He triumphed in suburban theater. Killed Jason in slasher flicks. Left the business and found God. Then returned and became a movie studio executive.
The career path of Glen Ellyn native John Shepherd has as many twists as a Hollywood movie, but he says it's been a rewarding journey.
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"You want to make God laugh, tell him your plans," said Shepherd, 51.
After working as a movie executive at several studios, including DreamWorks, Shepherd now runs his own movie studio MPower Pictures, where he makes a wide range of award-winning films, including a few sold exclusively at Wal-Mart.
His most recent films are "Snowmen," starring Ray Liotta and Christopher Lloyd, a coming-of-age story about some small-town boys who want to be world record holders; and "Machine Gun Preacher," in which Gerard Butler plays a drug addict biker who has a religious awakening and ends up crusading for Sudanese child soldiers. The movie was a 2012 Golden Globe nominee for Best Original Song (Chris Cornell's "The Keeper.")
Shepherd calls moviemaking a humbling business, and he likens it to having a child. It's fun and rewarding, but 98 percent of it is a challenge, hard work and luck.
"There are hundreds and hundreds of movies out there no one will see ... (people) see your successes, but when you fail, you fail epically. It takes a certain kind of masochist to stay in there. It is constant rejection. You're the product, so it's a very personal rejection," he said. "Rather than asking 'May I please be in your movie or your TV show?' I want to be on the side of the table that gives people permission."
To what does Shepherd attribute his success in Hollywood?
"If it hadn't been for the Glen Ellyn Children's Theater, and the encouragement they gave me, I don't think any of this would have happened," he said.
It started happening when he was a kid, watching Disney movies and thinking, "I could do that!" At age 9, he decided to audition for a Glen Ellyn Children's Chorus show (the group has since morphed into the acclaimed singing group, Anima). However, his mom wasn't home that afternoon, so he convinced his friend's mom to drive him.
When Marie Shepherd returned home that night, her son told her he got a part.
"I said, 'What part?' And he said, 'Oh, the lead,'" recalls Marie, of John's role as Toby in "Toby Tyler: 10 Weeks With The Circus." Many more shows and commercial work followed.
They laugh about it now, but when Shepherd was a freshman at Glenbard South High School, his parents would drop him off along I-88 so he could catch a ride with a friend to the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in south suburban Summit. There, he played the role of Kurt von Trapp in "The Sound of Music," a show Shepherd says he probably performed 300 times as a teen.
He enjoyed it so much, he was willing to do his homework in the car on the way to and from shows -- that is, until the rides stopped.
"The police told me I couldn't drop him off there anymore," his mother said, laughing.
The son of a U.S. Navy reservist, Shepherd faced pressure to join the service after high school and was accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy, but insisted it wasn't for him. As a compromise, he joined the ROTC program at Northwestern University until Hollywood beckoned. He left school early, and knowing no one other than a few friends of actress Barbara Rush, whom he co-starred with at shows at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Shepherd was able to find acting work.
His star began to rise in the 1980s, when he had a string of small roles in TV shows and movies, including "The Hunt for Red October" and the "Friday the 13th" series.
His friends teased that he'd end up doing "slasher movies or porn," and to his dismay, he ended up in the former.
"The script was kept a secret, and I literally thought I was auditioning for 'To Kill A Mockingbird.' Then they told me it was "Friday the 13th Part V." I got to kill Jason. I was one of the few guys who got to kill Jason, because he's un-killable," he said. "But all I really thought was, 'aw, I'm going to be (filming) in a barn in the dark for six weeks with a machete in my hand.'"
After that role, he grew frustrated with Hollywood, turning down a role in "Friday the 13th Part VI" and making an abrupt career change: he left showbiz and became a minister.
"When they go to Hollywood, they say they either go to drugs or their faith. So I'm happy he found the seminary," said his mother, Marie.
After Shepherd had a few years in ministry school, someone came up to him after a service, recognized him from the movies, and suggested he read for a part in one of the Billy Graham films. Shepherd decided to do it, and that led him back to the business. He returned to produce and star in movies for Billy Graham Evangelical Association's World Wide Pictures, including "The Homecoming," a 1996 film based on a true story of the war between the Glenbard high schools.
"Back then ... we (Glenbard South) were the new school. Glenbard West was the castle on the hill. We called it 'the dump on the hump.' We had vandals go over there and mess up and vandalize their campus. I had to go on their (public address system) and apologize and tell them not to retaliate," he remembers. "It was one of the better performances of my career."
Shepherd admits they did embellish the story in the movie version, and since neither Glenbard would allow them to film on campus, they shot it in Wheaton instead.
That wasn't his only film with Glen Ellyn connections. He now has a movie in development, "The Girl Who Owned a City," which will take place (and might be filmed) in Glen Ellyn.
His work and success is a source of pride to his family.
"He's stayed a real person. That's not easy in Hollywood," his father, Bill Shepherd said. "He really kept his faith."
-- Jamie Sotonoff
• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for suburban people in showbiz. If you know of someone, send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.