October 30, 2007

The Cornell Connection: Kevin Reilly '84

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Kevin Reilly ’84 went to Cornell University. Ever heard of it? Well, you probably have, considering you are reading the Cornell Daily Sun right now. Anyway, Reilly decided after graduating in four years, never studying once, and being drunk the whole time (conjecture based on the character that may or may not be based on him from The Office, Andy Bernard, fictitious grad year unknown) that he wanted to get into television. After a couple years of forced insomnia working on music videos with Madonna (ever heard of her?) and others in NYC, he moved out to L.A. to eventually work on shows like E.R., Law & Order and the Sopranos. After a while, Reilly became the president of NBC Entertainment and now the president of FOX Entertainment, duking it out on a nightly basis with fraternity brother Steve McPherson ’86. The Sun had indeed heard of Kevin Reilly and had plenty to ask him about it all. Here is an excerpt of that conversation:

The Sun: What was it like at Cornell for you overall?
Kevin Reilly: Overall, I put it in the “Great” column. My net-takeaway is really positive, but like any college experience, you’ve got your ups and downs — semesters where you’re really down and you feel like you’re really off track or on the road to nowhere, and others where it feels good. Certainly, I have lasting relationships and I still have a really fond emotional connection to the school.
Sun: What was your favorite aspect of Cornell and what was your least favorite?
K.R.: Well, I think unfortunately my favorite aspect was my fraternity, which probably prevented me from getting the most out of other experiences [laughs], but it was beyond any of the clichés. It really was an education in its own right with the people that I met and formed relationships with. And my least favorite?
Sun: Yeah.
K.R.: Hmm, that’s an interesting question. I’ve never actually thought about that before. My least favorite doesn’t have anything to do with Cornell specifically, but I certainly can remember some of those classes with tenured professors who had sort of stopped caring about how to bring lessons alive, and suffering through some of those classes feeling as though it was just mind-numbing. Particularly if it was a course that I wasn’t inclined to like it too much to begin with, I just thought, “Man, some of these guys are just not working at all to try to really reach out.”
Sun: That’s an interesting response. I usually get either that Cornell was far from everything or that it was cold.
K.R.: [Laughs] You know what? That was not it for me at all. I mean, the cold, it’s funny now that I am a complete weather-wimp having lived in L.A. for 20 years, I never minded. I used to have to cross the suspension bridge, and you know that frozen mist coming up from the gorge, I remember walking across there in those freezing nights when that mist is going through you like daggers, and it never really bothered me there. Plus, the fact that I used to just tend to sleep in until everything kinda thawed, somewhere after lunch, anyway.
Sun: How did you meet Steve [McPherson ’86, ABC Entertainment President]? He was in your same fraternity right?
K.R.: Yeah, Steve was a year behind me and we were in the same fraternity. It’s funny because in the business now, people play it as we were best friends in college, and we actually weren’t. We sorta knew each other, but didn’t really spend a lot of time [together] in college. It was right after he graduated, in fact. I’d been out for a year, and we went on a ski trip together, and on that ski trip actually he came clean with me. I was on the last leg of a cross-country drive, moving from New York to Los Angeles, and we went on a ski trip in Squaw Valley, [California,] on that trip. I was moving everything I owned in the back of my car that had 100,000 miles on it, and I had $800 to my name, and I was moving to get into [television]. I had been working in the [entertainment] business in New York, and he came clean and said that he wanted to [as well]. Actually, I was kind of surprised; I had no idea he had ever even entertained the idea. Our third friend, and kind of the other leg of this Cornell thing, Emile Levisetti, who was three years behind me, one of the ways we bonded is he right up front said, “I want to get into the entertainment industry.” He had actually thought about acting and then subsequently became an actor, but I had no idea about Steve. On that trip is when we really bonded.
Sun: Was Emile in the same fraternity too?
K.R.: Yes he was.
Sun: Did you ever imagine that all three of you would end up in the entertainment industry?
K.R.: At that time we did because the summer prior to that trip, Emile was taking a summer course at UCLA in directing, and I came out to kind of take meetings with anybody who would open the door to me. Emile and I, literally one of these few times I’ve actually gone surfing, had rented surfboards in Malibu. [Laughs] We were like complete clichés. We had bought like some new sunglasses and we were surfing in Malibu with our rental surfboards, talking about the future. When we were talking about that, and then with Steve — I couldn’t have scripted it from there, that’s for sure — but we certainly did envision that at some point we would end up living out here together and all working in the business.
