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Hometown heroes who rose to the top
By D Magazine |

Somewhere, probably sandwiched between The Book of Love, The Tibetan Book of the Dead and that book everyone refers to when they say, “Not in my book,” there must be a book that explains all the quirky, offbeat, little-understood phenomena of human life. Like how the weather knows when you’ve just washed your car. Why the slice of bread always falls butter-side down. How Richard Nixon got elected president. Why people go to Ozzy Osbourne concerts.

The longest chapter in that book – wherever it is – must deal with Luck. Into each life a little luck must fall; but what is luck? And why do some of us seem to get so many breaks, while others get so few?

Especially when we talk about the very rich or the very successful, we wonder how much of a role luck played in their ascension up the ladder to money, power, fame or all three.

We often talk of “sheer luck” or “dumb luck,” but the famous Dallasites (and a few close neighbors) you’ll meet on the next six pages combined plenty of ingredients-among them perseverance, talent, brains, beauty and hard work-to get their big breaks. In fact, they prove the truth of the old saying about luck favoring the prepared mind. For these 18, opportunity knocked. They were listening.

At age 10, Morgan Fairchild (the former Patsy McClenny) was painfully shy. Her mother signed her up for drama classes in hopes of bringing her out of her shell. Five years later, Morgan had outgrown her timidity and knew exactly what she wanted out of life. Her goals haven’t changed.

“I wanted to be an actress-to be in good films. I still want to be working when I’m 80. I’m not going to take my money and invest it in real estate. I want to be fine-like Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda.”

Fairchild began working for what she wanted as soon as her mind was set. She got her Screen Actors Guild membership at 17 and her Actor’s Equity card at 19. She worked in Fort Worth at Casa Maniana and in dinner theaters and Theatre Three in Dallas. It was at Theatre Three that she got her best advice. Larry O’Dwyer told her: “If there’s anything else you can do and be happy, do it. The life of an actress is a hell of a life.”

That’s all the encouragement she needed. She says she knew she didn’t have a choice. In 1971 she moved to New York City. Six weeks later, she had landed a feature role on the soap opera Search for Tomorrow. By 1974, the West Coast beckoned and Fairchild moved on to Flamingo Road and her first starring role in a feature film, The Seduction.

Redheaded Jon Wiedemann displayed his serious commitment to academics two years ago when he accepted his Harvard degree magna cum laude. His success could hardly be credited to a lucky break.

But the native Dallasite, who is one of the few members of his family to pull up roots, weathered another sort of success while at Harvard – success he avoided explaining to his macho buddies. Bruce Weber, a top fashion photographer who was on assignment for Vogue, spotted Wiedemann on campus and included him in a layout. Wiedemann says that then, as a junior political science/visual arts major, he “certainly had no intention of becoming a model.” To prove it, he took a job with a wilderness school in New Mexico the next summer. He thought that the serenity of the mountains would help him get his thoughts together and “gain a perspective of what urban, East Coast life is all about.”

Wiedemann began to give modeling more thought, and after graduation he finally relented, thinking the work “might be an interesting way to scrounge out a living.” Contracts from GQ and other publications – among them an assignment for a spring 1982 men’s fashion spread in D- quickly followed his move to New York.

The 24-year-old has another brilliant success in his life: In 1981, while in Mexico on a fashion shoot, Wiedemann met super-model Isabella Rossellini, the dark-eyed daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini. Rossellini soon became Wiedemann’s wife and, on or about July 22, she’ll be the mother of their first child.

Meanwhile, Jon is working toward another career in film directing, which he’s currently studying at New York University. He says someday he and Isabella plan to make beautiful movies together.

Bob Banner graduated from SMU in 1943. Although he has a collection of Emmy and Christopher awards and although he heads one of the most successful independent production companies in Hollywood, he says he feels as though he’s never completely left SMU.

And for good reason. Banner annually conducts the Banner Television Program Production Seminar at the Meadows School of the Arts, making three visits to Dallas during each semester. He also takes a little of Dallas back to Hollywood with him each year-he accepts three students as interns at Bob Banner Associates.

