Hersey grad a super natural at producing TV shows
Jim Michaels had this dream.
"I intended to live on the beach in Los Angeles and drive a convertible," the Hersey High School graduate said. "I would give myself one year to make sure I liked living in L.A. The plan was to get my MBA or law degree and become a sports agent."
Yep. Just like "Jerry Maguire," one of his favorite movies.
Then, one of those funny things happened on the way to his dream.
A friend called him up and offered him a job as his assistant at Universal Studios.
"Dad cosigned a loan at the First National Bank of Wheeling for $2,500," Michaels said. "I bought a one-way ticket to a place I'd never been before. I had a job and two bags and I never looked back."
This week, Michaels begins his fourth season as a producer on the popular Universal TV series "Supernatural," which kicks off its new season at 8 p.m. Wednesday.
He's produced a few other shows, too. "Midnight Caller" (with Rolling Meadows native Gary Cole), "Reasonable Doubts" (with Hersey High School grad and Oscar winner Marlee Matlin), "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman," "Everybody Hates Chris," and several more.
Michaels started near the bottom of the corporate ladder, but he climbed it pretty quickly after he created the studio's in-house computer graphics department.
Yes, this young man who grew up in Des Plaines and moved to Arlington Heights in fifth grade created Universal Pictures' computer graphics department. It was his idea.
"I didn't think they would go for it. Ever," he admitted.
How did this happen?
"Back in the day," he said, "computer graphics were extremely expensive. A few minutes would cost thousands of dollars. It was a fortune. I wrote a proposal to start an in-house computer graphics department. I pointed that we were paying half a millions dollars to an outside firm for this. But for $200,000, I could (A) do it cheaper and (B) create a better product. They actually went for it."
So, Jim Michaels became a very popular guy at Universal. He worked on TV series such as "Amazing Stories," "Miami Vice" and "Knight Rider," plus movies such as "Weird Science," "Brewster's Millions" and "Stick."
"One day I looked around and said, 'I guess I'm not going to be a sports agent!'" he said. "Then I noticed that producers drove much nicer cars than I did. I decided that was a good job to have."
Coming in to produce "Supernatural" after it had already run for four seasons proved to be a special challenge for Michaels.
"You have to remember that this is an aircraft carrier full of people," he explained. "When you come in, you have to listen. You need to find out why certain people left. Don't upset the ship."
Michaels said the key to helping "Supernatural" wasn't to make the aircraft carrier alter course, but merely to tweak things.
This is the part of the story where Michaels' Midwestern upbringing comes into play.
He noticed the cast and crew were clocking long, hard hours on the set. That stopped immediately.
"I told them we will never shoot past regular working hours while I am here. You work too many hours, then someone is going to get hurt driving home. Or worse. We'll pull the plug at 14 hours."
But what if the production falls behind?
"We'll change the script or we'll shoot another day," he said. "But working too long is counterproductive. And unsafe. We have lives outside of this job, you know?"
Wow. Michaels must be from the suburbs or something. We asked him if he noticed any traits peculiar to Midwesterners over other people he works with.
"It's amazing how many people out here show up 10 minutes late! It drives me insane! People from the Midwest aren't like that. They show up on time. They're dressed to play, ready to go.
"It's pretty simple," he said. "Be on time. Be ready for the job. That separates you from so many other people, especially in the entertainment field."
Back at Hersey High, Michaels was the whole dream student package: involved in student government, played football and became the homecoming king. "Now that's so inconsequential," he admitted, "but very important at the time. You realize how silly all that is later in life. But fun."
Michaels graduated with a business degree from the University of Evansville, where he played football.
"I had hopes to join the National Football League when I got out," he said. "When I looked around, I realized even on my best day, I had neither the talent nor the skill to be a pro football player. So my plan was to become a sports agent."
Even now, Michaels still considers himself to be just a kid from the suburbs.
"When I'm driving into the Paramount lot every day in my little Mercedes, I think, how lucky am I?" Michaels said. "I still get a kick out of meeting famous people, and I've got to remember to restrain myself. Like one day I'm on the lot, and over there is Paul McCartney! This is so cool! But I'm still just a kid from Chicago."
So what's Michaels' favorite sports team?
"The Chicago Bears, are you kidding?" he said.
Hey, just checking.
• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for showbiz people from the suburbs to feature in their column. If you know of someone who would make a great feature, email them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
'You gotta watch out for Hersey alums'When Hersey High School grad Jim Michaels produced the NBC TV series "Reasonable Doubts" (1991-93) starring another Hersey High grad, Marlee Matlin, he made sure that her character, Tess Kaufman, had a Hersey High School pennant hanging at her work space.
"You gotta watch out for us Hersey alums," Michaels said. "We're tricky that way."
Michaels also produced the Chicago-based TV series "Turks." For that show, he hired one of his former teachers, Ed Moon, to play a small role in a bar scene.
Even though Michaels, 47, is a big-shot producer of "Supernatural" at MCA-Universal in Hollywood, he can still get down with the band. He once played guitar for The Midnight Caller Band, with Rolling Meadows native (and star of the "Midnight Caller" TV series) Gary Cole on drums.
"This is so cool!" Michaels said about his job at Universal. "One day I'm on the studio lot and I turn around the corner and there's a tiger right there! Another time I'm walking and his guy comes running around the corner. We collide and I help pick him up. It's Sammy Davis Jr.!
"You know, I went to the 'Bozo Show' in Chicago when I was in kindergarten. I got to meet Bob Bell! That was my first taste of show business. I still get a kick out of it after 25 years."