Sun: You majored in Comm, right?
K.R.: Is that at all useful to your job now?
Sun: No. Honestly, it was a complete ragtag department. I recently met the dean of the Ag School, and I know they’ve made improvements over the last couple of years trying to focus it. But at that time in particular, that was really a ragtag almost non-major. It was my way of sort of backdooring into my future. I really knew in my heart that I had wanted to get into entertainment or media. My father was a Wall Street guy, a business guy, and I had no connections in the [entertainment] business and I was kind of afraid to declare it. So going to Cornell, and going into that school that had that department, it enabled me to kind of say, “Well, oh, yeah, well maybe I’ll be Ag-Ec, but you know …” It’s not called Ag-Ec now, what is it?
Sun: AEM? Are you talking about Applied Economics and Management?
K.R.: Right, yeah. So it was a way for me to kind of keep my options open but really think that I at least had my toe in something that I thought would end up being. But I’d say ultimately very, very little of it has any sort of practical application in my career. And particularly at that time, you know, really pre-internet, there was virtually no alumni outreach or connection. I remember by engineering friends or my hotelie friends having this huge network of alumni to tap into, and them getting solicited from companies and all of their offers coming in, and I was just literally scrounging for somebody that had any tenor of connection to what I wanted to do in the business and that alumni network or college based network to tap into. It was very frustrating.
Sun: Did you ever flirt with the idea of going into journalism?
K.R.: I did a little bit. I mean, if you had put a gun to my head and said “What do you want to be?” that was probably what I would have responded at one point because it sounded more legitimate. I think that’s what I told my father for a while so it actually might have sounded more legitimate than some vague notion of the television business, which I don’t even know that I could have articulated at that point. And I was writing, actually. I took some screenwriting over at Ithaca College, and I was beginning to write screenplays on my own. I was toying with being a writer at one point.
Sun: So when you were at Cornell and you were thinking about going into the entertainment business as a general thought, was writing sort of the idea that you had?
K.R.: Yes, that’s always really what I came to, and by the time I graduated, I said, “I will be a writer.” I basically declared in my senior year that this is what I was doing, and I had no real plan whatsoever as to how I was going to get there or what I was going to do. And I only had a vague idea of how to write a screenplay, or what you do with it once you write one. So I basically got out of school and just tried desperately to figure it out. I immediately enrolled in NYU extension courses in screenwriting and filmmaking and took those courses on the side, and then ran around New York City trying to get people to explain how to get started in the business. Ultimately my first sort of break came in: I ended up getting into a number of advertising agencies, which I almost toyed with for a little bit, the idea of getting into advertising. And then through those meetings, I ended up in somebody’s office in production, advertising production, commercial production. They set me up with commercial producers at a commercial production company, and I started freelancing as a production assistant. My first job was cleaning out wardrobe closets at a commercial production company.
I just started doing that, freelancing doing various [commercials] — I worked on probably a hundred, and then at that time in ’84, MTV was beginning to explode and music videos were really just starting to happen. There was a lot of that activity popping up in New York City, so I probably did 150 commercials and music videos over the course of two years after graduation. I never slept. And unfortunately, given that it they were like 18-hour days, and in many cases, 48-hour shifts, it left me very little energy or time to actually write. I was barely paying the bills because I was getting paid very little money, so I did very little writing. But I was determined to not have to explain to my parents that I was not making a living, so I did that and made a whopping $13,000 my first year out of college.
Sun: Did you essentially have to move to Los Angeles to start your career or could you have stayed in New York?
K.R.: You know, I could have probably stayed in New York, but it was, particularly at that time, a pretty tough load. There was not a lot of original production. I knew I wanted to get into some creative aspect of the business, not a sales operation, not the sales end or an administrative end or the finance end, of which there was plenty based in New York. There were certainly broadcast networks based there; large companies were based there. Ironically I remember at the time someone had set me up with a call at HBO. Michael Fuchs was the president of HBO, and I was trying to get in to see Michael Fuchs, and he blew me off a couple of times over the phone. To this day Michael Fuchs and I don’t really know each other, but Michael Fuchs went onto have an amazing run and be the chairman of HBO and shepherd in what became the modern HBO, starting the whole notion of original programming. But at the time all they did basically was they were Home Box Office, which was just movies on television, re-runs of acquired movies and feature films. I remember after he blew me off the third time, I thought, “Well, what is there for me to do at HBO, anyway? They don’t make any original productions.” Ironically, if I had gotten into that job, I might have still been there today, 20-something years later. But it was very hard to get into; there was no cable based there like there is now with Comedy Central or Spike or some of those kind of networks. Ultimately, when I came out for that visit in L.A., I ran around town and I felt like I knew more after two weeks in L.A. than I knew after two years in New York. So then I realized I had to move.
