Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Time I Interviewed Robin Williams

Cover of "The World According to Garp"
Cover of The World According to Garp
When I was 23 years old I was producing a talk show on cable television called "Celebrity."  The hostess was Alison Steele.  Known as "The Nightbird," Alison was a legendary rock DJ on New York City's WNEW-FM and probably the first really famous female rock radio DJ.  She was also a great personality and a classy "Celebrity" in her own right.

Our show was simple.  In each hour long episode we spent the first half interviewing celebrities who were promoting their latest movie, and in the second half of the show Alison interviewed a CEO or high level exec from companies such as Exxon,  British Airways, etc.  The corporate participant paid for their segment, which essentially bankrolled the show.  We got the real celebrity interviews for free.  This was fairly easy to arrange as back then every new movie had a New York premiere and a press junket around the premiere where the studio made all the stars available for interviews.  We'd show up at the appointed hotel at the appointed hour and get our appointed time with the stars.  Often we'd also get to attend the premiere and capture "b-roll" of the event, and of course the studio supplied ample clips from the film.  To keep things lean and efficient, we always shot our interviews with one camera, over Alison's shoulder, and then, at a later time we'd shoot her doing the "asks" in her posh East Side living room.  When edited together, you'd never know it wasn't a seamless two camera shoot done in one sitting.

As you can imagine, at a young age I had the opportunity to meet many, many very well known Hollywood stars.  As you can also imagine, I learned pretty fast that people are people, and just like the rest of the population, the community of famous people is filled with its fair share of nice folks, obnoxious jerks, and complete and total assholes.  The stories about the jerks and assholes will have to wait for another time.  This story is about one of the good guys.  One of the really wonderful, amazing and very special guys...

On the day we were scheduled to interview Robin Williams, Alison had the flu.  It was the only time in my tenure with the show that she had to call in sick and miss an interview.  But there was no way we were going to pass up the chance to get Robin Williams on our tape (yes, back then we used something called videotape.)  So we came up with a plan.  I would interview Robin.  We'd shoot him cheating to the side of where Alison would normally sit, and then when she was feeling better we would shoot her asks as usual.  When we edited it together it would look like Alison had conducted the interview with Robin herself.  All I had to do was to make sure I didn't talk over Robin and make it difficult to edit my voice out.

Needless to say, I was full of nerves and excitement.  Promoting the release of "The World According To Garp" Robin Williams was already a massive star thanks to Mork and Mindy.  If that weren't enough, I was also a big fan of John Irving and had read and loved Garp.  Having the chance to meet and interview Robin Williams was going to be the highlight of my young career thus far.  But I was gun shy...  Not that long before, another big name celebrity had really treated me badly, and made me feel like a young, inexperienced schmuck.  It was a blow to my ego, my confidence, and to the image I had of that particular star.  So I approached Robin Williams with trepidation... and was greeted with a huge smile, a warm and hearty handshake, and the feeling we might have been friends already for a long time.  It felt... genuine.

I think you'll hear a lot of people using that word when describing Robin.  He was genuine.

I explained to him the situation with Alison.  I had brought her head shot with me and, in my own feeble attempt to make him feel comfortable, I put the picture of Alison on what would have been her chair, opposite Robin, and asked him to look at and talk to "her" even though I would be asking him the questions from off to the side.  I explained how we'd shoot and edit her in later.  He made a few quick jokes about the situation, and happily, professionally, wonderfully played along and gave us a great interview.  Throughout it all, he could not have been nicer or more supportive of this young, inexperienced kid who was doing his best to get the job done.  He made me feel great, and more importantly at the time, he made me feel like a professional.  I was then, and always will be enormously grateful for that.

We have lost a true star, an irreplaceable talent, and a wonderful, genuine man...

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Bootie Call

2013-12-24 16.29.07

My first reaction was denial. A grandfather? Me? In my head I am still 19 years old, and that's certainly too young to be a grandfather. Of course it is also too young to have children who are now in their 20's. In the world outside my head I indeed have three adult kids (Adult kids? Is that an oxymoron?). In the real world my oldest son is soon to be 26, and sooner to be a father himself.

I remember the day Zach was born. Although we had moved to Rockland County we decided to still have "the baby" in Manhattan. I remember speeding down the Palisades Parkway with reckless abandon, hoping I'd get stopped by an eager Trooper just so I could have the satisfaction of pointing to Zach's very pregnant mom in the back seat and continue on my high speed journey citation free... Yes, Zach, one of the first (of many) joys you gave your dad was a valid excuse to put the pedal to the metal...

