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Hollywood veterans keep the faith with fellow industry Catholics

Beverly Hills, Calif.

Screen a movie for a private showing and those watching and commenting later do not always react as if everyone had seen the same film.

Take the experiment a little further, fill the screening room with folks of different ages, and the likes and dislikes tend to split along age lines.

So explained Patt and Jack Shea recently. They are co-founders of CIMA, the Los Angeles-area Catholics in Media Associates, for Catholics in the entertainment industry.

A couple of years ago they screened for a Catholic audience the movie “Dogma,” directed by Kevin Smith, a Catholic himself.

“The people under 35 saw a different show from the people over 35,” said Patt Shea. “The younger people thought the movie had something to say about God’s loving grace. The older audience,” she said, “couldn’t get past the scatology -- the language was full of f---s -- and the irreverence for Catholic symbols and beliefs.”

Next, put Patt and Jack Shea in a room -- in the Beverly Hills Hilton after a Mass celebrated by Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony -- and Catholics in Media know they’re honoring two of the industry’s more industrious and celebrated veterans, Jack, a director, and Patt, a screenwriter. They are outspoken, pro-Hollywood and have always worn their Catholic identity on their professional sleeves.

Consequently, that room, at the Oct. 27 CIMA 10th anniversary Mass and awards, with Gregory Hines as master of ceremonies, turned into a Shea-fest. From a distance, the Catholic Worker movement; Network, the Catholic social justice lobby; the Nuclear Policy Research Institute; Catholic Charities and other Shea-supported endeavors, would have joined in the applause had they known.

New Yorker Jack Shea in 1950 stepped out of Fordham University with a bachelor’s and into NBC television as a stage manager. He was happily working his way up to director when, as a man with an ROTC commission, he was tapped on the shoulder and told to report for the Korean War -- in Los Angeles.

As a first lieutenant not assigned to a military base and ostensibly making training films for the Air Force, he discovered he liked the California way of life. “Everyone was walking around smiling. I was used to the hurly-burly of New York. I didn’t see how they got any work done,” said Shea. “I decided California was for me.”

Patt Shea tells it differently: “He couldn’t go back to New York -- he couldn’t afford a really warm coat.”

The Air Force decided to send Shea to Florida instead. But by that time the two were wed.

Patt Carmody, from Sacramento, had come to Los Angeles to Immaculate Heart College -- it was the only Catholic college in the region offering a drama major. “The [Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters] were great teachers and women,” she said, “the first feminists.” (And a congregation that provoked the ire of Los Angeles’ Cardinal James McIntyre, but that’s another story).

In her senior year, Patt was on stage in “George Washington Slept Here;” a Fordham friend of Jack’s played the male lead. “Jack first saw me on stage,” she said, “and we met at the party after.” It was 1953. She and Jack married “after about four dates,” she said.

By June 1954, Jack Shea was out of the Air Force and back in New York with NBC where he didn’t have to argue for a West Coast transfer. “California NBC was expanding so fast out here,” he said, “that 10 days after I arrived, I was a senior member, training new guys. Associate director, director, the timing was perfect for television.”

They lived in Los Feliz and attended the Jesuits’ Blessed Sacrament parish. Blessed Sacrament was long the site of the annual parade of Catholic movie stars -- such as Loretta Young, Irene Dunne, Ricardo Montalban -- into church for McIntyre’s annual Communion breakfast for the entertainment industry. It was held during Lent so the industry’s Catholics could also make their Easter duty.

Early on, Shea was working as stage manager and assistant director on the live-television, long-running, “Bob Hope Show.” As the old director was leaving, the producer asked Shea to suggest possible successors. “I got him three names of guys I respected, he went off to talk to Hope, and came back and said they made the decision.” Asked Shea: “Who?” The answer: “You.”

Which meant that for more than a decade Shea was often away from home as he directed Hope’s overseas tours. That same decade brought five children, daughter Shawn in 1954, Elizabeth in 1957, Bill in 1960, Michael in 1962 and JJ in 1964. Four of the offspring are in the business, as associate directors, directors or personal assistants to directors.