Sun: Getting back to what you said about taking a screenwriting course at Ithaca College, it seems funny to me that you did that. Were there any courses that you took at Cornell that had anything to do with your interests, or not really?
K.R.: My interest in entertainment or my interest in academics?
Sun: [Laughs] Either I guess!
K.R.: [Laughs] Umm, virtually no courses. I’m hard-pressed to even think of one that had direct application to my current career or the entertainment industry. I certainly did have courses that I found to be really stimulating and that I got a lot out of. So I did have courses but I would say I was a fairly distracted student. I actually, by the time I graduated, only then had really learned how to become a more focused student. And I would say that, I don’t have a big regret over it, but there’s no question that there would be a lot more to soak out of the pure academics if I had gone back to school. So I had a pretty mixed bag in terms of my own performance. They were usually like three A’s and a couple of C-‘s on there [laughs].
Sun: [Laughs] Aside from your fraternity, what other kinds of things did you do outside of going to class or sleeping through class? [Laughs]
K.R.: [Laughs] Well, those were certainly my two primary activities, but I didn’t have any other formal thing. We did intramural sports. I played lacrosse for one year and then tore my hamstring and I realized I was not good enough to start anyway, so I used that as an excuse to stop playing. Then I kind of stuck with the intramural sports after that. And then later, I worked in the theatre department actually for a couple of years, and built sets at one point. I did a little bit of that just to kind of be around it, but other than that, I didn’t have any other big activities that I did in college.
Sun: If I had to ask you for one of your fondest memories from Cornell, from anything that you did or experienced here, what would you say would be one of the top memories?
K.R.: That I would want to read again in print?
Sun: Umm…
K.R.: [Laughs]
Sun: … that you wouldn’t mind if Cornell students read about.
K.R.: [Laughs] I have to say, I think, thankfully I have a number of thoughts that come to mind, which is a good thing. But I remember “Fun in the Sun.” Do they still do that Fun in the Sun Festival?
Sun: Is that the last day of spring classes?
K.R.: That was like the Spring Fling thing, which was the last day of classes, but the Fun in the Sun would kick it off in the beginning of the year, in the first day on the Arts Quad. A big kick off party.
Sun: Oh, we don’t do that anymore. What was it like?
K.R.: You know those absolutely beautiful days when the weather is just perfect — unbelievably perfect? At that time with the drinking age at 18, they would bring in beer trucks and it was hundreds of kegs of beer. I remember one year in particular, one of the booths was — there were all these game booths — this slide they had created. You’d kind of run and then slide on your body on this waterslide, and it became a giant mud pit. And ultimately, everybody kind of did away with the slide, and then the idea would then be to run as fast as you could and then dive face-first into this mud, so just slide 50 feet in the mud. It became almost like Woodstock. The entire place was everybody — and these are, you know, thousands of people — were just encrusted in mud. It really looked like a lot of pre-historic cavemen walking around. It was an absolutely spectacular day, and then thousands of people en masse made their way down to the gorge and went into the gorge for like a big group swim and just rinsed off. I remember just watching this experience that had an unbelievable energy to it and the most spectacular kind of day that Ithaca could serve up, and I remember just thinking that this kind of experience was about as good as it could get. I still think that. Those kinds of experiences are about as good as I can remember.
Sun: Which year was that? Was that your sophomore year?
K.R.: Sadly it’s beginning to all run together. [Laughs] I can’t remember, which year it was. I actually believe that was my sophomore year. Actually, it may have been my junior year. Sophomore or junior year.
Sun: When you graduated and you worked for music videos and ads and stuff, what music videos do you remember working on? Any big ones that stick out?
