'Ellen' Producer on How to Work in Hollywood Without Recognizing Anyone (Including Ellen)

Jeff Kleeman suffers from a neurological disorder that makes it impossible for him to remember faces (even Ellen's), and he once greeted David Mamet as Pee-wee Herman: "That did not go well."
From left: Portia de Rossi, producer Arthur Smith and DeGeneres with Kleeman in 2015.

There's a good chance if you're reading this and you work in Hollywood, I know, like and respect you. But next time I see you, I'll likely act as if you're nothing to me. Because in the moment, I have no idea who you are. At least not by looking at you.

Over the past 30 years, I've been a studio executive, producer and writer for film and TV,and the most stressful aspect of my work is that every face, no matter how many times I encounter it, is unfamiliar.

I was born with a neurological glitch. As soon as I stop looking at your face, specifically from the bottom of your chin to the top of your forehead, I have no ability to recall it. The medical term is prosopagnosia — often referred to as face blindness, a label that drives me crazy because it implies I can't see your face. I see your face just fine, but when it comes to remembering your face, I have total amnesia. It's not discretionary. There's no special dispensation for celebrities, co-workers, friends or family.

People who don't understand often assume I'm rude or aloof. I live in a ceaseless state of concern, knowing every day I'm probably offending people without any idea I've done so.

When you're born without something, you don't immediately realize you're missing it. As a kid, I had no idea that remembering faces was a thing most people did. I recognized my parents by their hair, clothes, voices. The same for my friends. In middle school, I felt uncomfortable going to parties or dances; I didn't like large, random groups. This is the universal childhood experience for prosopagnosics. We're convinced we aren't as affable as our classmates. In retrospect, it had nothing to do with social skills; it's that everybody else can walk into a party and navigate the room in a way we can't.

College was the first epiphany. On the East Coast, when winter hits, everybody gets so bundled up that all you can see is faces. Identifying others was hopeless for me, but not a problem for anyone else. That's when I understood that the rest of the world could perform the most amazing trick: When they glimpsed someone, their brain instantaneously recalled every face they'd ever encountered and told them who it was. How could people do this? I was, and still am, baffled.

I tried to explain my condition, but just as I can't comprehend how my friends recognize faces, they can't comprehend how I could have 20/20 vision yet not identify them.

There's a human drive to be important, and in our town, the most common indicator of importance is how recognizable you are. But when I walk into a room, there's no immediate Hollywood hierarchy. I will never recognize your importance — to the industry, the world or myself — by looking at your face. My condition is the ultimate equalizer. At least, that's the positive spin on it.

I've reached out to people who are studying prosopagnosia — as a result I've been tested by and worked with everybody from university researchers to coders helping Homeland Security with facial recognition software (so far, much less useful than we portray it onscreen).

Is it curable? Not yet. While the brain is famously elastic, one part often able to compensate for another, it's uncompromising when it comes to prosopagnosia. Researchers have explored brain training, mnemonic devices and nootropic drugs. None has yielded success.

Word of prosopagnosia is slowly spreading through Hollywood, but like most things, it's embraced as story fodder rather than a problem your colleague might be suffering from. I've read a couple feature thriller scripts that use it as a central device a la Wait Until Dark. However, the times I've seen it make it to production and into public awareness have been in service of TV comedies.

Arrested Development and Trial & Error have made me laugh with their depictions of prosopagnosia in everyday life as much as they've left me wincing at their outlandish exaggerations. They get it wrong, albeit comedically right. Both approach it with the same funny — but false — premise that a prosopagnosic can make it into adulthood without creating any strategies for coping.

Sherlock Holmes has nothing on me when it comes to rapidly spotting and analyzing every non-facial clue to someone's identity. Signing in to an event, I always steal a look at the guest list. Context is helpful. If a woman approximately my size and age with blonde hair walks into my office, odds are it's Ellen DeGeneres. Other identifiers include clothes/style (Mike Darnell), hair (Brian Grazer), voice (Patricia Clarkson), size (Penn Jillette). Still, that moment when I take the leap and say someone's name is terrifying. I'm never sure; at best, it's an educated guess.

Even a well-honed guess is frequently lose/lose. As a young Paramount exec during the production of Big Top Pee-wee, I warmly greeted Pee-wee Herman in the Redstone building hallway — except it was David Mamet. That did not go well.

Stars make it the hardest. Next time you're in a room with one, notice how they introduce themselves by first name only. It's an understandable combination of modesty and the assumption that you recognize them and the introduction is purely a formality. If they have a name like Idris, that's no problem, but if it's John, Jen, Chris or Amy, I'm at a complete loss.

I'm frequently confounded watching a movie when there's a time-shift: When the actors change their hair and fashion, I don't know who's who, often resulting in my constructing a very different narrative than intended. I can be surprised to learn when the credits roll which character Scarlett Johansson portrayed or which guy was Brad Pitt (I imagine he wouldn't mind, as I read he may have prosopagnosia too).

But it's as a parent that I find this disorder most painful. A few weeks ago the curtain rose for my son's play, revealing a stage crowded with adorably costumed preschoolers. I seized up. I didn't know which kid was my son, Sam. Anxiety building, I zoomed my camera's lens to 200mm and searched child by child, although rationally I knew no matter how closely I examined each face I'd be unable to identify Sam's.

I sought clues. Which kids have Sam's hair color? From his description of the play, what sort of costume might he wear? Who was moving the way he moves? Narrowing down the possible Sams, my panic receded, and I found one boy who fit the criteria. I gave him my attention, waving and smiling, though I wouldn't discover, until after the performance, if he really was my child.

The upside is that every time I see my kids' faces, I'm blown away by how beautiful they are. Their faces will never become familiar to me and I will never take them for granted. Each look is a fresh discovery. That rush you get when you first fall in love, I have every day.

When approaching script development, I often apply a lesson gleaned from Homer's Iliad: A character's greatest strength is also his greatest flaw. Prosopagnosia is certainly one of my flaws, but it's given me great strengths. When shooting and in post, I see every take with fresh eyes, never zoning out and keenly attuned to voice, posture and gait. I can't rely on later recall, so if there's a smirk when it should be a full smile or eyes narrowed at the wrong second, I'm instantly noting it.

My anxiety is at its highest during the lunches our days are structured around. From exiting my car to an hour or so later when I return to it, my stress level is at Defcon 5. Rightly or wrongly, I imagine each person I glance at thinking either: "Why doesn't Jeff want to say hi to me?" or "Huh, he doesn't recognize me. Well, screw him. If I was important enough to him, he'd remember me."

If we cross paths, I may stare at you blankly or with confusion, but if you say your name I'll place you at once and be relieved and thankful for your understanding. If we go to lunch, it's likely I'll sit with my back to the door so I won't snub an acquaintance coming through it. And if Soho House were to institute a mandatory name-tag policy, I might apply for membership tomorrow, but until then, hanging out there is a nightmare.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.