Caitlin McCarthy‘s screenplays have won awards and recognition at over 30 international film festivals and labs — most notably “Wonder Drug,” which was chosen for a live staged reading starring Steve Guttenberg at the 15th Annual Hamptons International Film Festival; and “Vera,” which was a winner of the Atlanta Film Festival’s inaugural screenplay competition. “Wonder Drug” is currently in development.
AN “A” FOR GOOT BEHAVIOR
I lead a schizophrenic life. By day, I am an English teacher at an inner-city vocational public high school, where over 60 percent of the students are on reduced or free lunch. By night, I am a screenwriter with a project – WONDER DRUG – in development with acclaimed filmmakers Tom Gilroy (SPRING FORWARD) as producer/director and Vanessa Hope (WILLIAM KUNSTLER: DISTURBING THE UNIVERSE) as producer.
My two worlds couldn’t be more different, and they usually don’t collide. But sometimes my students Google me and discover pictures online – not the kind that land you on the chopping block with Human Resources or on the news. (I’m not one of those teachers!) They’re the kind of pictures that trigger disbelief: “Miss, you know Steve Guttenberg?”
We met at the Hamptons International Film Festival, when he starred in a live staged reading of my screenplay WONDER DRUG with the amazing actress Alysia Reiner (SIDEWAYS).
As a child of the 70s and teen of the 80s, I had seen all of his work – from THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL, COCOON, and THREE MEN AND A BABY to CAN’T STOP THE MUSIC, HIGH SPIRITS, and DON’T TELL HER IT’S ME. Everything. At the Hamptons fest, I discovered that Steve was genuinely down to earth. The “good guy” image matches the real man.
Normally my students will ask me about Steve Guttenberg and then move on to another subject, like, “Can we do nothing in class today?” (The answer: No.)
But one day, a student hung around after class for more details. To protect the student’s privacy, let’s call him Miguel.
Miguel was a 16-year-old freshman – tall, large (about 300 pounds), always wearing the same Scarface/Al Pacino t-shirt, quiet but quick to smile. “Miss,” he said, “there’s a Gutenberg downstairs.”
“You mean the old printing press by Graphics?”
“Yeah. Any relation?”
“I used to watch POLICE ACADEMY with my father. He loved that movie.” Miguel paused for a moment. “My dad’s in prison now…for murder. Two people. That’s not good, is it?
What do you say to that, other than, “No, it’s not good.”
“Miss, could you get Steve Guttenberg’s autograph for me?”
My students understand that things aren’t always possible. In many ways, they’re waterlogged with disappointment. They appreciate being told the truth.
Upon arriving home from school, I sent Steve the following email. (I save everything!)
“One of my freshmen students approached me after class. He said he is a huge fan of yours…especially loves POLICE ACADEMY. He asked me if he could get your autograph. I normally wouldn’t bother you with a request like this, as you must get hit up all the time. But [Miguel] is someone who’s been going through an awful time at home. He is rising above the chaos and really trying hard in school. He loved “Romeo & Juliet” and told me (off to the side) that he’s a romantic like Romeo. How could you not root for a kid like that? If you feel comfortable, would it be possible for you to autograph a headshot for [Miguel]? You could send it to my home address, and I’ll bring it into school for him. Let me know what you think.”
Within the hour, Steve texted this response:
“Hi C, yes, of course I will send it!!! Please say hi to him for me!!”
Before I continue this story, there’s something you should know about Steve: he has an enormous heart. He started the Guttenhouse project to house selected kids who are phased out of (kicked out of) foster care programs and would otherwise wind up on the streets with no housing, no direction. When a foster child reaches 18, bereft of any resources or family help, he or she is often solicited by criminal elements that make it seem that the only survival options are prostitution or petty crime. The Guttenhouses provide free, clean, and supervised living accommodations for no-longer-foster kids. The four young people who currently occupy his first such accommodation (in the Compton area) also enjoy the personal interest he takes in them and his personal time, as well as his arrangement for social worker direction and the availability of Internet communication that they need. This approach will continue with future Guttenhouses, which are now in the planning stage.
Steve has also headed the $7,000,000 campaign to provide glasses for 50,000 sight-challenged youngsters whose families cannot afford eye care. He has headed other such important national campaigns for the Entertainment Industry Foundation. This is a man who takes his humanity very seriously.
In a Hollywood of great philanthropy, Steve stands out because his charitable outreach is so personal and hands-on. He was recently lauded by the Red Cross for his very personal work following Hurricane Katrina. Without publicity, he flew to Houston to become a Red Cross volunteer, working 16 hours a day taking care of those who lost their homes and families, sanitizing beds and toys, attending to children, the ill and the dying – and all without publicity. Steve even slept inside the Astrodome for several nights. Having learned of the hard-earned rewards of the heart from such work, Steve campaigned nationally to assist the Red Cross in drawing in desperately needed volunteers. He is a hands-on type of person – the kind of person I respect (hence my writing this story).
Because Steve follows through on his word, I knew it was safe to tell Miguel that the autographed picture was coming. “Really, Miss?” Miguel asked. “He’s going to do it? For me?”
“I’ll bring it in as soon as I get it.”
Miguel was the perfect student for several days, doing all of his work and actually participating in class. Then one day, while turning in a quiz about “The Odyssey,” he slapped a boy across the face while walking to my desk.
I couldn’t believe it. No one could believe it. Miguel, the boy who never said “Boo,” was violent for no reason.
The offended student stood up to fight Miguel.
“Sit down!” I ordered. I then pointed at Miguel. “You. Come with me.”
I led Miguel out of my classroom.
“Go to the Assistant Principal’s office,” I said to him in the hallway.
“Yes, Miss,” he said sheepishly, without moving. He clearly didn’t like my disapproval.
“What were you thinking?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he mumbled. I believed him, but it wasn’t an excuse.
The Assistant Principal suspended Miguel from school for a week. Upon his return, I took him aside before class. “If you ever pull something like that again, I’m telling Steve.”
A look of horror crossed his face. “No, Miss! Please!”
From that moment on, if Miguel started to misbehave, I’d look at him and mouth the word “Steve.” His behavior would instantly improve.
When the autographed picture arrived at my house, I placed it in a sturdy pocket folder and gave it to Miguel after class the next day.
Miguel carefully removed the picture and stared at it. “He wrote my name,” he said. “Wait ‘til my mom sees this.” He then put the picture back inside the folder, making sure he didn’t bend it. “Can I get a pass to my locker?” he asked. “I don’t want anyone stealing this.”
Miguel is now a junior in high school. I’m not his English teacher anymore, but he still stops by my room every morning to say hello. He likes to exclaim “Miss Mc-Car-THAY!” from the doorway. And sometimes, if he’s feeling brave, he’ll ask in front of the other students, “How’s Steve doing?”
I always answer, “Good. I’ll tell him you said hello.”
Photos: Caitlin; Caitlin with producer Tom Gilroy & Steve Guttenberg; all courtesy of author.