From 'Svengoolie' to Showtime: A filmmaker's journey

Arlington Heights native writes Adam Rifkin writing new Showtime series

Adam Rifkin remembers the exact moment when he realized he wanted to become a filmmaker.

“My grandfather bought me a copy of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine when I was about 4 years old,” Rifkin said, “along with an Aurora monster model of Dracula.”

Wait. A monster magazine and a do-it-yourself Dracula model were all it took to make you realize your life ambition?

“Yes,” he said. “All I ever wanted to do was make movies, from the earliest possible time in my life that I can remember. I loved movies and knew that I wanted to make them.”

Turns out that horror films were the first movies that this former Arlington Heights resident fell in love with.

“I would stay up late and see 'Svengoolie' and 'Son of Svengoolie' whenever I could,” Rifkin said. “I still watch 'Svengoolie.' I get to see him out here, on ME-TV.”

“Here” would be Hollywood, where Rifkin has lived and worked for the past 20 years.

Since he left the suburbs, he has written screenplays for big-budget studio movies such as “Mouse Hunt,” “Underdog” and “Small Soldiers.” He has directed an eclectic group of films ranging from the bizarre cult film “The Dark Backward” to the pop ditty “Detroit Rock City” and exploitative low-budget work “The Invisible Maniac.”

This Thursday, Nov. 1, Rifkin unveils his newest project, an edgy Showtime series titled “Reality Show.” It's an eight-episode miniseries (airing at 10:30 p.m.) about a desperate TV producer named Mickey (Rifkin) who puts an unsuspecting family under 24-hour surveillance for a truly real reality program.

“Then Mickey realizes how boring the typical American family is, so he starts injecting conflict into their lives to get better responses,” Rifkin said.

“The whole family starts falling apart, and it's Mickey's fault, but it makes for great reality TV.”

Rifkin writes, directs and acts in the show, as well as serves as executive producer.

A little bit of an overachiever? Or just a regular guy from Arlington Heights?

“I learned a valuable work ethic growing up in the Midwest,” Rifkin said. “I don't take anything for granted. I have humility. I see my opportunities as something to be worked on and worked toward instead of something I'm entitled to, if you know what I mean.”

Sort of. But what do you really mean?

“Pursuing a career in Hollywood, or pursuing a career in any of the arts, can be a constant test of one's character,” he said. “The Midwest has given me a real strong, hardworking core that no matter how good things get, no matter how bad things get, no matter what, I feel like I have to work hard for it, or work hard to keep it going.”

Although he spent his formative years in the Northwest suburbs, Rifkin was born in Indianapolis where his father worked at Delta Air Lines. The future filmmaker moved to Oak Park as a tot, then to Arlington Heights when he started grammar school.

“When I was 7 years old, I convinced my dad to let me take control of the family movie camera, an old Super-8 cartridge camera,” Rifkin said. “It was expensive. Each Kodak cartridge ran two minutes each and cost $5. All I did was make movies with my sister and my friends. That's how I spent my youth.”

Rifkin would have attended Hersey High School in Arlington Heights had he stayed in public education. He opted to join the new Chicago Academy of the Arts as a member of its first freshman class. The entire student body numbered between 40 and 50.

He wanted to be a filmmaker so much that he enrolled at George Lucas' alma mater, the University of Southern California. Rifkin stayed for a year, realizing that he was way ahead of the freshman learning curve.

As a kid armed with a Super-8 camera, he had learned how movies were shot and edited, using the old-fashioned educational model of trial-and-error.

“I thought that once I went to USC, I'd learn the real way to make movies,” Rifkin said. “After I got there, I realized there was only one way to make them, and the only thing I lacked was the money to hire actors, build sets, and use bigger and better cameras.”

So, Rifkin dropped out of USC and started writing scripts and looking for money to make movies.

“I'm glad I did,” he confessed to us. “I wound up making my first feature at the same time I would have been a sophomore at USC!”

That would be the modest, low-budget 1988 release “Never on Tuesday,” a teen movie. You could say it was an auspicious beginning, because Rifkin and his partner lined up an impressive cast of actors to make cameo appearances: Emilio Estevez, Nicolas Cage, Cary Elwes, Charlie Sheen, Judd Nelson, Sherilyn Fenn and Gilbert Gottfried.

Then came a string of movies, among them “The Dark Backward,” Rifkin's first screenplay deemed too weird for most producers, and a reboot of “The Planet of the Apes.” Rifkin wrote the script. Charlie Sheen was hired to play the lead, Danny Elfman to compose the score. Then the studio head was fired and the project fell apart — to later be made by Tim Burton with Elfman's score.

Oops. We almost forgot the personal life stuff. Rifkin's not married, except to his job.

“I'm a workaholic,” he said.

He doesn't mind that, though.

“I get to make my living doing what I love to do. I've dreamed of it since I was little. I knew it was possible. So I came out here. I am so lucky.”

Rifkin not only appreciates his career, but he remembers the people who inspired him, too.

He gave Chicago's Svengoolie (Rich Koz) a role in his last feature film, a 2011 horror anthology called “Chillerama.”

Ÿ Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always interested in hearing about people from the suburbs who are now working in showbiz. If you know of someone who would make a great column, email them at or

A down-on-his-luck reality show producer (Adam Rifkin) hatches an unethical idea for his comeback in "Reality Show," airing on Showtime. Rifkin, who grew up in Oak Park and Arlington Heights, is the show's writer, producer, director and star.
Adam Rifkin wears many hats on "Reality Show." He is the show's writer, producer, director and one of its stars. It debuts on Showtime Thursday, Nov. 1.

Adam's advice

Listen up wannabe filmmakers!

Hollywood director/writer/actor Adam Rifkin is about to drop some crucial advice on how to break into the movie business. Here it is:

“A, you can absolutely do it. No question!” Rifkin said. “You can succeed in making movies, now more than ever. Now, you can shoot a movie with your phone. Edit it on your laptop. Distribute it to a worldwide audience on Promote it to a worldwide audience with Twitter and Facebook. You can make a movie with just sweat equity, if you're willing to put in the time and the effort.”

That's all?

Not quite.

“And it has to be good,” Rifkin said. “It can't just be finished. Making a movie won't change your life. But making a good movie will change your life. Remember the first 'Paranormal Activity'? A friend of mine made it for $5,000. You could make it for much cheaper today.

“He made it at a house in San Diego. It got into the Slamdance Film Festival and it was purchased by DreamWorks. If you make a good movie, it can change your life and you can suddenly be a part of Hollywood.”

What about part B?

“Never take rejection personally,” Rifkin said. “You're going to experience rejection a lot. You can never let it slow you down. Think of yourself as a boxer. Your job is to get punched in the face.

“So take your punches like a pro. Keep swinging. You've got to just keep swinging and you will prevail!”

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