BY PETER DORFMAN
Shortly before Angelo Pizzo began making some of Hollywood’s most beloved underdog movies, the Bloomington native nearly became a leading man himself. In a plot worthy of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Pizzo caught the eye of one of television’s most powerful agents, who offered him guaranteed stardom.
“He’d made a bet that he could get me into a series in a year,” Pizzo recalls. “I found that out years later.”
In 1981, Pizzo, then 33 and an executive at Time-Life Films, went to the premiere of Gallipoli, Mel Gibson’s first big film. Gibson had been anointed for stardom. A Hollywood agent was selling this concept to Bill Haber, a founder of the legendary Creative Artists Agency, when he opened the Hollywood Reporter and pointed out Gibson in a photo spread from the Gallipoli premiere. Haber, however, noticed a picture of Pizzo.
“He asked, ‘Who’s this guy? He pops off the page,’” Pizzo says. “‘That guy should be the next star.’”
Haber bet he could mold Pizzo into a television lead. The two agents shook on it.
“Bill Haber called me,” Pizzo relates. “It was like the gods reaching down and tapping me on the shoulder. So I met with him and he told me he could put me in a series any time. He asked if I had any acting experience. I had a classic stage mother, and from the age of 7 she had me in every play and reading and ballet in Bloomington. But by 13, I was self-conscious and hated being in front of an audience. Later, in film school, I acted in student films. I hated every minute of it.”
Haber insisted. He hired Herb Ritts, Hollywood’s most in-demand photographer, to take his promotion photos, and offered Pizzo his pick of acting coaches. “But I didn’t want to be that guy playing a detective in an Aaron Spelling series,” Pizzo says. Besides, he explains, in Hollywood it is extremely difficult to transition from actor to filmmaker and he wanted to make films.
Ultimately, he called Haber and declined the offer. “Haber hit the ceiling,” Pizzo says. “He’d lost the bet. He hung up on me.”
A year later, Pizzo wrote Hoosiers, launching his filmmaking career. “It premiered in 1986,” says Pizzo, who was also the film’s producer. “I sent Haber an invitation. He didn’t show up, but he sent a note. It read, ‘Just saw Hoosiers. Thank God you didn’t become an actor.’”
Pizzo still has the letter.