Carlton Cuse '81 (Writer & Executive Producer, LOST)
By Steven Hanna GSA '01, '08
“There weren’t very many people from Harvard who were part of the entertainment business when I first came out here,” recalls TV writer/producer Carlton Cuse ’81 of his post-graduation journey west. “But the connections that existed were sort of vital at the very beginning of my career, and definitely my first boss was delighted to have a Harvard guy getting his coffee and buying organic dog food for his Akita.”
Ask Cuse how he went from an entry-level position in kibble acquisition to his current gig as executive producer on ABC’s smash hit “Lost,” and you’ll hear a great Hollywood ups-and-downs story, albeit one with an above-average number of ups. Sure, that little chuckle in Cuse’s voice as he talks about early jobs “xeroxing scripts and picking out papayas at Gelson’s” makes it clear that the memories of his star-in-Cambridge-becomes-just-another-intern days are still pretty vivid.
But Cuse has since followed the not-entirely-unusual career path of the very talented, moving from show to show and in time steering the ship on a couple of wildly successful ones: in addition to the beloved but underseen “Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.” – you can check it out on DVD next summer and see why “Lost” may be doomed to remain Cuse’s second-greatest contribution to TV – he also ran “Nash Bridges” and “Martial Law” for a stunning total of 166 episodes. Moreover, that television career came on top of past work helping develop feature films that you may have heard of, little movies like Lethal Weapon 2 and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
It’s surprising, however, particularly for more recent grads whose class notes are full of alum after alum staffed on “The Simpsons,” to hear Cuse paint a picture of a Hollywood before it was infested with Harvard folk. “I was sort of on the first wave of a substantial number of graduates who were thinking that film and television could be a viable career,” he notes, “and there really weren’t writers from Harvard who were going to work in television or movies before that. I think that culturally, media has become more significant since then, but at the time it wasn’t considered a worthy profession, and I hadn’t thought about doing it at all.” Cuse, like many a Harvard undergrad, had been experiencing some academic drift – in his case, away from pre-med and towards American history – until a chance meeting at a Science Center film screening left him with some solid career advice. “A Harvard grad at Paramount named Tom Parry came to set up screenings of Airplane,” Cuse remembers, “and through Tom I met the Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrahams, who made that movie, and a light bulb sort of went off in my head. I went, ‘Wow, these people are doing this, and it’s so fun and funny, and they’re getting paid for it. Maybe that’s something I should consider.’” “How do I get started in the movie business?” Cuse asked Parry, and the facetious response was a classic one: “Go make a movie.”
Cuse took that very literally. “I was a crew jock,” the still-fit Cuse says, “and the adage is ‘write what you know.’ So I thought I’d make a documentary about rowing, because even among my peers at Harvard, no one involved understood why people were obsessed with that, and would train all year round for five or six minute races.” The limitations of the entertainment-biz alumni network at the time were nothing compared to the resistance Cuse encountered from his crew coach, who flatly refused when asked to provide the names of past rowers Cuse could approach for funding. Cuse got around that problem with some fancy footwork that would make any Tinseltown producer proud: “I snuck into the boathouse at night and copied the names of oarsmen off the old team photos,” Cuse laughs, “then looked them up in the library at Widener, and sent out solicitation letters.” Enough money came back to make the film finishable, and Cuse sold the completed documentary to PBS, eventually bringing it to Los Angeles as his calling card.
“Tom was more impressed that I’d actually pulled it off than anything else,” Cuse insists modestly, but the Paramount exec nevertheless helped Cuse send off a flurry of letters to various friends, Harvard alums and otherwise. He eventually found himself working for noted producer Bernard Schwartz, which led him in a roundabout sort of way to his TV career. “In my job working for Bernie,” he explains, “I was a development executive reading a lot of writers, and a lot of those writers ended up becoming my friends.” A producing partnership with very hot writer Jeffrey Boam, then coming off penning Innerspace and The Lost Boys and about to turn to two Lethal Weapon movies and the third Indiana Jones, led to a TV deal to do “Brisco County” for Warner Brothers. “Simultaneously,” says Cuse, “I was also officed near and friends with another writer named John Sacret Young, who’s an amazing guy who created and was running ‘China Beach.’ I hung around with him and learned a lot about how to be a television showrunner, just because our offices were next to each other.” Apparently Cuse learned his lessons well: he came off “Brisco”'s relatively short run to helm “Nash Bridges” and “Martial Law” for a total of five years, and that experience led to his being hired to co-helm “Lost.”
Cuse laughs that his broad Harvard education has been a great resource in constructing the esoteric plot intricacies of “Lost,” and he continues to build up the alumni network that he’s watched grow from its infancy: among his writers on the show is Harvard grad Leonard Dick. But Cuse seems happiest with what Harvard has given him in terms of friendships. “It’s been great,” he concludes, “that there was a whole sort of cadre of people from the class ahead of me and from my class who came out here, and I count a lot of those people as my best friends to this day. Connections which I sort of expected to become attenuated over time really haven’t. I didn’t have any connections at all when I started, and now there’s just all sorts of people out here who are in the Harvard community and who, at least on a personal level, are a really important part of my life.”