And now another joy.

But at first I was in denial. Was my son ready to be a dad? How would that change his life? He is just establishing himself in his own career. How would it change my life? Was I ready to be a grandfather? Fortunately I came to my senses enough to realize that it is not about me, it is about my son... And his girlfriend... And their life together.

Still, I just wasn't ready. I am from the school where you get married first, and then have kids, but I realize that social norms are different now, and the path my son is on is not as radical as it first seemed to me. And I know his girlfriend is a wonderful partner and loves my son wholeheartedly, as he does her, and I know she will be a wonderful mother. When Zach had a real scare, she was the one who saved him. I might not be ready, but Zach and Felicia are.

Thanks Mom!

Unlike hesitant me, my own parents were thrilled at the news and instantly embraced it with the same love and excitement that I am sure they will embrace their great-grandson with. It was my mom who finally put some sense in me and helped me paddle my way out of denial and open my eyes to see how exciting it is that our family was entering a new generation, that my son was ready and able to be a dad. I was reminded that they, my parents, were only 22 when I was born.

Shortly after having that conversation with my mom I was in NY for the holidays and walking through the Christmas shops setup for the season in Bryant Park. It was a cold but beautiful day, the kind where you can walk around with a cup of hot coffee or tea or cider and the cold smoke of your breath competes with the rising steam of the drink, a drink you count on to warm your hands as much as your innards. Through wind-teared eyes I spotted them inside one of the crafty pop-up shops, the booties. When was the last time baby booties caught my eye? Never? But I had to have them. Hand made from thick organic wool they were perfect, and the perfect first gift for me to buy for my grandson.  My grandson...

As I paid for the booties, I was suddenly struck with a wave - no a tsunami - of emotion.  I was suddenly and unexpectedly overwhelmed with the realization my son was going to have a son, and I was going to be a grandfather.  The cute little booties had finally made it real, made the tears start streaming down my face, and the lump of welled up feelings rise up in my throat.  Finally, I was ready.

Being Gramps...

But I was not yet ready for enormity of the real thing.  I had no idea how excited I would become as the due date approached.  As I write this I am on a plane to North Carolina, where Zach and Felicia live.  Where my grandson will be born, maybe even right now, while I am in the air, or later tonight, or sometime tomorrow.  But I am not leaving North Carolina until I meet the little bugger, and hold him in my arms, and put those little booties on his feet.

To be continued...

UPDATE:  My grandson, Liam David Sass, was born on April 10, 2014 at 11:36 pm.  He entered this world weighing 9 lbs 3 oz, 21 amazing inches long.  As someone who loves to write, and leans toward the verbose, I cannot find the words to fully and fairly describe the deep love, pride and joy I have for my son, for Felicia, and for my grandson.  I was in awe as I watched Zach step up into his role as dad and partner, and wonderfully coach and support Felicia (who was amazing in her own right) through a long and uncomfortable labor.  Even more indescribable is the instant love, bond and deep connection I feel to Liam, a bond I felt in the deepest corners of my being the moment our eyes connected for the very first time.

He is a special little boy, and I am so very blessed to be his grandfather. I have a feeling I will be spending a lot of time in North Carolina.  I miss him beyond words already.

2014-04-11 01.16.29
Zach and Liam...
(This post originally appeared on Dadomatic.com
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Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Three Words: Focus, Focus, Focus.

Focus.  It is so important, and so much harder than ever to manage. Our lives are filled with so many distractions that -- sorry, that was a text from my daughter.  Where was I?  Oy, yeah, our lives are filled with so many distractions that it has become almost --- cool.  Someone just re-tweeted me.  Umm, what was I saying?  Oh, right, that with so many distractions it has become almost impossible to spend more than a fleeting moment on ---- email.  Just had to see what that email was because my Pebble watch was vibrating.  Now, as I was saying... Focus.  Damn, it's hard.  That's why focus is all three of my words for 2014.

Attention Deficit...

Attention Deficit is no longer a disorder.  Frankly, it is the norm.  I am as guilty as anyone of having a hard time sticking to any one task for more than a few minutes without taking some sort of digital detour.  I know it is bad.  I know I do my best work when I zone everything else out and stay FOCUSED on one thing for thirty minutes or more, but the times I actually do that are few and far between.  At least far less frequent than they should be.  The truth is, at least for me, the distractions that the Internet and our "always connected" lives have introduced only serve to exacerbate a problem I have always had.  I've always tended to commit to too many things at once and, as one of my High School teachers once warned me, "spread myself too thin..."  This, combined with a propensity to procrastinate makes distraction where the action is.  But no more...