When Banner began his work in television he was completing a doctorate in theater at Northwestern University and was plenty skeptical of television’s future. He planned to teach.

But despite his better judgment, his curiosity led him to interview for a few jobs. Through one of those interviews came his big break – in the form of a revelation while in Kansas City to discuss a production job with The General Electric Hour. He says, “At that time, they were having all kinds of water problems in Kansas City. The day I interviewed, the water department finally figured out what was going on: The pressure dropped every Wednesday night at the same time -during the first commercial of The Milton Berle Hour. I decided right then and there that any medium that could change the bathroom habits of Kansas City was here to stay and was good enough for me.”

Judging from his list of credits, television has been very good to Bob Banner. He has directed and produced programs ranging from Carroway-at-Large to Allen Funt’s Candid Camera and the recent weekly series Solid Gold.

Snuff Garrett grew up in Oak Cliff and dropped out of Adamson High School at the age of 15. By the time he celebrated his 30th birthday, he was a millionaire and the top independent record producer in the United States.

Living in the back seat of his car and changing clothes in the restroom of a service station, Garrett looked for production work. Good fortune may have been with him, but he won’t admit to a single big break. The secret of his success? Garrett says he didn’t go to sleep until he was 28.

Garrett may have been the youngest record producer in the industry, but he was also one of the hottest. After a few false starts, he came through with the first two of at least 45 Top 10 records. With Johnny Burnette’s Dreamin’ and Bobby Vee’s Devil or Angel, he was on his way. His two most recent country/western hits have been You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma by Frizzell and West and Jose Cuervo by C. Jordan.

After Brynn Thayer graduated from Hillcrest High School in 1967, she went on to the University of Arkansas, arranging her elementary education courses around her then-favorite soap opera, Love is a Many Splendored Thing. She never really considered becoming a star; she wanted to be a teacher. As soon as she received her teaching certificate, she moved back to Richardson to do just that.

But Thayer had a roommate with an itch to move to New York. Itches like that are often contagious, and soon both women were signing with New York modeling agencies. Thayer says she never planned to stay in the Big Apple.

Modeling led to commercials for what the daughter of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Thayer calls “housewife products.” Soon she got an agent and began taking speech lessons (“They like you to sound like you’re from nowhere”). She says her first big break was playing opposite Cora the Coffee Lady on a Maxwell House commercial, but she doesn’t have such fond memories of doing the advertisements for honeymoon retreats in the Pocono Mountains. She remembers spending six miserable hours on one assignment, “sitting in a heart-shaped tub with a nerd.”

But times got worse in New York City. For months, she couldn’t work at all because of severe conjunctivitis, and her career was slow in taking off. But life improved; she got another break: The teacher of a soap-opera class she enrolled in was also director of the soap One Life to Live. He offered Thayer her first acting part (“I hadn’t even been in any school plays”) as “Jenny” because he thought she looked like the star in that role who was leaving the show. After five years on the show, Thayer says she considers her soap cast to be a second family. Her peers think a lot of her, too; this year, they nominated her for an Emmy.

Ernie Banks quit baseball once. He was a player with the Kansas City Monarchs of the old Negro League at a time when no blacks were allowed to play in the major leagues. Banks hurt his ankle in a game in Muskegon, Michigan, and was fed up. He was tired of long bus rides, bumpy roads and decrepit ballparks. He came home to Dallas hoping for more of the encouragement and guidance that people like his father, his coach at Booker T. Washington and the park director at Exon Park had given him in the past.

Banks got advice, all right, but it wasn’t what he wanted to hear. His friends told him to get right back on that bus and go back to baseball. Five days later, he rejoined the Monarchs.

Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodger who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, was another of Banks’ friends. “He told me he was going to recommend me to the Dodger scouts,” Banks remembers. “I thought he was kidding; he didn’t have to do that. He was an established major league star.”

