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Adam Shankman: Just call him Oscar’s choreographer

Adam Shankman’s love affair with the Oscars began with an act of petty larceny.

Back when he was a little boy, his father -- an entertainment lawyer and manager -- attended the Academy Awards. “He brought home the program from the show, and I stole it,” said Shankman, 45. “I kept it and would look through that program for years. I just thought it was the most glorious thing in the world.”

After being long-transfixed by the entertainment industry, Shankman has suddenly been catapulted directly into the center of it as the co-producer of the 82nd Academy Awards. A choreographer, film director and producer, he is perhaps best known to the public as a judge on Fox’s popular reality competition show “So You Think You Can Dance.” His role on the show and work on hit movies has endeared him to many fans and has arguably made him one of the most recognizable producers that the academy has ever employed.

But it was Shankman’s directing credits, which include “Hairspray,” that appealed to Bill Mechanic, the show’s other producer and a former chairman and chief executive of 20th Century Fox Filmed Entertainment. “I was a fan of a couple of Adam’s movies and thought he’d be great at the humor and performance elements of the show,” Mechanic said.

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While the two have teamed to tackle production duties, it’s hard not to be drawn into the one-man show that is Shankman. During a recent February day at the Burbank complex where the show’s rehearsals were taking place, the always-gregarious Shankman was working on a scant five hours of sleep. It was only midmorning, but he had already done an interview for National Public Radio, gone to Sony for a meeting and was about to start choreographing the show’s dance numbers. A costume designer was also trying to solicit his opinion on new clothing options. “I think boas are a little too draggy,” he said. “But I like these ruffles. I think that’s going to be happening a lot on the carpet this season.”

Shankman has been surprised by the workload, said his sister, Jennifer Gibgot, with whom he runs the production company Offspring Entertainment. “I have to say that he’s done a pretty good job juggling everything,” she said. “But I think taking on the Oscars was a lot more work than he ever anticipated.”

Last week, Shankman sat down for lunch at a restaurant near the Kodak Theatre as the show had progressed from the rehearsal stage to the run-throughs. With just days until the big night, it was crunch time, and he tried to ignore his buzzing phone while eating his chicken Marsala.

“It’s like living with a 24-hour-a-day panic attack,” he said with a sigh.

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Before lunch that day, Shankman had quietly sneaked out of rehearsals to try to de-stress for 30 minutes at a nearby gym. With an iPod in tow, Shankman was dressed in a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt and looked trim and evenly tan. He’s a self-admitted gym rat, with memberships at numerous gyms around L.A. so he can always grab a workout.

“Yeah, looking good is important to me, because I’m on the market,” said Shankman, who is openly gay and single. “I am not unaffected by the youth culture of Los Angeles and the pressures of the gay community to look good.”

The phone rang. It was actor Justin Long, who was sick and couldn’t attend a party being thrown for Shankman that evening.

“Hello? Oh, babe. I don’t want to be your friend anymore,” he said, deadpan. “I thought you loved me. I’m glad it was fun giving you a break as the first lead in a film. No, baby, don’t worry about it.”

Long before Shankman received calls from movie stars, he dreamed of being one. Growing up in Brentwood, Shankman wanted to be a child actor -- something his therapist mother and his father wouldn’t allow.

“My parents couldn’t get me to stop cartwheeling up and down the aisles of restaurants,” he recalled.

His affinity for dance landed him a spot at the prestigious Juilliard School without ever having had any formal training. He dropped out about a year and a half later. Back in L.A., he began getting small jobs as a backup dancer in music videos for artists such as Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul. He also got a gig as “Jack the Rubber Boy,” Rubbermaid’s dancing commercial spokesperson.

One job led to the next, and soon he was choreographing dance numbers in films. He created a short film involving dance that landed at Sundance and was soon offered his first directing job on “The Wedding Planner,” starring Jennifer Lopez.

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Since then, Shankman has directed a number of movies, including “Bringing Down the House” and “Bedtime Stories.” Meanwhile, his production company has churned out popular films including “Step Up” and the upcoming Miley Cyrus film “The Last Song.”

Zac Efron, who worked with Shankman on “Hairspray” and “17 Again” and will be a presenter at this year’s Oscars, said he thinks the director is “able to connect with younger people because he’s maintained his own youthful energy.”

“I think people think of me for saccharine family movies,” Shankman acknowledged. “I’ve spent most of my career taking pretty schlocky ideas and turning them into something a little original. But I want to do something more adult than kids and animals.”

Shankman’s commercial sensibility has certainly been welcomed by the academy, which has long been trying to attract a younger viewership -- Channing Tatum, who starred in “Step Up,” Cyrus, and a slew of dancers from “So You Think You Can Dance” will join Efron in appearances on the Oscar telecast.

Despite the frenetic pace of the last few months, Shankman has already been pondering his next career move.

“I think I do a lot of work so I don’t have to look at my life. I think that’s what my workaholism is about,” he said. “I’ve had the craziest year doing all these things I’d never seen myself doing, and a lot of people see me as diversifying, but I was just trying to fill up my time. And it’s not a sad thing. But my heart has now turned towards wanting to do things that make me happy.”

amy.kaufman@latimes.com


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