Gary Shusett dies at 72; co-founder of Sherwood Oaks film school
Hollywood had a hard time saying “no” to Gary Shusett.
In the early 1970s, he co-founded Sherwood Oaks Experimental College, a professional school devoted to the craft of filmmaking, and kept it going for the rest of his life by brandishing a trait never in short supply in this town: tenacity.
After a guest lecture by reclusive record producer Phil Spector proved popular, Shusett realized he could make a go of it by persuading the industry’s big names to share their experiences and expertise with students. Within the industry, his efforts at recruiting speakers became legendary.
When he ambushed Lucille Ball while she was having eyeglasses fitted at the optometrist, she ended up teaching a six-week course on comedy acting. He failed to woo Lily Tomlin with an invitation written in calligraphy on a window shade but succeeded after he asked a music student to compose a song for her.
Although Robert Duvall once called hotel security because of Shusett, many of the famous agreed to speak at Sherwood Oaks, if only to end the pestering, former employees said.
Shusett died Aug. 9 of cancer at his home in Hollywood, said Christine Owens, his producing partner and close friend. He was 72.
“Gary was very important, instrumental really, in bringing the continuing education model to the industry so they could share their experiences with the community,” said Syd Field, who laid the groundwork for his now-classic “Screenplay” text after he began teaching at the school in the mid-1970s.
Asking celebrities to essentially bare their professional souls in a public forum was a radical notion when Shusett set out to try it. Many assumed they would never agree to it, but “as it turned out, everyone came,” according to Field.
Actor Richard Dreyfuss, who spoke at the school in its early years, called Shusett “a very imaginative educator.”
“In the ‘70s he had a good film school, eccentric and realistic as anyone could run without the millions universities now have” to accomplish the same thing, Dreyfuss said in a statement.
Screenwriter Paul Schrader taught there on a regular basis, as did producer-director Tony Bill, who once said that Sherwood Oaks helped demythologize the notion that the movie business is closed to new talent.
One notable seminar Shusett held in 1974 presented a panel of young directors who appeared to have bright futures. It included George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma.
Over time traditional classes were discontinued in favor of seminars given under the banner of Sherwood Oaks Experimental College, which was not a true college and didn’t have much of a campus. It once operated from “a funky, rundown storefront on Hollywood Boulevard,” according to Field.
Shusett eventually found it more expedient to bring students to the speaker and rented convenient spaces to hold seminars. During the Academy Awards, he would book a nearby room, then talk a new Oscar-winner into addressing waiting students.
“It’s like a game,” he once said of his nudging in the name of education.
His long list of speakers included writer-producer Rod Serling, directors Robert Altman, Billy Wilder and Scorsese; and actors Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Steve McQueen, Robert De Niro, Sissy Spacek and Bea Arthur.
Another regular at the school was his brother, Ronald Shusett, a screenwriter and producer known for such films as “Alien” (1979) and “Total Recall” (1990).
Gary Lynn Shusett was born July 19, 1941, in Los Angeles to David and Fanny Shusett. His parents divorced when he was 10, about the time his real estate-developer father commissioned architect John Lautner to design a modern home in Beverly Hills. Despite preservationists’ efforts, it was demolished in 2010 long after the Shusetts sold it.
After graduating from Beverly Hills High in 1960, Shusett attended several local colleges. Formal education bored him, he later said, so he dropped out in 1968 out to help a friend run private Sherwood Oaks High School in Encino.
A couple of years later, they turned it into an “experimental college,” offering courses in music, batik, building ships in bottles – anything they thought might attract students. Once they discovered the allure of entertainment classes, they moved the enterprise to Hollywood. Eventually, his partner fell away.
The organizational and communication skills needed to run a growing business were not Shusett’s strength, he told The Times in 1979. “I’m really not a social person,” he said at the time. “I’m best at turning ideas into a reality.”
Shusett “had one velvet jacket that was burgundy red, and he would wear it every single day,” Field said. “His hair was never combed. But he had this persistent energy about him.”
He remained fiercely devoted to making Hollywood accessible despite the school’s ever-shaky finances. He made enough money to pay his bills, according to Owens, enrolling about 4,800 students in the last eight years alone. There are plans to continue Sherwood Oaks.
Besides his brother, Ronald, Shusett is survived by a sister, Cindy.
He was to be buried at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, long known as the final resting place of many Tinseltown legends.
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