K.R.: Oh my god. I’m trying to think about ones that would still stand the test of time. At the time there were some very ones … I think … my god, what was the Madonna one? There was a very early — I can’t even remember. Unfortunately, talking to you, I’ll just feel really old remembering these. [Laughs] But at the time there were some big videos. It was a crazy experience because inevitably the band would show up late and they’d be ill-prepared. You would be there at 5 in the morning just waiting to start and you probably wouldn’t start shooting until midnight of that day and go straight through the next morning. I definitely got a little taste of the rock ‘n roll lifestyle by working on those music videos. And unfortunately, or fortunately, all the clichés were true about bands and their habits and their indulgences. [Clears throat]
Sun: So, do you not remember any of the specific ones or do you not want to date yourself? [Laughs]
K.R.: The experiences or the videos? One thing I’ll say just as a sidenote. I worked with one guy on this who became a sound man and he actually used to work for the Grateful Dead, part of their sound crew, but he would work on music videos as a production guy for a while. I remember he took me down to see Aerosmith. I think we were working on this Foreigner video. No, we did the Cars, where the guy walked across the pool. Was that the Cars? [It was “Magic” by the Cars] You’re not going to remember this, but I’m looking at Scott [Reilly’s colleague] You think I’m foolish! Yeah, but Ric Ocasek walked across a pool.
We were working on that and we went to see Aerosmith. I think it was at the Ritz downtown, and this was when Aerosmith was absolutely at the bottom. It was just amazing that these guys who were such monster acts when I was in high school had fallen like, *so* far. If you go back, this was like when they were really drug-addled and the wheels had come off. I went to see them with this guy and I was like, “Oh my god! Aerosmith, what happened?!” And then amazingly, I really think its one of the great stories of show business, because I remember then, whatever it was, seven years later they had a comeback, and they had a great run again. They really got all cleaned up, but that was just a side note. I really hadn’t thought about in a long time. It made me think about it, thinking about those days.
So anyway, I will tell you this. All of those things really did run together. I am not exaggerating: I did not sleep for two years. Working in production particularly when you’re like a low-level person, you kind of go from job to job to job. Through most of it, my official residence was my parents’ house on Long Island, even though I had moved into the city basically on an informal basis crashing at either my brother’s apartment or whoever I was dating at the time. I remembered times when I would get home, I had been up for two days, and I would get home at 3 in the morning and set a clock, and I had to be back in Manhattan at like 5 a.m. and it would be 3 a.m. I would try desperately to stay awake to do the calculation of how much time I needed to commute and get dressed. It would inevitably leave me with like an hour to sleep, and I would set the clock and just put it next to my head so that it would wake me up, almost like doing a shift in the E.R. or something.
Sun: Did this contribute to your desire to get into television rather than the music business?
K.R.: [Laughs] My break came in television. I always just really thought about it. I’d say many, many people think about the movies first maybe, but my break came in television. I was a television addict growing up. My mother told me to stop watching so much television, that it would rot my brain. And so, you know, I made a career of it. But I came out just wanting to get into [the business]; I didn’t necessarily think about television. I was just looking for a break. I got hired at Universal Pictures in the feature film business at first. At the end of that cross-country trip, that was where I got hired, as a publicist actually. But I didn’t want to be on the marketing side, so I kept interviewing. Then I got my first break in the creative side at NBC a year later, and that’s where I started in television.
Sun: Besides Steve and Emile, do you know or work with any other Cornellians in the business?
K.R.: There are a handful of people. It’s funny: I just actually went to a lunch two weeks ago that Jonathan Dolgen ‘66, who ran Paramount Studios for many years out here, put together for President Skorton. He came out to visit, and I was really impressed with him. I think he’s got a terrific energy and he’s really a bright and actually very, very personable guy. Skorton is actually from Southern California and went to UCLA in fact, and we were talking at that lunch about how Cornell tends to not do enough work, particularly on the west coast, in terms of their own alumni network and their outreach and their image. It’s such an east coast-based school.
So that’s a long way of saying that I am always learning about people that I find out went to Cornell. I mean, I saw Jimmy Smits on the cover of the alumni magazine a few months ago and I thought, “I had no idea Jimmy Smits went there!” Now, he was an MFA, I guess. But the bottom line is [Steve and Emile] are my friends that I am close personal friends with who work in the business. There are other Cornellians that I see out here and know and stay close with but not necessarily in the business.
I’m thinking about getting more involved. I met with a couple of people from Cornell in the administration who actually want to do something about it and they want to improve their communications and more national image. So I actually think I’m going to get involved in that over the next year.
Sun: A big spot during American Idol? “Go to Cornell”?
K.R.: That ought to do the trick, don’t you think?
