Want to Be on the Show? Just Call Danette Herman

Susan King is a Times staff writer

Danette Herman has a dream occupation.

Currently in her 20th year as executive in charge of talent for the Academy Awards, Herman has met all the major stars. She's been kissed on the cheek by the legendary Italian director Federico Fellini, received handwritten notes of thanks from Emma Thompson and calls of appreciation from the likes of Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn and Angela Lansbury.

Not surprisingly, Herman reports: "I love my job."

Herman's love affair the Oscars began 30 years ago when, as a USC student, the unabashed movie buff was hired as a production assistant for the Academy Awards.

Over the years, Herman, whose credits include the Kennedy Center Honors, the Emmy Awards and the 1984 and 1996 Olympic Games, has worked with such Oscar producers as Howard W. Koch, Jack Haley Jr., Stanley Donen, William Friedkin, Allan Carr and Quincy Jones.

She has a special place in her heart for current producer Gil Cates. The two are celebrating their eighth Academy Awards together.

"Gil makes it extremely pleasurable," says Herman, on a recent morning in the Oscar production offices in Century City. "He's a wonderful boss. We have a lot of fun. We laugh a lot. That really makes it great."

Cates describes Herman as "an extraordinary woman in the sense that is she a grown-up. She handles these big stars with thoughtfulness and firmness. She only asks on behalf of the show what she needs, never more, never less. She's really the premiere booker and talent coordinator in television."

Herman's also one of the most gracious. She won't dish the dirt about the stars and didn't give any hint at the time of the interview on who would be announcing the winners or performing the nominated songs this year.

But she will talk about what makes her job so special. "There is a lot of humanity on the Oscars which people are not aware of," Herman explains. "There are a lot of wonderful moments."

In fact, she says, each year she receives a "gift" doing the show. "Sometimes the gift is meeting a particular star who had been a favorite of yours or a performer or an acceptance speech."

Herman recalls John Wayne's heroic final appearance on the Oscars in 1979 just a few months before his death of cancer. "He was very frail," she says quietly. "It showed the power of his spirit to be there and put on a tuxedo and come on as the real star that he was. It was very moving. There's so much emotion in doing this show. That's what makes it so exciting to me, plus the fact I love movies."

Booking the show, Herman says, is an ongoing process. Oscar tradition dictates that the previous year's acting winners present the acting awards.

As for the other presenters, Herman says, "we have many conversations about who is going to be on the show. Gil is the producer of the show and it's something that we do as a collaboration. You actually have a very good sense of what the show is all about once the nominations come out."

Cates says he and Herman first compile a wish list. "You want to have the biggest stars," he says, as well as a "balance of stars in terms of the kind of pictures, sex, age, diversity, funny people, serious people."

Herman will often call the actors or their publicists. In some instances, Cates makes the call.

"We have a system here," Cates says. "When we send an invitation out, there is a little mark by the person's name on our production board. If the person agrees to do the show, we change that mark. Plus, there are dozens of calls we get each day from people who want to do the show. Treating them carefully and thoughtfully is what makes her unique."

Herman says she's discovered that most actors feel it's an "incredible honor" to be asked to participate on the show. "If they don't appear on the show it's for a variety of reasons," she says. "Movie stars are making movies. They are on location. People are busy."

The presenters, she says, also have a good time. "We try to make it easy for them," Herman says. "We try to make the rehearsal day fun. We try to create an environment during the show that makes it pleasurable to be on the show. That's why a lot of people come back to the show."

It's imperative the presenters and performers be locked in by early March. "Gil wants to get the show in place so the writers can begin writing it," she explains. "There are so many pieces to this puzzle. It's all interrelated. We're all interconnected in this office."

Herman always looks forward to meeting the recipients of the honorary Oscars.

"They are treasured people," she says. "These are people who have had an incredible impact on us as moviegoers. There is an awful lot of emotion attached to their appearances."

She describes her encounter with Fellini five years ago as an "enormous honor."

"He was fairly ill at that point," she recalls. "When he walked into rehearsal with [his wife] Giulietta Masina and his assistant and following them was Marcello Mastroianni, this was Italian cinema come to life.

"At one point, Gil had to escort Masina and Mr. Fellini's assistant on stage, so I was there in the dressing room sitting on the couch with Mr. Fellini on one side and Marcello Mastroianni on the other side. They both kissed me on the cheek. They were speaking Italian as if I understood it. I knew they were saying funny things because they were laughing."

After the ceremony, Herman beams, she received a thank-you note from the director. "He sent me a big note," she says. "It was in English and he typed it himself!"

The day after the Oscars, Herman says, is the "biggest letdown. We come back to the production offices exhausted. The phones are busy. We're tired. But we're holding on to one another and don't want to go. It's like camp. We've been together for three months on this incredible high. It takes a long time to get back up. It's hard to say goodbye to the experience and the staff. Gil never likes to say goodbye, so we don't."

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