Boston University: Hollywood's Secret Female Training Ground
Dozens of top execs and talents call BU their alma mater, as alumnae from Geena Davis and her college roommate Nina Tassler to Nancy Dubuc gather to honor the college that puts the 'B' in showbiz
"Some people say that their closest friends are from high school or work, but for me, it's all about Boston University," says actress Geena Davis, 58, who met the closest of her college friends — CBS Entertainment chair Nina Tassler, 57 — as an 18-year-old sophomore. Among the early memories the two theater majors (who were roommates their senior year) share: dressing up as Siamese twins with giant baby bonnets and rattles in a dance movement class ("I think we got an F," recalls Davis) and performing together — again bonnet-clad — in the school's 1977 production of Knickerbocker Holiday. The pair, who branded themselves "Neen-er and Geen-er," have remained best friends. In fact, Tassler was Davis' matron of honor (twice), and they still take vacations together with their old theater friends — they call themselves "The Family."
From left: Tassler, Davis, Rikki Klieman, Kim Raver, Laura Marcus, Hilary Estey McLoughlin and Nancy Dubuc
Davis and Tassler are members of a larger BU family in Hollywood, too. The university estimates that more than 5,000 alums, 54 percent of them women, work in entertainment. The school has produced an army of female execs, producers, writers and actors through its rigorous communication and theater programs, the latter so competitive that Tassler entered with a class of 60 only to graduate with 20. "One of the things I learned in college is that if you're going to be late for an audition, don't go," she says of the make-or-break mentality that's carried over into her professional life. Adds A+E Networks' Nancy Dubuc, 46, "You had to forge your way to either create your own village or stand out in some way."
No wonder the school churns out so many women who've succeeded at Hollywood's zero-sum game — and are eager to help other BU grads do the same. "There seems to be a generosity among the alumni to want to support and give access," says Warner Horizon Television's Brooke Karzen, 54, who was a year behind Julianne Moore in the fine arts college. Among them: Nine years ago, Tassler became involved with the newly established BU in L.A. program, a "semester abroad" for undergrads that offers industry internships. She now is an honorary dean of the program with Seinfeld star Jason Alexander.
Before BU in L.A. was launched, some students took advantage of a spring break alumni-networking trip — that's when TV writer Corinne Brinkerhoff, 34, visited David E. Kelley Productions. She'd later become BU alum Kelley's assistant and eventually earn a seat in his Boston Legal writers room. On the same trip, she also met Arrow creator and BU alum Andrew Kreisberg, 43, who has been a mentor. "To have contacts before I even got to L.A. was priceless," says Brinkerhoff. Ashley Williams, 36, jokes there's a "BU wink" and credits it with her breakout role in the romantic comedy Something Borrowed — her college roommate, Ginnifer Goodwin, already was set to star: "I only needed to email Ginny and let her know that I was getting close on the job," says Williams, "and she got in touch with the director and advocated for me."
"Do I favor them?" says Tassler of the BU grads who walk into her office. "Yes, I do." (Quips Williams of her CBS role: "That must be how I got on How I Met Your Mother.") DreamWorks Animation's Bonnie Arnold, 58, notes that there are 35 or 40 BU grads in her office alone. BU in L.A., which started with 20 students, has more than 100 enrolled for spring 2015, and a remarkable 72 percent of the 1,300 students who've completed the program now are employed in the industry. Red Hour Films' Debbie Liebling sums up the phenomenon in the words of her former assistant: "My father went to Harvard," the young woman told Liebling of her industry-exec dad. "But every boss he ever had was a woman who went to BU."
Additional reporting by Ashley Lee