But Robinson wasn’t kidding. Soon, major league scouts were watching Banks, and, in 1953, he joined the Chicago Cubs and was named Most Valuable Player in 1958 and 1959. Banks retired in 1972 after hitting 512 home runs and was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977.

“My life as a professional was guided by many people,” Banks says. “They stuck by me and believed in me. It’s like God came into my life and said, ’Follow these people.’ I did, and it’s been a wonderful life.”

The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and Playboy have all helped to propel Joe Bob Briggs, whose title is “Not the Times Herald Movie Critic,” on the “freeway to fame.” In his Dallas Times Herald Friday column, he keeps his readers up-to-date on the latest drive-in movies, ranking them according to quantity of blood, breasts and beasts therein. So insightful are his criticisms that the Los Angeles Times Syndicate has bought the rights to his words.

But the native of Dawson County credits none of those venerable publications with his big break. He says, “The man who changed my life was Deke Tankersley. He said to me, ’Joe Bob, life is a fern bar. Let’s get out of here.’ “

Tankersley taught Briggs a lot about the decline of the West. “He explained how too many guys named Todd have been born since the war,” Briggs says. “Deke led me to Earth, Texas, and gave me a job painting hunting scenes on the back windows of pickups.”

But the biggest break in Joe Bob’s life was yet to come. It was “a more spiritual experience,” he says. In his book A Guide to Western Civilization (to be published by Dell in February) in a chapter entitled “Where Are You Parking in the Drive-in of Life?,” Briggs tells the story of the day his life was changed in 1954, when he saw The Wild One at the Valhalla U.S. 84 Theater between Muleshoe and Sudan. Briggs offers an invitation at the end of the chapter, asking his readers to “walk that drive-in aisle, right now, right here, today” ’. and rededicate their lives. “That’s what I did,” Briggs says. “In 1954,1 felt the call; knew I had to be a drive-in movie critic. Followed my instincts to Dallas. Never regretted it.”

Briggs plans to stay put “as long as Dallas don’t go Communist,” but he’s declared war on the following: “Toyotas, auto-emission standards, Lee Iacocca, Mustangs with automatic transmissions, unleaded gas, Rabbit Diesels, Datsuns, anti-billboard laws on our nation’s highways, wimps who drive Mercedes… and all forms of censorship, [including] the ban on the use of the word ’titty’ in the daily newspaper.”

Any man who is twice named Sports II-lustrated’s “Sports Car Driver of the Year,” who wins three national driving championships and the famed Le Mans race in France, who survives at least one elbow-fracturing crash and who lives long enough to retire and tell about it all can’t say he’s been without a big break.

Carroll Shelby, born in Leesburg in East Texas in 1923, began racing at the age of 29 after disease wiped out his chicken farm. He knows he’s led a charmed life since then, but his luck hasn’t all been on the race track. After driving a few races with a nitroglycerin tablet under his tongue, he retired from the fast lane in 1960 with a heart ailment. Shelby then recognized his real “knack” was converting average car engines into performance vehicles.

In 1965, Shelby proved his second talent with the introduction of his Shelby Cobra (the name “Cobra” came to him in a dream). Those cars became the first and only American-conceived cars to win the FIA International Manufacturer’s Championship for Grand Touring Cars. After that, Shelby designed the popular Shelby Mustang.

He says that his fascination with cars began when he was 3 through the inspiration of his father. His family moved to Dallas when he was 10, and the young speed racer stayed here until 1959. He still has many friends in Dallas; he and former Mayor Jack Evans (who, Shelby says, is also a car fiend) were school buddies, and Terlingua’s chili competitions would never have gotten off the ground without the team of Shelby and Frank Tolbert.

Shelby is now a consultant on performance cars for the Chrysler Corp., a distributor for Goodyear in 25 Western states and the number-one fan and publicity man for Carroll Shelby’s Original Texas Brand Chili. He says that life isn’t much fun if you aren’t busy all the time.