Focus, Focus, Focus...

My "three words" for 2014 are Focus, Focus, and Focus.  I guess, my three words are really only one word: Focus.  (See, already I am more focused, putting my full attention on one theme word rather than three!)  Better focus is something I can strive for in all aspects of my life, from family, to fitness, to business, and I intend to approach all of them in a more focused way, being mindful of the moment and committed to what I am doing at any given time.  At least that's the plan.  It will be up to me to stay focused and carry it out. Wish me luck (but don't be upset if I don't respond right away... I may be focused on something else...)

What do you think of my newfound focus?  Do you have three words for 2014?

Photo Credit: © aaabbc - Fotolia
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Saturday, May 11, 2013

Teaching My Kid To Get A Career...

Follow Your Passion

(This post originally appeared at Dad-O-Matic.)

Those of you with kids in diapers or grade school may want to skip this post (unless you want a peek into the future at one of the many other parenting adventures you can look forward to facing). Those of you with teens and young adults getting ready to enter the workforce and start to earn more than an allowance, please read on...

Jobs vs. Career

In simple terms, I think of a job as something you do to make money. This is especially true when we are young. Babysitting, dog walking, lawn mowing, packing grocery bags, hawking fast-food, etc., are all "jobs" we do to make money, and they are usually among the first paid work experiences our kids will have. While great to teach the values of a good work ethic, responsibility and to start learning to save and spend their own money, few of us would consider any of these occupations a "career" for our kids. Careers are work that we are passionate about, that we believe in, that we truly love to do. Jobs are important, but a true career is the goal.
But What Is A Career???

In truth, the above is an over-simplification, especially in today's world. Our kids are likely to move around during their careers far more than we have. Growing up in a hyper-connected world where any fact is just a few taps away, and where "attention deficit" is no longer a disorder, but rather the order of the day, our kids will likely find many interests and passions to pursue throughout their careers, and take far more circuitous routes than we may have taken as their parents. But they have to start somewhere...

Getting Into The Industry You Love

My middle son is a musician (a guitarist and songwriter, to be more specific). He recently graduated from the Berklee College of Music, and is currently living the life of a struggling artist, manning the cash register at a hipster Brooklyn cafe to pay the proverbial bills while making music the rest of his waking hours. But he wants to work in a music related job, and as his dad, I felt compelled to give him some guidance and a plan of action that will hopefully land him with a job he can become passionate about... a job that will contribute to a career.

Don't Look For A Job, Look For A Network

Here's what I recommended to my son:

1) Leverage Your Obvious Strengths (and don't be shy about it) - Sure, you are an extremely talented musician, but right now you have little tangible "professional" experience. What you do have is a degree from a respected music school with many accomplished alumni working in all areas of the music industry. That "Berklee Connection" is perhaps your greatest asset at this early stage of your career. Use it!

2) Build A Network, One Cup Of Coffee At A Time - Through resources like LinkedIn and Berklee's alumni databases, create a list of alumni actively working in the music industry in New York City. Get an email address or phone number for each, as well as their office address. With the goal of getting 10 personal meetings a week, start contacting everyone on this list. IMPORTANT: You are not looking for a job, you are looking for a mentor. Ask people to tell you about themselves: "Hi, I am a recent Berklee graduate living in Brooklyn. I'd love to have 15 minutes of your time to ask you a few questions about how you started your career after you graduated. I am actually going to be in the neighborhood of your office on Tuesday afternoon. If I could stop by to see you for a few minutes, I'll bring the coffee - what do you like from Starbucks?... yada yada yada." Shoot for a personal meeting, but if all you can get is some time on the phone take it.

3) Listen, Learn, Then Ask - People love to talk about themselves and share their accomplishments. Your goal is not to ask for a job, but ask for knowledge and advice. Have 5-6 solid questions ready for your meetings, focused on how THEY got started after THEY graduated from Berklee. Be smart, be personable, let them do most of the talking and LISTEN. Keep track of the time and when 15 minutes are up, let them know, and that you don't want to take too much of their time (giving them the opportunity to end it smoothly or keep the conversation going - at their choice.)

4) The Ask - When you're meeting is done, thank them sincerely, and ask if it would be okay for you to stay in touch periodically. Then ask if there is anyone else in the industry they think you would benefit from speaking to. If they have a recommendation, ask if they would be willing to make an introduction. Then let them know if you can ever help them out with anything, no matter how trivial, it would be your pleasure. Thank them again and get your butt out of their office.

