Director and Writer Hugh Wilson distinctly remembers the time in the 70s when Atlanta bars cleared out when The Mary Tyler Moore Show and M*A*S*H were on TV. “That was my dream…to write for one of those, then direct,” he says of the popular shows. At the time, he was busy making his way to the top—from trainee to copywriter to creative director to president—of Burton Campbell Advertising in Atlanta.
“It seemed too far-fetched that I could do TV show and movies, but commercials didn’t,” he says. “But I got more and more interested in film and wanted to do more than 30-second spots.” Wilson first decided to give show business a shot at the age of 31. Through a couple of friends, he managed to get an interview with Grant Tinker, the then-husband of Mary Tyler Moore and the president of Mary Tyler Moore Productions.
From there on out, Wilson was a writer on The Bob Newhart Show, an associate producer on The Tony Randall Show, and ultimately the creator of his own show—WKRP in Cincinnati—which he ran for four years as head writer and producer. Wilson then received his chance to break into the movie business when he was asked to re-write the script for the 1984 film Police Academy.
“I didn’t think it was fixable,” he says. “So I politely refused.” But he was then offered the position of director if he would re-write it—an offer he couldn’t refuse.
In the years that followed, Wilson directed several more films, including Guarding Tess and The First Wives Club. In the last ten years, though, he has “kind of” retired, he says. But now he’s thinking about returning to the movie business.
“I’m getting back into the business because of my daughter,” offers Wilson, explaining that his 23-year-old daughter Maggie, a graduate of the Savannah School of Art and Design, will be his writing partner for the New Line Studios/Warner Bros.’s new Police Academy. “I wouldn’t be doing it if it were someone else,” he states.
“She has gotten me interested in it again.” Wilson also said that they are going to Fox to do a movie based on WKRP in the near future.
On the one hand, he is excited to get back into the movie business alongside his daughter. But, on the other hand, Wilson cannot say that he has not enjoyed his time away from the business. “I’m also a guy who enjoys not working,” Wilson explains. “Retirement seems to be a thing I’m good at.”
When Wilson first grew tired of LA in 1992, he and his family moved to the countryside of Charlottesville. “I chose it just because it was a beautiful place,” he explains. “I was tired of living in big cities…and I like the idea of a small town but a lot going on, a lot of smart people, a lot of interesting people.” Once he was here, Wilson said that a few people suggested that it might be fun to teach, so he decided to take a look into the University of Virginia’s course offerings.
“There were a number of courses in playwriting, but no screenwriting courses,” he explains. So, he “took the bull by the horns” and suggested a screenwriting course, and the Media Studies department allowed him to be an adjunct professor.
For three years now, Wilson has been teaching the screenwriting course at U.Va., in which students learn to look at movies and break them down in terms of plot and construct.
“You must be able to break down a story in order to write a line of dialogue,” he says, comparing dialogue to a Christmas tree ornament on a tree that is the story.
And for those in Charlottesville interested in pursuing a career in the movie business, Wilson had one more piece of advice: “You have to go there. You have to go to LA….and just meet a bunch of people trying to do what you want to do and network with them.”
Hugh Wilson’s Top Ten Favorite Things to Do in Charlottesville:
1. Cut the grass.
2. Go to Harris Teeter.
3. Walk up and down the Downtown Mall.
4. Foods of All Nations.
5. Go to U.Va. basketball and football games.
“…And I’m guessing that isn’t ten things yet…but that’s it.”
- Anna Mahone