Some people have all the luck… and some people work like crazy.Bill Macatee works like crazy. Formerly the sports anchor for WFAA-TV, Macatee is now co-anchor for NBC’s weekend sports show, 30 Rock. He’s also sports anchor for The Early Today Show and is a sports reporter for The Today Show (he covered Wimbledon “Live From London” as his first assignment). All in all, he’s one busy man. But he’s used to the pace; he’s kept it since he was 18. In those days, you would’ve known him as “Brother Bill,” a not-so-famous deejay at a country/western radio station in Lockhart. Life wasn’t quite so glamorous back then; along with the standard radio prattle, Macatee’s job included taking out the trash and, on weekends, feeding the horses kept behind the station. But it was a start.

When he was 19, he spent his summer as noon news anchor/producer for a TV station in Tyler (he lied about his age), then went back to school. A spot soon opened up at the NBC affiliate in Austin, where he spent the next two years commuting as weekend sports reporter. After that, it was off to Beaumont for a year and a half, then Kansas City for a year and finally Dallas, which he still considers his home. Originally, he hoped to join Channel 5 as its sports director. He was 23 years old at the time-too young, he figures, for them. While in town, he called Marty Haag, news director at Channel 8, who agreed to see him and ultimately signed him on as sports anchor for the 5 o’clock news.

Macatee was “discovered” by Ed Hook-stratten, agent to several sports media figures, whom he met through a friend of a girlfriend. When Bryant Gumbel moved to The Today Show, NBC wanted someone with studio experience to replace him. After a trial stint at the Dinah Shore golf tournament in Palm Springs, Macatee got the job.

Macatee’s goal now is to get better at what he’s doing. “Up until now, my goals were oriented toward a larger market. I always wanted the chance to go national. I had a chance to leave Dallas after a year and go to LA, the number two market. But I just didn’t feel like I was ready. It turned out to be a smart move. I had another two years to learn.”

Lucky to be born and bred a true-blue Dallasite, James Noble can now be found rooted in California’s San Fernando Valley while preparing for his fifth season “in office” as Gov. Eugene Gatling on ABC’s A 30-year member of the Actors Studio, Noble’s career began as far back as grade school, when he performed in a grammar school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His interest in acting continued through college where, while attending SMU, a Hollywood talent scout saw him perform and offered him a seven-year contract. Noble turned him down, saying that he “didn’t yet know how to act.”

Besides becoming “governor,” Noble has appeared as a presidential advisor in the film Being There and as secretary of defense in the film The Return of Maxwell Smart. His distinguished good looks have also enabled him to fit comfortably into medical whites. He complains that he has played a doctor so many times -as Bo Derek’s dentist father in 10, one of Kathleen Beller’s physicians in Promises in the Dark and various doctors and surgeons in several soap operas-that he has stethoscope-induced calluses.

Since Lois Chiles plays Holly Harwood on the television series Dallas and since we’re proud of anyone who diverts South-fork fans from boresome J.R., we’ve declared the sultry brunette an honorary Dallasite, a title she accepts gladly since, in her judgment, “all the prettiest girls come from Dallas.”

Chiles has family in Hillsboro and a mad Uncle Eddie from Fort Worth, but she set out on her own unlikely path to stardom from the one-horse South Texas town of Alice. Toward the end of her course of study as a history major at the University of Texas, she realized that all her friends were getting married. She decided that the time was right to leave town. After a tour of Europe, she went to Finch College in Manhattan to continue studying history. There, in the snack bar, Lady Luck met her in the form of a Polaroid-toting Glamour magazine scout. “All of a sudden,” she says, “I sort of was successful.”

Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle also put her in their pages, and she signed contracts with Revlon and Breck. Modeling led to acting school and, in 1973, she accepted a part as Robert Redford’s upper-crust girlfriend in The Way We Were. Feature roles in The Great Gatsby and Moon-raker followed. “I was in it before I realized it,” she says.

