Most people think alumnus and Academy Award-winning director Taylor Hackford is a product of USC's School of Cinematic Arts.
"Actually, he never went to film school," noted USC President Steven Sample. "He studied international relations in the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and planned to become a lawyer.”
Sample made the statements while presenting the ’68 graduate with the 2010 Asa V. Call Alumni Achievement Award, the highest honor given by the USC Alumni Association. Prior alumni winners include John Wayne, Neil Armstrong, Pat Nixon, Pat Haden and Warren Christopher. The association’s 77th annual awards gala took place April 24 at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel & Suites in downtown Los Angeles.
During the ceremony, Sample recounted that in Hackford’s senior year, he was elected president of USC’s Undergraduate Student Government. He became interested in movies and started mingling with film students.
They helped to change the way Hackford viewed movies and introduced him to art houses featuring films by François Roland Truffaut, Akira Kurosawa and Jean-Luc Godard.
After attending his graduation ceremony in '67 (He earned his diploma in '68), Hackford spent two years in the Peace Corps in Bolvia, then returned to USC to attend law school.
“But that only lasted a few weeks,” Sample said. “He’d been bitten by the movie bug.”
Like many great Hollywood stories, Sample said, Hackford’s rise to fame began in a mailroom. But not in the basement of a choice firm like the William Morris Agency. It was the mailroom at KCET, L.A.’s local public television station.
“One day someone popped his head in the door and asked Mr. Hackford, ‘Can you shoot film?’ ” Sample said. “Without hesitation Taylor said, ‘Sure!’ There was only one problem. It wasn’t true. He’d never operated a professional camera before.”
But Hackford turned out to be a natural behind the camera. Working his way up from cameraman to investigative reporter, he made several acclaimed documentaries. He left KCET and received funding to do an educational film for high school students.
“He decided to do something unconventional,” Sample said. “He made a 30-minute docudrama and interviewed 71 teen fathers.”
Called Teenage Father, the short film won an Academy Award. Over the years, he has directed biographical tributes to musical giants such as Chuck Berry, Ritchie Valens and Ray Charles. He helped Richard Gere sweep Debra Winger off her feet in An Officer and a Gentleman; brought out the devil in Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate; and made actor Jamie Foxx blind, helping him win an Oscar for Ray.
Hackford is also the president of the Directors Guild of America.
“This evening we salute Mr. Hackford not only for his outstanding accomplishments in his professional life, but also for the exceptional qualities he embodies as a person,” Sample said. “The Asa V. Call Alumni Achievement Award celebrates those who, by excelling in their chosen field, have brought great honor to themselves and to USC.”
During the event, a tribute video showed friends and family discussing Hackford.
“I have described him as a detail-oriented, energetic, obsessive, irritating and wonderful person,” said Hackford’s wife, Academy Award-winning actress Helen Mirren, who also attended the event. Hackford and Mirren wed in 1997 after 12 years together.
“Coming to USC was an incredible inspiration and leap forward in his life.” Mirren continued. “I know because he talks to me so much about it … When I came to Los Angeles the first date he invited me on was an alumni get together, which shows how high in his mind USC stands. I know how important USC is to him, I know how deeply USC runs through his veins and how very important that era was for him, how formative it was for him.”
Foxx appeared in the video thanking Hackford.
“He gave me an opportunity to perform a movie role that will be the signature role for the rest of my existence,” Foxx said.
Accepting the award, Hackford talked about his working class upbringing in Santa Barbara, raised by a single mother, a waitress.
“I knew if I were to go to college, I’d have to earn it, get a scholarship,” Hackford said. At Santa Barbara High School, he became student body president, played basketball, joined the chorus and service clubs and was voted Top Male Student. He visited campus on “So Cal Student Body President Day,” and chose USC over Berkeley, Yale and Dartmouth.
“What I’ve accomplished in life has to do with my work ethic, which I got from my mother, but also which I developed at ’SC,” Hackford said.
He recalled living at Marx Hall (which he called “the original ’SC Animal House”), then moving to Stonier Hall, where he met Mike Guhin, who greatly influenced him. Guhin, now the United States negotiator and representative for plutonium disposition, introduced him to Joe Ryan and Robert Padgett, who became two of Hackford’s closest, lifelong friends. Padgett is now USC Alumni Association president.
He remembered that it was someone from USC who gave him the opportunity to make Teenage Father, a film that ignited his successful career.
“You see how it all comes back to ’SC?” he asked.
The ceremony included a special tribute for Sample and his wife Kathryn. USC’s President since 1991, Sample retires in August. The 10th president told the audience of nearly 600 that lately he has been doing much reflecting.
“I’ve especially been thinking about the Trojan Family,” Sample said. “I remember my first press conference after being named USC’s president. I was a little uncertain about what to say to the media, so I asked Martha Harris, who’s now our senior vice president for university relations, for her advice.”
“What should I say?” Sample asked Harris.
“Trojan Family,” Harris replied.
“For a moment, I thought maybe she’d misunderstood me,” Sample said. “I said, ‘No, Martha, I mean what should I say to the media?’ ”
“Just say ‘Trojan Family’ over and over,” Harris responded. “Make sure they can’t create a sound bite that doesn’t include the words ‘Trojan Family.’ ”
“Martha was right. There is something deeply powerful about those two words: Trojan Family,” Sample said, suppressing tears. “They represent the loyalty, the special connections, the unbreakable bonds that all of us share — worldwide and lifelong.”
Alumni Merit Awards went to Janet Evans, communications ’95; Ming Hsieh, electrical engineering ’83, M.S. ’84; and Captain Melissa Ward, business administration ’86.
Gale Bensussen, business administration ’70; Jane Bensussen, communicative disorders M.A. ’69; and Roger W. Rossier, education M.S. ’62, Ed.D. ’72, took home the Alumni Service Awards.
The gala ended with Traveler VII, USC's white horse mascot, galloping down the red carpet with the USC Trojan Marching Band playing the legendary song, "Fight On."