While a student at California State University, Northridge, acclaimed film director Donald Petrie was determined to get as much out of his education as he could, even sneaking an additional six units of extension courses on top of the 21 units he was already taking one semester.
He is now back at his alma mater for the spring semester as a faculty member in CSUN’s film and theater programs.
Petrie, a member of the board of the Directors Guild of America and director of such cinema hits as “Grumpy Old Men” and “Miss Congeniality,” said there is one lesson he hopes to instill in his students — learning doesn’t stop when they graduate.
“The best thing a university can teach is not really the facts and what’s in the books,” he said. “To teach how to learn and to instill a passion in students for learning — if we can do that, then our job is done. This is the place to learn how to learn.
“As I said to my directing and acting students, this is a great place to fail,” he said about CSUN. “This is where you fail because it’s safe. You can learn more from your mistakes than your successes. Once you’re out in the big bad world, the professional world, it’s a lot less forgiving.”
That lesson — a passion for learning — Petrie said he learned while a student at CSUN. It’s one that university officials hope he passes on to his students.
“Donald Petrie is a fantastic comedic director,” said Jay Kvapil, dean of CSUN’s Mike Curb College of Arts, Media and Communication. “His broad range of industry knowledge coupled with his excellent eye for comedic storytelling means that our students will have the opportunity to learn from one of the best. We’re proud to continue to offer outstanding, quality education to our future filmmakers.”
Cinema and television arts professor Nate Thomas, who heads CSUN’s film program, said Petrie may not realize the impact he has on his students.
“Don’s a very humble man,” Thomas said. “While he may not admit it, our students are quite impressed that someone of his caliber, particularly an alum, has chosen to come back to CSUN and teach. What he is teaching them, they can’t get in a book — his experience, his breadth and knowledge of the industry. It’s an amazing gift that he is sharing with them.”
The teaching opportunity grew from a tour Petrie took of CSUN’s film program nearly a decade ago. Initially, he was asked to host the university’s annual senior film showcase. He was then invited to serve as artist-in-residence for a year. He has served as a mentor to CSUN senior film students for several years now.
“It seems like he was always here, answering questions and just being there for the students,” Thomas said. “His generosity with his time and knowledge seems to have no end. It made sense to take the next step and ask if he was interested in teaching.”
In addition to “Grumpy Old Men” with Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau and Ann-Margaret and “Miss Congeniality” with Sandra Bullock, Michael Caine and Benjamin Bratt, his other popular films include “The Associate” with Whoopi Golderg; “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” with Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey; and “Welcome to Mooseport” with Ray Romano and Gene Hackman. Petrie also is credited with providing Julia Roberts with her breakthrough role in “Mystic Pizza.”
He graduated from CSUN in 1976 with a degree in theater and worked for a number of years as an actor, appearing on such television shows as “The Waltons” and “Eight is Enough.” Between acting gigs, Petrie took any job he could that was industry related, from tearing tickets in a movie theater to working the box office, painting dressing rooms and helping to install the seats at what is now known as the Geffen Playhouse. He eventually landed a job directing a successful stage production of Albert Innaurato’s “Gemini.” That, in turn, sparked an interest in becoming a television and film director.
He spent two years at the American Film Institute, then a year as “a fly on the wall” of any television show that would let him. He would be the first on the set and the last one to leave. He studied every job — from casting to set design, writing and directing — and made copious notes about what he would do if he were the one directing.
“If the director dropped dead, I was ready to take his place,” Petrie said with a laugh. “No director dropped dead, but I learned a lot. Then one day, I got a call from this new show that Steven Spielberg was producing, ‘Amazing Stories.’ The director of the next episode fell out and they needed somebody to go right then. I said ‘I’ll be right there.’”
Petrie said that while he enjoys being back as his alma mater, he admits that teaching is in some ways harder than directing a movie.
“One of the things I love about Cal State Northridge is that it is a state school,” he said. “It is very egalitarian. To say there is diversity here is an understatement. If you are a student here, you are working your butt off to be a student here. Many are working two jobs. Their parents are making tremendous sacrifices for them to be here. They are more committed. They are more attentive. They have more at stake in coming here.
“The professionals out on a set are being paid, and they can be fired,” Petrie continued. “Instead, the students in the class are paying equally to be part of the film. You have a different responsibility in higher education. They are paying me to impart knowledge into them.
“Maybe, when I am old and doddering and I’m watching the Oscars, they’ll thank me in their speech before they thank their wife,” he said. “But I don’t expect that. My dad [the late acclaimed film director Daniel Petrie] used to say ‘directors don’t get attaboys, they give them.’ It’s my job to give ‘good jobs,’ ‘well dones,’ ‘keep up the good works.’”