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HBO’s Documentary President Sheila Nevins Looks Back at Early Career

HBO Documentary President Sheila Nevins on
illustration: michael Hoeweler; photo reference: Jimi Celeste/ap

As president of documentary films at HBO, Sheila Nevins is a major force in the nonfiction world, giving a break to many documentarians and commissioning work that has earned 31 Peabodys, 21 Oscars, and 59 Emmys. This month, “Suited” and “How to Let Go of the World” join her roster of works at the premium cabler. Nevins was first mentioned in Variety on June 21, 1972, as a producer of ABC’s nonfiction “Perpetual People Puzzle.” It was an unsuccessful attempt to translate PBS’ 1971-72 “The Great American Dream Machine,” on which she also worked, to commercial TV. The PBS show consisted of comic/thoughtful bits, with no host and no narration. Aside from giving Nevins a start, “Dream” introduced many TV viewers to Albert Brooks, Linda Lavin, Studs Terkel and Andy Rooney, among others.

When you started out in the industry, what was your goal?

To make a living. It was the ’60s, I was a woman, and I wanted to work behind the camera, but no one wanted to hire a woman director. I guess things haven’t changed that much.

What was your first job?

Teaching English on camera at USIA (U.S. Information Agency). There were conversations called “Adventures in English,” which were sent all over the world to help people learn the language. I played Jean, the secretary to a professor, Mr. Richards — he had two names, I had one. We would discuss three words a day; that was the curriculum. He and I would have these inane Beckett-like conversations about the three words. That’s what I did for two years. Don Mischer was the director. Then he got a job at PBS’ “The Great American Dream Machine.” And I followed. That’s when my real career began.

What were your duties?

I started as researcher, and rose to associate producer, then producer. Al Perlmutter was an extraordinary executive producer. He was adventurous. I always thought if I could just find someone to hear my ideas, they might give me a shot.

What did you learn?

Everything. At PBS, there was a freedom, and you could be brash. And there was a continuity in storytelling; you didn’t interrupt for a commercial, so you had to fill every moment. It’s the same at HBO.

What did you do as a “Dream” producer?

There was no money for interstitials. I thought, “What if I go out on the street and ask people their dreams?” Maybe I could cut that into segments. Al said “Who could shoot it?” And I said, “The Maysles!” I didn’t even know them. He said, “They’ll never work for this money,” because it was public television. I called them and they said, “Sure, for public television, we’ll work for minimum.” I think it took us four or five days. We went to beauty parlors, barber shops, bookstores, wherever stories were told. This was before man-on-the-street became popular, before reality TV. We didn’t have permits, we didn’t have release forms; we just did it. You’d ask a simple question about a person’s American dream and when they answered, suddenly you were in the middle of their life. It was a blueprint for all I’m still doing: getting interesting people to tell their stories.

What was “Perpetual People Puzzle”?

Frankly, I have no memory of that. On public TV, “Great American Dream Machine” was a big success. They tried to translate that into commercial TV. I think Al had leftover pieces when “Dream Machine” ended. I’m listed as a “Puzzle” producer; probably they used one or two pieces I’d produced and incorporated them. I think it lasted only one episode.

Was it harder for a woman?

Much harder. You had to give up your life in many ways. You had to work all the time. You had to stay late and prove that you were the same as any guy. You didn’t [get] to take care of sick kids, go to your husband’s business meetings. And salaries were low. And in the middle of it all, you try to be mother, to be a wife, not get too fat. And I was cute, skinny, tall, so it was assumed I had no brains. You’re always fighting some battle. First there’s sexism, then ageism. I’m still working very hard. It never is easy. Maybe life isn’t easy. As someone said to me, we’re all on a boat called “life” and there’s a slow leak.

Any advice?

Yes, get a life jacket!