Original

Sheila Nevins, who heads documentary projects at the pay channel, balances the crass with crusading.

May 28, 2000|PAUL LIEBERMAN | Paul Lieberman is a Times staff writer based in New York

NEW YORK — Sheila Nevins' father worked for the post office but mostly took bets there--he was a bookie. He also was a gambler himself, and his own bookie showed up at his funeral to deliver a check to his daughter, for a winning wager on the Super Bowl.

Nevins' mother, meanwhile, had an illness so crippling that it cost her an arm and a leg--literally. Nevins recalls going to a Chock Full O' Nuts restaurant soon after a piece of her mom's arm had been amputated, leaving a stump showing below her shirt sleeve. She recalls a woman on the next stool sneering, "That's disgusting," and her mother responding by pushing the sleeve higher, "way up so the stump would really show."

So even if Nevins was a studious girl who danced her way into New York's High School of the Performing Arts by auditioning to the bouncy "Sleigh Ride" ("Just hear those sleigh bells jin-gl-ing"), she still had a sense, from an early age, that there often is a dark reality behind the whitest picket fence.

That's certainly the feeling one gets from her documentaries--the odd mix of sensationalistic fare and social crusading that she has been shepherding onto HBO and Cinemax, its offshoot, for 21 years now, these days as the pay channel's executive vice president for original programming. It may be the crazies confiding their affairs before hidden cameras in taxis ("Taxicab Confessions") or suburbanites showing off their dungeons ("Real Sex"). It's in the not-so-pandering stuff, too, such as the documentary on the killing of three 8-year-olds in Arkansas ("Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills"), whose opening shows us the mutilated bodies, with no foliage or soft-focus to obscure the atrocity. Then there are the AIDS victims ("Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt"), mass murderers ("The Iceman") and a onetime Nazi ("Heil Hitler! Confessions of a Hitler Youth") found driving a bus in San Diego.

No question, there's a dark vision running through these "docus" that have won both criticism, for exploitation, and acclaim--a slew of Peabody Awards, Emmys and nine Oscars--and established Nevins as one of the most important figures in documentary filmmaking. This past week, she was awarded a "personal" Peabody for being "one of the true independent spirits in television today" while helping turn HBO into the place to go for many verite filmmakers, ahead of PBS, arguably.

"You know, I'm at the stage where I'm ready to accept a little personal recognition," says Nevins, who for years has gained such honors for the filmmakers she finances, cajoles and helps edits. "For once, it's about me. Me, me, me!"

Then she laughs. For the whole thing seems absurd: how HBO got into this line of work and how she came to honcho it all.

Nevins, brought up on the working-class Lower East Side, studied English at Barnard and theater at Yale. Graduating in 1963, she got her first job performing in films created by the U.S. Information Service to teach 2,000 English words to people in other countries. "Today," she'd announce, "we are going to milk the cow."

After 130 shows, she moved on to producing jobs in New York, one with the Children's Television Workshop. Later, she quit ABC's "20/20" because it wouldn't allow her to edit her own segments and wound up at Don Hewitt's "Who's Who" show on CBS, for which she fed questions to on-air "talent" interviewing, say, Richard Burton.

Nevins swears she had to go to the 42nd Street library to research HBO when a friend told her in 1979 of an opening for a documentary chief. Then on just eight hours a day, HBO was looking to expand to 12 hours and needed programming. The job paid $28,000. Documentaries? "I had no experience at all," she says. "They told me to make 40. I had to call people and say, 'Could you make six pieces on WWII?' "

Two decades later . . . well, at the Academy Awards this spring, she was sitting next to "King Gimp" himself, Dan Keplinger, the cerebral palsy-afflicted artist who wrote the documentary about his life and fell out of his wheelchair--before a billion TV viewers--when its Oscar was announced. When she returned to New York, she learned she would be honored at the Waldorf at the 59th Peabody Awards along with PBS documentary mainstay Ken Burns and the creators of HBO's "The Sopranos," among others. She hoped to see the actor who plays Uncle Junior on the mob soap, for he's the same guy, she's been told, who sang at her wedding, 27 years ago.

All that was the white picket fence of her world. But she was still reeling, feeling the darkness, as she discussed her life and career in the Upper East Side condo she uses as an office away from the office. Her dog had recently died, in her arms, the same "docu dog" who "watched every single program with me." Then she had to go into the hospital herself for an operation that was not life-threatening but unsettling enough.

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