In 1991, an earnest 18-year-old in a conservative blue suit and red tie bantered on national TV with Larry King.
"I want to make films about the things no one is making films about, like rape and suburban drugs," said Shane Salerno, who was on the show promoting his public-access documentary, "Sundown: The Future of Children and Drugs."
Salerno billed the program, a collection of videotaped interviews he shot while in high school, as a "suburban 'Boyz N the Hood.'" A profile of Salerno in the Los Angeles Times then noted that reporters interested in the Encinitas teenager were likely to receive 50-page press kits explaining his views on drugs, crime and teen culture, plus letters of endorsement from Pete Wilson and other politicians.
A little more than 10 years later, sitting in his West L.A. office, Salerno sounds like the idealistic 18-year-old when he reflects on the interview on Larry King's show as a "major thing." With the same earnestness, he recalls the moment two years later when he decided making documentaries about rape and drugs was no longer enough: "I went to my mom and said, words to the effect, if we don't go to L.A. now, I'm going to end up in San Diego making documentaries for PBS and I want to do more than that."
What happened to Salerno is the stuff of Hollywood fable. Without relatives in the industry, big-money friends or a Sundance pedigree, the kid voted Most Likely to Be Famous by his high school classmates quickly vaulted into the top echelons of the film industry, working with the likes of Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and Michael Mann. By age 24, he was simultaneously developing projects for Spielberg and Sylvester Stallone. His first on-screen credits were 1998's "Armageddon" (adaptation) and 2000's "Shaft" (story and screenplay). At 28, he was the co-creator and executive producer of his own TV series, "UC: Undercover."
Ten years after he exchanged quips with King, Salerno is an established screenwriter and producer, with a seven-figure "first look" deal with Jersey Films and a development deal with 20th Century Fox Television. Even in a town with jaded response to rags-to-riches stories, Salerno's rise evokes respect.
"He reminds me of Francis Ford Coppola, in terms of his enthusiasm and his grandiosity, in thinking big," said Tony Bill, a veteran Hollywood actor and producer who directed two episodes of "UC: Undercover."
Growing up in San Diego, Salerno was often compared to the ambitious Michael J. Fox character on the sitcom "Family Ties": a straight-laced conservative teen in a world of hippie adults. Dressed in black sports jacket and blue jeans, he still has the clean-cut appearance and a consistently sober expression.
Salerno doesn't fit many Hollywood stereotypes. He says he's never smoked a cigarette, tasted a drop of alcohol or experimented with drugs--in part, a reaction to "Sundown," he says.
"He's my straight man when we go out," said director John Singleton, who spent a year working with Salerno on "Shaft."
Associates describe him as a media junkie and voracious reader known for walking into meetings aware of every movie ever produced by everyone in the room.
The product of the '80s and suburbia lists Mann's "Miami Vice" TV series as his seminal inspiration. "I thought those were the two coolest guys," Salerno said. "They made me believe Miami vice cops drove $350,000 Ferraris."
Salerno says he's always felt like he was in a rush, in part due to the lasting effect of the sudden, unrelated deaths of four teenage friends. Since he figured out how much time he lost while sleeping, he says, he rarely sleeps more than three or four hours a night. His production company is named Chasing Time Pictures.
Salerno's hard-charging personality was clearly not embraced by everyone. He says he continually faced the murmuring in the industry: "Who is this kid? How did he get here?"
"Herein lies something I've run up against," he says. "There is a real difference between arrogance and confidence. For me, if you don't get it right, I don't understand what the point is of doing it. The worst thing you can be is ordinary."
The person who launched Salerno's career in Hollywood was Gregory Hoblit, a producer and director on "Hill Street Blues" and "L.A. Law. " He was introduced to Salerno in 1993 at an editing facility and vaguely recalled Salerno as the kid who made a documentary.
"He walked into my offices and there was something about him that got my attention," said Hoblit, who went on to direct films, including "Primal Fear" and the recent "Hart's War." "He's built like a fireplug. Short hair. He has this military way about him. Very polite. 'Yes, sir. No, sir.'"
Hoblit agreed to let Salerno hang out on the set of "NYPD Blue," which had recently been launched to critical acclaim.