An Emmy Award winning star, a renowned scientist who looks to the stars, a film professor who’s creating new stars. These were among the honorees for the 13th Annual Caucus American Spirit Awards luncheon held May 29th at the Taglyan Complex in Los Angeles.
Every year, the Caucus for Producers, Writers, and Directors celebrates the achievements of individuals who, through their life and work, embrace the American spirit as story tellers, educators, entertainers, and thought leaders. This year’s recipients have each had a profound and positive impact on the entertainment industry and the world around us.
Henry Winkler, star of the HBO series Barry and a legend from his Happy Days to his remarkable book series, Hank Zipzer, chronicling the everyday adventures of a bright boy with learning challenges, was introduced by Caucus former chair, Vin Di Bona, executive producer and creator of America’s Funniest Home Videos, going into its 30th year on television.
Winkler, a beloved actor, humanitarian, as well as long-time producer, received the Caucus Legend Award. Taking the microphone, he completely regaled the audience with accounts of his show business launch through the excitement he feels today. “My father wanted me to buy and sell wood. I did not want to buy and sell wood. I wanted to be an actor… So here I am. I had a dream at 7. I am 73 and I am still living that dream.” Winkler emphasized the absolute joy of crafting stories and creating meaningful content through multiple mediums.
Winkler, a Yale and Emerson College graduate, also echoed the observations of another American Spirit Award recipient and Emerson College teacher Professor Cristina Kotz Cornejo.
In accepting the American Spirit Award for Education, Cornejo, the first Latina Full Professor of Media Production in the country and Emerson’s Associate Chair of Production in the Department of Visual and Media Arts noted, “Teaching filmmaking is about learning what makes people tick; human behavior and why people do what they do. Ultimately it’s about trying to figure out why we’re here.” Cornejo, an independent filmmaker and author herself, reminds students that the ability to tell stories is also a privilege that comes with responsibility. It’s then that their work can “elevate the learning experience.”
The educational theme worked through the afternoon event as writer/producer and Caucus Executive Committee member Jim Hirsch introduced two outstanding guests, Professor Hildreth “Hal” Walker and Dr. Bettye Walker. The husband and wife team received the Caucus’ Humanitarian Award; Professor Walker for his remarkable achievement firing the laser to the moon during the Apollo 11 Moon Landing that provided the exact measurement of the distance between the earth to the moon and Dr. Walker, for her pioneering work in STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and their collaborative outreach for Los Angeles inner city youth. Hal and Bettye also initiated STEM in South Africa at the request of President Nelson Mandela in 1997.
In prepared remarks, Dr. Bettye Walker’s speech quoted Charles Darwin. “‘It’s not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.’ We are making change by bridging the gap to success for the next generation and whether it was to get us to the moon, or provide opportunities for youth, Hal and I remain committed to Passing the Torch of STEM education to youth.”
Hal Walker’s speech further emphasized, “Our hope is to give the next generation the STEM tools to make the torch shine brighter since the sky is no longer the limit and we must look ‘off world.'”
Former Caucus Chair Norman Powell introduced retired U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army Special forces officer, Chase Millsap. Millsap was honored as the Caucus Distinguished Veteran of 2019. After ten years in the United States Armed Forces, Millsap earned a Master’s Degree at the USC School of Public Policy. While there he received a phone call from an Iraqi soldier who had served with his Marine unit and now needed help. Without regard for his own life, the Iraqi had rushed the enemy position to save Chase from what seemed certain death. “Now he was calling me for help.” The result was the production of The Captain’s Story for National Geographic which highlighted the struggles of the Iraqi soldier and the similar accounts of other American wartime allies.
The awards concluded with an honor bestowed on radio and TV talk host Larry King. King’s heralded career was captured in a video highlight reel and reviewed by King’s long-time friend, Charley Steiner, play-by-play voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Although Larry King was not able to attend, Steiner shared Larry King’s advice to young people, “Don’t ever give up and never be afraid of taking risks.”
Steiner said that whether King was interviewing show business icons like Marlon Brando or Frank Sinatra or past and current world leaders from Ronald Reagan to Nelson Mandela, he never had an agenda. “What Larry wants are basic answers to simple and direct questions. That was Larry’s importance to the world’s culture.”
The Caucus Co-Chairs Robert Papazian and Tanya Hart, along with Chuck Fries, Chair of Caucus Events; Gary Smith, American Spirit Awards Chair; Vice Chairs Sharon Arnett and James Hirsch; Vin Di Bona; producer/novelist Gary Grossman; and Executive Director Deborah Leoni were proud to recognize these deserving individuals and their service to others. Entertainment was provided by singer MaryJo Mundy and pianist, Nelson Kole.
For 40 years The Caucus for Producers, Writers, and Directors has represented the “creative conscience” of the entertainment industry. And with the Caucus Foundation, it continues to encourage the creation of meaningful content across all platforms and foster the careers of future entertainment professionals with completion grants to student productions.
Gary Grossman is a multiple Emmy winning producer who has produced more than 10,000 shows for 40 networks. He’s also a best-selling author of seven international award-winning novels, including his latest thrillers Executive Force and Red Hotel. He serves on the Board of Trustees for his alma mater, Emerson College and on the Boston University Metropolitan College Advisory Board. Gary is also a member of the Caucus Foundation Board and is a contributing editor to Media Ethics Magazine.