5) The Follow Up - Within 24 hours of the meeting, send a short email, thanking them, saying how valuable it was to learn their story, and reminding them you'd greatly appreciate any other industry introductions they'd be willing to make.

6) Rinse, Repeat - Do this diligently and push hard to get those 10 meetings a week. Many will blow you off, say no or ignore your request altogether, but some will agree to meet you, and every one of those will be an extremely valuable opportunity to learn and grow your industry network. Don't worry about the "no's" and keep focused on getting the "yes." The numbers are on your side. The more folks you contact, the more times you will hear yes.

7) Be Patient - I told my son that I am confident that if he follows the above plan and actually gets meetings every week, in a matter of time he will be working in the music industry, and be able to give up his job to start his career.

What do you think? Do you agree with the advice I gave my son? Am I missing something that you would recommend? Please let me know in the comments (and thanks!)

Finally, a shameless plug: If you are, or know someone in the Music biz in NY, and you or they would be willing to meet my (awesome, talented, hard-working) son, please let me know and I'd be very happy to make the introduction. :-)

Jeff Sass is the proud dad of ZEO (Zach, 24, Ethan, 22 and Olivia, 21).  He is also a seasoned entertainment and technology exec and active social media enthusiast.  You can see more of Jeff’s writing at Sassholes! and Social Networking Rehab and you can listen to Jeff on the Cast of Dads,  Wunderkind!  and Gape Into The Void podcasts.  Jeff just launched a new story podcast, DadSlam.

Photo Credit: © rnl - Fotolia.com
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Friday, April 05, 2013

Roger and Me

Roger Ebert Blvd.
Roger Ebert Blvd. (Photo credit: rexb)
I've had the pleasure of meeting Roger Ebert, and like so many, I was terribly saddened by the news of his passing.

(Name-dropping disclaimer: The older I get, the more I catch myself name-dropping.  At first, I felt embarrassed that I seem to always have a story about someone well-known.  But the truth is, I've been "out in the world" working for over 30 years, almost half of them in the entertainment industry, so I've been fortunate to meet and work with a lot of celebrities and notable business folks along the way...)

Critical Mass

Just read the outpouring of love and adoration for Roger Ebert and you can sense what an amazing impact he has had on an industry and a culture.  His career, long and rich, is unrivaled and remarkable.  His grace, strength and determination when faced with incredible health challenges can only be viewed with awe and admiration.  When he lost his spoken voice, he embraced technology, the Internet, and Social Media and found a stronger, more resonant voice than ever before.  His wit, wisdom and way with words was perfect for a world of blogging and tweeting and texting.

Cannes Do

I met Roger Ebert sometime in the early 90's at a party in a villa in Cannes during the film festival. I know it sounds pretentious, but it is the truth. I was working for Troma at the time, and even us schlocky "B-movie" guys were occasionally invited to the right parties.  I was standing next to Mr. Ebert at the buffet, getting food, and we struck up a conversation.  He was there with his wife, Chaz (they may not yet have been married, I can't recall) and rather than movies, we started talking about food.

CompuServing Up Tofu

I mentioned that I had recently become a vegetarian, and that immediately sparked Ebert's interest.  He said that Chaz had been encouraging him to make more healthy eating choices and he was curious about variety in vegetarian cooking.  I told him, as we were fairly new vegetarians, my (then) wife and I had been experimenting with a wide range of interesting veggie dishes.  I mentioned one of my favorite meals, tofu "breaded" with yeast flakes, and promised to send him the recipe.  We corresponded a few times after Cannes via CompuServe (we were both active back then in CompuServe's "Showbiz Forum.") I shared the tofu recipe with him. He thanked me and said he and Chaz would try it. I like to think he gave it a "thumbs up..."

Rest In Peace Roger...  Like the great films you loved, your mark will be long-lasting.

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Saturday, March 23, 2013

Wrist Watch: Pebble vs. Basis Band

I'm Jeff and I am an early adopter. There. I said it. I admit to my vice (that's the first step, right?) As an admitted early adopter I was one of the early backers of the Pebble smart watch on Kickstarter, and I received my Pebble shortly after the first production run. Although I have had my Pebble for more than a month now, I have only worn it several times. That's because the same week that my Pebble arrived, I also received my Basis Band… another new gadget I ordered early enough to be among the first to receive.

