Guest Perspectives: Bobby Rivers, Former VH1 celebrity talk show host, ABC News film critic & entertainment reporter, syndicated game show host and a Food Network host. Bobby Rivers is a SAG-AFTRA union member available for professional entertainment work and you can see examples of his on-camera skills at this link.
We will probably see Cheryl Boone Isaacs onstage during the upcoming telecast of the Oscars. She is President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She has been a sharp and strong force in the Academy opening its doors wider to inclusion and diversity. She has been passionate about Hollywood inclusion and diversity for years. I realized that back in the late 1980s when she invited me to her Hollywood home for dinner. Let me share the story. It’s one that’s perfect to tell during Black History Month which is now the same month Hollywood hands out the Oscars.
When I was getting excellent reviews in national publications for my celebrity talk show host work on VH1, the network pitched me to be a guest on Arsenio Hall’s show. His show was taped on the Paramount lot. Cheryl Boone Isaacs, at the time, was one of the most powerful executive on that lot. She went out of her way to call me at VH1 to tell me why I probably would not be booked as a guest on Arsenio’s show and to tell me how much she loved my work. In those days, Paramount, CBS and VH1 had a corporate kinship. Arsenio was the new king of late night TV. He had taken the MTV daytime audience into nighttime by booking music stars we saw in music videos but the those stars were not being tapped to do late night appearances. Let’s face it. Many of these were black rap stars who were very popular with young audiences. They were being booked to be with senior host, Johnny Carson. I wasn’t a mainstream TV star and big stars — plus politicians like Sen. Bill Clinton — were eager to be on Arsenio’s hip show.
Cheryl loved that there was another black man on TV with an entertainment talk show that was different, got good ratings and had its own appeal. It was her opinion that Arsenio might be out of element interviewing Norman Mailer, Kirk Douglas, Meryl Streep, Jodie Foster or Sally Field one-on-one for 30 minutes whereas that’s what I did. She felt we were both good at our jobs and Hollywood needed to see the diversity of black talent. We all weren’t the same. She was extremely supportive of me during my VH1 talk show host time. She was not surprised that, although I had my own prime time celebrity talk show with A-list guest on national TV, I still did not have an agent. Agents said that they wouldn’t know what to do with me. She knew that was more a statement on the entertainment industry’s lack of vision in the area of diversity and not a statement on my talent. The fact she noticed that and noticed me made me feel so significant. What a blessing.
Early in my TV career, before got to New York City and worked on VH1, I’d heard TV production crew people speak with great affection about Ashley Boone. This was in the early 80s when I’d be on location in Hollywood taping celebrity interviews for my first TV job. Ashley Boone was a greatly revered Hollywood executive and he was Cheryl’s brother.
Ashley Boone was a movie marketing whiz who Robert Osborne, entertainment journalist/author and known as the signature host of cable’s Turner Classic Movies channel, once said on TV that Ashley Boone’s name should be included in books about Hollywood studios. Boone was the highest ranking African American executive in Hollywood in the 1970s and, for a significant amount of time reportedly, was pretty much running 20th Century Fox when the film studio needed a financial rescue. Osborne reported that Ashley Boone was unofficially running the studio for about six months.
He started off working on the marketing and distribution campaign for the 1961 musical, “West Side Story.”
It went on to win 10 Oscars including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris) and Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno).
“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is now a part of our pop culture and a TV adaptation was done on Fox. But, in 1975, this film version of a popular stage show was a major flop for 20th Century Fox.
Its fortunes and popularity were turned around when Fox marketing mastermind Ashley Boone came up with the idea of midnight screenings to attract young viewers. Those screenings made it a national cult hit.
There was a movie coming out in 1977 that Hollywood insiders were not taking seriously at all. The industry buzz what that it was a B-movie. I know this because I had my first professional broadcast job fresh out of college. I did entertainment news report on a local FM rock radio station. I noticed the marketing campaign build and whet the appetite of sci-fi geeks with reports of new special effects technology having been used in production. Soon, folks who thought this B-movie would open in drive-ins, waited eagerly for its theatrical release. African American Ashley Boone was the brilliant Hollywood marketing whiz behind “Star Wars.”
That “B-movie” became a box office blockbuster for Fox and got an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. It was truly an iconic Hollywood sci-fi movie. Boone marketed the “Star Wars” sequel, “The Empire Strikes Back,” also a box office blockbuster for Fox.
Other films that benefited from his marketing skills were the sci-fi horror/thriller “Alien” and “Thelma and Louise.” Both were big box office hits. “Thelma and Louise” brought Oscar nominations to its Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis.
Sarandon was also in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” She played Janet.
Ashley Boone and his sister, Cheryl, were both on the Academy’s Board of Governors. They were the first black brother and sister to serve as governors.
Ashley Boone was not kind a person to seek a red carpet spotlight. He did his work, he promoted diversity and he helped others. He was an African American who made history in Hollywood. He taught at USC Film School. He was openly gay. He died of pancreatic cancer in 1994 at age 55.
When you a film about modern Hollywood and there are actors playing top Hollywood executives, how many of those actors are black? How many are women? When you watched networking morning shows like “Today” and “Good Morning America” when they had weekly film critics and those film critics told you why you needed to see “The Color Purple,” “Do The Right Thing,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Glory” or “Malcolm X,” how many of those movie critics reviewing films about race in America were black?
Cheryl Boone Isaacs is the Academy’s first African American president. She’s been pushing for inclusion and diversity since before she elected to that position. She made Hollywood history. So did her late brother. I will always be grateful to Cheryl and her husband inviting me to their beautiful home for some fabulous Chinese food.