Patt meantime had stepped from proscenium arch into the laundry room. She tried a few gigs as extra and background, but realized “if I wanted to raise a family and be in the business, all I could do is write.” She took writing courses at UCLA, extension courses and “worked with different partners trying out for television, did magazine articles, anything.”

“Finally,” said Shea, one producer told her, “I’ll give you six weeks to write something and watch you fail.” She didn’t fail. But “In the Beginning” came to a rapid end. The pilot script, about a stodgy priest sent to an inner-city mission run by a fast-talking, fast-acting post-Vatican II nun, though well-received, was killed by an outpouring from conservative Catholics who’d never seen it, but knew they wouldn’t like it. Reflected Shea, “So much for free speech.”

But Patt Shea wasn’t stilled for long. Actor Jean Stapleton wanted to use women writers. Soon Shea and partner Harriet Wise were writing for “All in the Family.” In the years that followed, the credits with her partners included “Happy Days,” “Cagney and Lacey,” “The Golden Girls” and lots more.

The Sheas were a team for a while. Jack, piling up his own director’s credits, directed more than 100 episodes of “The Jeffersons,” on which Patt was a writer.

He received an Emmy nomination for “Designing Women”; she the Gabriel and Scott Newman awards for “Archie Bunker’s Place.”

The years began to catch up. “We aged out of the business,” said Jack. “I was lucky, I kept working into my mid-60s. Usually they don’t want to hire directors beyond 60, or even earlier than that.”

Those outside the industry forget that while people can make a career in Hollywood, there’s no tenure, no guarantee of employment. Actors, writers, animators, directors, crew are hired for the life of the series or the movie. That’s it. Entertainment industry people are perpetually job hunting.

NCR asked Jack Shea about the permanent, lifelong specter of always having short-term jobs. Or no job at all.

“It’s always spotty,” he said. “I was very fortunate as a director to do whole season series, so I had a very successful career. And yet, when a show’s finished its run, you feel, ‘That’s it. They’ve found me out. Now I’m never going to be hired again.’ You live with that your whole working life. I was very happy, lucky and had good shows.”

He was also admired. As retirement approached, Shea’s fellow directors gave him their signal honor. They elected him president of the Directors Guild, an unpaid position in their union. It represents 12,500 members, directors of all the major motion picture and television shows. He served in the high-pressure job for five years.

In the Sheas’ Catholic world, Catholics in Media Associates was an almost accidental creation. They were active in St. Francis de Sales Parish where Capuchin Franciscan Fr. Tony Scannell pondered the lack of church support for Catholics in the Hollywood community.

It started in the Sheas’ house about 1989. “We sat around, talked and prayed.” Catholics in Media Associates was the result. It attracted quiet attention. “The cardinal [Mahony] was interested, came for dinner, stayed for the prayer meeting,” said Patt Shea. When the group that had been organizing the annual Communion breakfast for the entertainment industry bowed out, Mahony asked Scannell -- CIMA’s chaplain -- if CIMA would take it on.

“We said yes,” said Patt. “We decided we wouldn’t get into the criticism of Hollywood business. At a time when the Catholic League [for Religious and Civil Rights] was doing nothing but criticize, we decided we’d affirm good material.”

Catholics in Media Associates began giving annual awards (see accompanying story).

The Sheas scoff at the charge that Hollywood is all about sex and violence.

“That’s an easy criticism if you want to get your name in the paper,” said Patt. “I’d like to ask them, ‘What’s the last thing you’ve seen, and where were you looking?’ ”

“Look at the overall number of programs,” said Jack, “television or motion pictures -- and the majority, I think, are about good subjects, not tawdry subjects. If you want to spend your time intelligently examining the range of shows offered -- on television, for example -- you can find good shows practically every day of the week. There are some people [in the business] who don’t care and just want to make a buck; the majority are well-intentioned.”

Added Patt, “Motion pictures stand by themselves. A television show stands by itself. You watch it, and walk away from it. Part of what people get out of entertainment is what they project into it. That’s an interesting factor in our field.”

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is arthurjones@attbi.com

National Catholic Reporter, November 08, 2002