The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders withstand a lot of bad jokes and lust from afar, but they couldn’t have a more enthusiastic alumna than Tina Gayle. The 24-year-old actress credits the organization with her big break and says that it was the crowd-handling advice, poise lessons and weekly weight checks with the group that prepared her for her career.

The daughter of a toolmaker for Tele-dyne Merla, Gayle graduated from Bryan Adams and modeled in Dallas with the Kim Dawson Agency for four years. Her husky voice, now her sexy trademark, is the result of too many loud cheers as drill team leader at Robert T. Hill Middle School during sixth and seventh grades. Gayle moved to LA after winning a part in the television series CHiPS. The producer of the show offered her the job after remembering her from a pilot show she’d done in Texas called Towheads.

CHiPS has been canceled for the fall, but Gayle says her agent is looking for other opportunities. The experience, she says, was an education in itself and provided her with a lot of publicity. “Sometimes 1 might come home in the evenings and it would hit me -’Wow, I’m on CHiPS!’ But a year later, the series is over. It’s time to move on.”

When Jan Stephens was 19 years old, she was studying English literature at the University of Texas at Arlington. She was bored. She stood 5 feet 6 inches, and she was fair and willowy. Her only handicap was her shyness, which she says she had a difficult time hiding.

Then while visiting a friend at the Dallas Apparel Mart one day, she was approached by a stranger who told her she should be a model. She says that by this point she was so tired of her life on the “high, dry plains of Texas” that she took off for New York. She was going to become a model.

For the next three years, she lived in New York and, despite the fact that she was about one inch shorter than most of her peers (a true handicap for a model), she became one of the top models in the city. She spent the next seven years modeling in Europe, where she married.

But the fairy tale began to sour. The couple divorced and later engaged in a bitter child-custody case. For the next year, Stephens and her son moved back to her family’s home in Oak Cliff. In 1981, she moved to Washington, D.C., and began modeling for an agency there. Several months after she started, the agency folded, leaving her jobless and $9,000 poorer.

By this point, Stephens had lost her shyness. When the agency folded, she realized that 30 other models were also left jobless, so she picked them up, dusted them off and started her own agency. Today she’s at the helm of one of the top modeling agencies in Washington, D.C.

Life wasn’t very glamorous for Jim Leh-rer during his early college days. He was editor of the paper at a small junior college in Victoria, Texas, and worked in a bus depot between classes. He later transferred to the University of Missouri, where he received his bachelor of journalism degree, and wound up with The Dallas Morning News.

But life still wasn’t very glamorous for Lehrer. He was assigned the night shift, where he worked on obituaries and weather reports. He stayed there for two years, then took a job with the Dallas Times Herald, where he stayed for eight years.

By then, Lehrer had built a reputation in Dallas, and he went to work for Channel 13, hosting a news program called Newsroom. While he was there, he was noticed by some important people at the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and was asked to become coordinator of news and public affairs for PBS. After that, he worked on a series of documentaries for public television and was finally teamed up with a man named Robert MacNeil. Together they worked on The Robert MacNeil Report, a news program first aired on the East Coast, then nationally. The name was changed to The MacNeil/ Lehrer Report, “and it’s been glory land ever since,” Lehrer quips.

In 1949, Paul Thayer read a 2-inch ad in a San Francisco newspaper: Chance Vought Aircraft needed a test pilot. The Dallas native was an experienced test pilot, so along with 1,500 other applicants, he called the company, which was based in Stratford, Connecticut. After a series of tests, the number of job candidates was narrowed to 28. Weeks later, these 28 applicants sat in a room at the company’s headquarters, after spending a long day of testing. One by one, the candidates were called into a room where they received proper thank-yous and were told that company officials would contact them at home and let them know whether or not they got the job. When it was Thayer’s turn, he told the officials that he wasn’t going home; he was checking into a motel around the corner from Chance Vought’s headquarters and would remain there until he received the company’s response. Within three minutes, Thayer had the job.

