The year was 1967. The Graduate opened in movie theaters and The Doors’ self-titled album debuted. Despite student uprisings across the country, then USC student president, Taylor Hackford ’68, described the university as an “ocean of tranquility.” He decided to shake things up.
“When I was student body president, I was very proud of my university and I loved it, but I was also interested in drawing it into a new world, somewhat controversially at times.” Hackford said.
His first step was to affiliate the school with the National Student Association as a way to give students a voice. He went on to initiate the first student evaluation of the faculty, start a cooperative bookstore, and campaign for students to pay an activity fee that allowed them to bring to campus the musicians and lecturers they, not necessarily the administration, wanted to hear.
“When I look back on student politics, I put actual power and teeth in student affairs,” he reflected. “There was an opportunity for the student government to do something and provide services to the student body, which they never did before.”
Upon graduation, Hackford received the Order of the Palm, the highest honor for service and scholarship bestowed by USC on graduating seniors.
These contributions to his alma mater have not been forgotten. On April 24, at the 77th Annual Alumni Awards Gala, the USC Alumni Association presented Hackford with its highest honor, the Asa V. Call Alumni Achievement Award. According to Robert Padgett ’68, president of the USC Alumni Association, “the award is only given in those years when the Alumni Association feels someone is truly deserving of the honor.”
Hackford was surprised but delighted by the award. “To take my place with a group of very illustrious alumni is thrilling,” he said.
Past honorees of the Asa V. Call Award have been John Wayne, Neil Armstrong, musician Herb Alpert, past USC President Norman Topping, and former Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox.
Hackford came to USC in 1963 with an interest in politics, but one class with legendary international relations professor Norman Fertig sealed the deal for him.
“He just had the right spark to interest me and I went into the world of international relations,” Hackford said.
After graduating with a major in international relations, Hackford served in the Peace Corps in Bolivia. There, he learned about the power of film by making small instructional movies with a Super 8 camera.
Upon returning to Los Angeles, Hackford capitalized on his USC connection at KCET, a local PBS station, and secured a job in the mail room. “It turned out to be my film school,” Hackford said.
He soon worked his way up to making documentary films. In 1979, a short film Hackford wrote and directed for the Children’s Home Society, Teenage Father, earned him an Academy Award for Best Live-Action Short and was the beginning of his distinguished film career.
Hackford’s first major success as a director was with An Officer and a Gentleman (1982). He went on to produce and direct numerous other films, including Dolores Claiborne (1995), The Devil’s Advocate (1997) and Proof of Life (2000). In 2004, Hackford received an Academy Award nomination for directing Ray, a biopic on Ray Charles.
Taylor believes his background in international relations influences the films he makes.
“I’m working class. My mother was a waitress and she raised me alone. So that was my background,” Hackford said. “My films are always about working-class people, struggling within their system to get ahead, to succeed in some way, shape or form.”
Hackford is now hard at work on several new films and is the current president of the Directors Guild of America.
“Feature film directors can come from any walk of life,” he said, “It’s my experience in life, in real life, that feeds my inspiration.”