Sun: Yes! [Laughs] What’s one of your favorite projects that you developed or worked on and why?
K.R.: I think certainly being involved in the early stages of The Sopranos ended up being a great experience. I’ve been fortunate enough to brush up against some shows that did some amazing things, but The Sopranos… Given the fact that it was created by a guy who had been in writing television for many, many years and was frustrated because he could never get his own show on, and then at 50-something years of age, finally got traction on the show he was born to do.
We actually, ironically, did develop that show for FOX. So at one point in time, I sold that show to the guy who had the equivalent of my job now, and it was in development at FOX. In fact, for a very short period of time, we were actually almost attached to the lead of Without a Trace, Anthony LaPaglia, to play Tony Soprano when it was at FOX. When we were fighting to try to keep it in development here, we were trying desperately to get LaPaglia to sign on. And then FOX passed on the show, and we sat on it for like a year-and-a-half. Then it got into development at HBO. The script that they shot at HBO was pretty close to the script as it was written for FOX.
Sadly, just as a sidenote, I had the first draft of the pilot script to The Sopranos with my notes on it and I held onto it in a file all of these years. And when I just left NBC, and came back to FOX, and as The Sopranos was coming to an end, I finally thought, “You know what, I’ll dig that out of my file and maybe I’ll get that framed or something. It’ll be a cool piece of memorabilia.” And in the move, it got lost.
Sun: Oh no!
K.R.: I have no idea where it is. I’ve literally checked eBay for it because I feel like somebody ripped it off somewhere. But it’s gone. I have the crew jacket from the first year, which is a great jacket, but other than that, it was my big memento.
Sun: What did you think about the ending to the show?
K.R.: I loved it. Like everybody else, when it ended, my first response was to scream and think that my TiVo had screwed up and that it cut of the ending. And I came close to accusing my wife of messing it up somehow. But then when I realized what happened, I absolutely loved it and I thought it was the perfect way — very vintage David Chase if you know him, that he could just find the perfect way to screw with the audience at the end. I never thought that it was gonna tie up with a bow anyway. I never thought that Tony would either die or live. I thought it would have to be some in between place although I don’t think I could have quite figured it out that he would have done that.
Sun: In your position, and I asked Steve a similar question, it’s an interesting job working in TV, when you switch jobs, competing against shows that you helped develop. What is that like for you, especially compared to if you had gone into the movie business?
K.R.: You mean with me in particular, given that I was at one network and now I’m at another and I’m competing against the shows that I put on the air?
Sun: Or that when you were at NBC, you were competing against The Sopranos.
K.R.: It doesn’t matter so much in that case of broadcast to cable because they’re somewhat different businesses. But it’s certainly a little more immediate now being at FOX when I was at NBC for the last three-and-a-half years. I’ve got shows on the air that I’m still a big fan of and that I love and helped nurture like The Office, and now I’m competing against them. And then American Idol comes on and mows them all down [laughs]. It won’t for The Office — The Office is too great.
It is an odd experience, but its like anything else. You’re a part of that particular chapter and then you turn the page and you move on from there. And when you do what we do anyway, we’re not the authors of the shows. We’re the facilitators. We bring talent together, we help create an environment where they can grow or be nurtured on the air, but there’s a certain point where it is the actors and the creators and the writers that are living on with these things and we go onto the next thing. For better or for worse. It’s odd in that sense because you could be very, very close to things, but ultimately, you’re the overseer of it.
Sun: Was Andy Bernard, the Cornellian on The Office, anything to do with you?
K.R.: I actually — Greg Daniels who created the show, I don’t know how much of that was coincidence or not but he was kind of making fun of me. I actually did a scene with [Andy Bernard]. I did a cameo on The Office last year. I was giving Greg a hard time because he cut my scene out with him. But I was laughing because we did a whole riff on Cornell that ended up on the cutting room floor.
Sun: Oh no.
K.R.: Yeah, and there’s some really funny stuff. At least I thought it was hysterical. Apparently it just didn’t fit the story of the episode, but Greg kind of laughed a little bit when I asked about [whether Andy Bernard is Kevin Reilly] and … In my mind, yes. It was inspired by me.

In Ithaca, FOX is channel 8, and you can watch full episodes of FOX programs like House, Family Guy, 24, and Prison Break there and on demand at www.fox.com. Per the example of Kevin Reilly, watching TV will probably lead you to more success than studying, right?