Last year, Thayer left the company, which had merged with Ling-Temco to become LTV Corp. He’d come a long way from test pilot: Leaving his position as LTV chairman of the board and chief executive officer, Thayer became deputy secretary of defense under Caspar Weinberger.

Betty Buckley began dancing at the age of 3 and singing at the age of 5, so it came as no surprise to her family when, at the venerable age of 11, she knew exactly what she wanted to be: a performer in musical . comedy. If the Broadway stage means anything in that line of work (and, of course, it means everything), Buckley’s Tony Award for best featured actress in the smash musical Cats suggests that she’s achieved what she wanted.

Born in Big Spring and raised in Fort Worth, Betty’s a Texan through and through. During high school, she worked summers at Casa Manana and at Six Flags, saving the money to go to TCU. She left for New York at the suggestion of an agent, who assured her that she’d be able to perform in industrial shows for Gim-bel’s department store when she arrived. She did better than that: Her first day in the city, Buckley’s agent got her an audition that afternoon. The audition was for the musical 1776. She got the lead.

Now she dons tattered skirts and pounds of stage makeup each evening in New York to play Grizabella, the Glamour Cat – the part in the Broadway musical of the season.

Asked how she describes Texas to New Yorkers, she says simply, “Proudly.” Then she adds, “I’m quite a chauvinist about being from Texas. Texans have a genteel, communal fashion that I wish the rest of the world could share.”

When Jackson, Mississippi, native Beth Henleygraduated from high school and began to look at colleges, she decided to apply to SMU. “It had the easiest application to fill out,” she says. But she found that SMU’s drama department “had me working 24 hours a day. There is no better place to get a feel for the theater.”

She graduated in 1974, and she appeared in two plays at Dallas’ Theatre Three before moving to Los Angeles. She looked unsuccessfully for work as a film actress, wrote a screenplay that didn’t sell and worked at temporary jobs. Then she began writing her first play, Crimes of the Heart,a comedy-drama about three quarreling sisters in rural Mississippi who struggle to keep their ill-fated family together. In 1981, Crimes of the Heart won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Henley says that her first break came when she decided to stop trying so hard to be successful in the cinema. She says she wrote the play simply as an exercise for herself. “What attracted me to the stage [rather than the screen] is that you have a lot better chance of getting something done. With films there’s so much expense and so much involved.”

She never thought she could be a writer, either, until she decided to change her approach to writing. “I just decided to write the way people talk. I was shocked at the success because 1 would read books and say, ’There’s no way I can write like this.’ When I finally started writing about Mississippi-about the things I knew -then it became easier.”

While Bob Strauss was serving as a special agent of the FBI, he never imagined himself touring the Middle East as a presidential representative for peace negotiations nor considered chairing the Democratic National Committee. But several unexpected events occurred in Strauss’ life, and the star of the Dallas law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld has surprised himself several times.

“I think that all of it is timing,” he says. “I always say that I think a person only makes one or two decisions in his whole life. The rest of it involves standing in the right place at the right time.”

Strauss says that all he really ever wanted was to run for Dallas City Council, but the right people never seemed to think it was a good idea -“I was too independent and outspoken about what I believed, I guess.” So, after working on the John Connally campaign in 1962 and after serving as co-chairman of the Hubert Humphrey campaign in 1968, he was asked to be treasurer of the Democratic National Committee. He says he didn’t have particular aspirations to hold any higher Democratic position until 1972, when McGovern supporters forced him to leave the treasurership because he was too conservative.

“I thought, ’I’ll show them; I’ll run for chairman.’ ” And so Bob Strauss became chairman of the party that put JimmyCarter in the White House in 1976.”Carter liked the way I ran the committee,” Strauss says, so the president askedhim to join his cabinet and serve as specialtrade representative. After Strauss wassuccessful with the Trade Act of 1979,Carter asked him to become his personalrepresentative. In that position, Straussdeveloped the framework for implementing the provisions for West Bank autonomy that were contained in the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. In 1981,Strauss was awarded the PresidentialMedal of Freedom, the nation’s highestcivilian award.

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