One Available Wrist

As most humans, I only have two wrists, one of which has been home to a bracelet since my early teens. After all these years I have grown accustomed to wearing just a bracelet on my right wrist. I feel awkward without it, and I prefer to wear only a single bracelet on that wrist. Which leaves me just my left wrist for any other watch or band device. Hence having to choose between my newly acquired Basis and Pebble. Here's why, for the moment, the Basis has won the battle for my left wrist…

Connected Self vs. Quantified Self

I, like many of you, am addicted to my smartphone. My Samsung Galaxy SIII is the last thing I look at before I go to bed and the first thing I grab when I wake up in the morning. No, these are not great habits. Yes, they mean I live an uber-connected life, feeding myself a constant stream of information via a phone that is rarely, if ever, further than a meter from my media overloaded brain. As if my mobile habit wasn't bad enough, I find I am also addicted to fitness tracking devices, and own all generations of the Fitbit (plus an Aria wi-fi scale), a Jawbone UP bracelet, a Motorola ACTV gps watch, several generations of old Garmin GPS watches, a Nike+ FuelBand, and now, the Basis Band.

Up until the arrival of the Basis, I was wearing my Nike FUELband on my left wrist, using it as both a watch, and a fitness tracker. Since the FUELband does not track sleep, I also wear my FitBit regularly. With both the Pebble and Basis as shiny new options for my left wrist, I retired my Nike FUELband, and ultimately chose the Basis as my daily wrist mate, leaving the Pebble for "special occasions" as described in more detail below. While the Pebble is an awesome device, when weighing the true benefits of wearing it all day, every day, I decided the fitness data provided by the Basis truly added more value for me.

The Pebble

Firstly, both the Pebble and the Basis Band are great devices. They are both well manufactured, comfortable and cool looking to wear, and deliver on their respective promised features and functions. The Pebble, while lauded as a "smartwatch," is really more accurately a "connected" watch. In the current early stage, it essentially becomes an extension of your smartphone, passing along alerts and messages to the e-ink screen on your wrist, and letting you then decide whether said alert or message warrants retrieving your smartphone from a pocket or purse to take further action.

My conclusion: during the day, when your phone is generally handy and accessible (often right in front of you on your desk), getting alerts on your watch is just an additional distraction and doesn't necessarily add much convenience or value to the smartphone or watch experience. I can glance at my phone screen just as easily as I can glance at my wrist when my phone is faithfully at my side (sadly, my norm.) Where the Pebble does shine, and where it really is a pleasure to wear, is when you are at an event or in a situation where it really is inconvenient or inappropriate to be constantly addressing your phone. The times I have worn, and thoroughly been delighted by my Pebble have been at concerts, the theater, and social events, where I can remain "in the moment" and not with my face rudely glancing down at my phone, yet still feel completely connected and have no FOMO (fear of missing out) because even though my phone is tucked neatly in a pocket, I will know everything it is trying to tell me. In these situations, the Pebble rocks.

The Basis Band

As fitness trackers go, the Basis is the closest thing to an "all in one" device I have found. With a slew of sensors, the Basis tracks steps, calories, heart rate, body temp, perspiration and sleep. And it tells time! It does all this quite seamlessly and elegantly in a watch form factor that looks great and is light and comfortable to wear. What I love about the Basis is that it is a passive device. Just wear it like a watch and it tracks everything. Even sleep tracking is automatic, a big plus, as every other device I have used to track sleep requires you to "start" and "end" some type of "sleep mode" for sleep tracking to engage, resulting in many missed nights of data. The Basis software (currently web only, with apps reportedly coming very soon), is both detailed and slick, including some neat gamification elements as you earn points and unlock "habits" for further trackable goals. My only complaint about the Basis, and it is not that big of a deal, is that the screen is not very bright, even when backlit. I suspect this was a trade-off in favor of better battery life, since there are so many active sensors working 24/7 on this device.

Best of Both Worlds

I am a huge fan of the "quantified self" movement and strongly believe that when you track activities you will do them more, and I absolutely know that I exercise more regularly now that I am fully aware of my progress each day. The Basis is a great fitness companion and subtle coach, pushing me through awareness toward my daily goal. Thus, for me, the Basis provides much more utility and value as my "all the time" watch than the Pebble does. However, as soon as I hit my daily 10,000 step goal (and especially when I go out on a Saturday night), I am happy to switch to my Pebble, and give my smartphone some time to hibernate in my pocket, leaving my hands free for fun.

Have you tried a Pebble or a Basis Band? What are your thoughts?

(Disclaimer: Some of the links in this post are Amazon Affiliate links to help support my gadget addiction...)
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