Best of the East Bay - Stars & Standouts
Meet the heroes, Hall of Famers, and tastemakers who keep the East Bay on the cutting edge.
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By ABC-7 News anchor Dan Ashley
Call me ‘Sully.’ Everybody does.”
The suddenly famous U.S. Airways pilot, who put Danville on the national map when he safely landed his Airbus A320 on the Hudson River in January, wanted us to feel comfortable. He certainly was. Captain Chesley Sullenberger met my television crew and me at the door of his home in slacks and a sweater, and the United States’ newly minted hero greeted us with a warm smile and a hearty handshake.
My interview with Sullenberger was the first he did with a member of the local media in the Bay Area. By the time I sat down with him, however, Sullenberger had been on 60 Minutes and some of the other national programs, so my challenge was to take the conversation into new places, beyond what happened when those birds decided to share the same airspace with a commercial jetliner. I wanted to talk about the man more than the pilot, the life more than the landing.
Sullenberger and his wife, Lorrie, were gracious and patient as we invaded their home, moving furniture around and dragging half a ton of gear across their immaculate living room. They joked that they were used to it after watching Katie Couric and her entourage make landfall a couple weeks before. Finally, it was time to record the captain of Flight 1549’s thoughts on what has happened since the dramatic events of January 15.
“It’s been a wild ride but a good one,” Sullenberger told me in response to the first question of the interview. “We’ve come full circle; it’s great to be back in Danville.”
“What are the things you appreciate most these days?” I asked.
Sullenberger’s answer reflected a man who has the perspective of having survived a very close call. “The simple things. Being with my family, not worrying about the small stuff.
“In the first few days, I wouldn’t pass my wife in the house without touching her or kissing the top of her head. When my kids came home from school, I would sit and not allow myself to be distracted by the cell phone or e-mail, and I would listen to them.”
Clearly, this reflection and reevaluation of priorities mean a great deal to a man who has spent a career away from home, flying from one city to the next and back again.
We were rolling tape for a while before Sullenberger’s wife joined us and spoke about the whirlwind of publicity and opportunities her husband and she have had since all 155 passengers and crew made it safely off the plane on that icy cold day in New York City.
“It’s a blur; it’s hard to remember what we’ve done on certain days,” Lorrie Sullenberger said. In the months since the landing, the Sullenbergers were honored at the Super Bowl, attended the inauguration of President Obama, and sat with the stars at the Oscars, just to name a few of the extraordinary experiences this newfound fame has afforded them.
Despite Sullenberger's instant celebrity, his was not an overnight success story.
Growing up in Texas, Sullenberger was destined for the sky and earned his first pilot’s license at age 14. “I’ve been passionate about flying since I was literally five years old,” he told me. “I knew I was going to fly and never even considered anything else.
“I am not sure what I would have been able to do had I not been able to fly,” he said modestly.
Sullenberger credits his lifetime of preparation for being ready to make the crucial decisions that allowed everyone on board the disabled airplane to survive. “I feel that all of my education, all of my training, and all of my experience are together what ended up being the critical mass that I could draw upon that day.”
That day is one his wife will never forget, especially after hearing the tower recordings of her husband telling air traffic controllers that he intended to put his plane down on the Hudson. “To hear his voice was very scary. That made me want to cry,” she said. “The other thing was the video of the airplane making that wide turn before actually hitting the water.
“We can watch him fly over Mount Diablo from time to time, and I have a real sense of pride when I look up and think, ‘My husband is flying that plane.’ But to see that videotape and think, ‘My husband is flying that plane,’ was chilling.”
Throughout Lorrie Sullenberger’s portion of the interview, I found it interesting to watch her husband’s reaction as he listened to her talk. Whenever she spoke, he paid close attention, seldom looking away from her face. They seem so close—completely in sync.
Sullenberger intends to return to the cockpit as soon as this summer, but for the time being, he is enjoying a break from all the publicity rounds, and from the endless cycle of airports, hotels, and restaurant food that comes with being a commercial pilot. This means that Sullenberger, who loves to read and had a library book with him the day he flew onto the Hudson, also has time to write. He recently signed a multimillion-dollar deal to author two books. The first naturally will be about the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson” and his life leading up to those remarkable split-second decisions, and the second reportedly will be a collection of poetry.
So, things are finally settling down a bit for the Sullenbergers. After six months of celebrity, they clearly have refound their footing and have begun to return to some sense of normalcy in their lives.
The man who has spent decades jetting from place to place seems to be enjoying the chance to be a bit more of a homebody these days. As a pilot, he could live anywhere in the country to do his job. But the Sullenbergers choose to live here in the East Bay, they say, because they love the people and the lifestyle. They are profoundly grateful for the reception they’ve received here at home. “The outpouring of support from everyone, especially the Danville welcome-home ceremony, was phenomenal and greatly appreciated,” Sullenberger said.
Asked what it was like to be this instant celebrity to his friends and neighbors, his answer was typically unassuming.
“It’s good for them to know that I haven’t changed,” responded Sullenberger. “This has been a life-changing event, but my family and I are determined to be true to ourselves, and I think our friends can see that.”
Dan Ashley is an anchor for the evening news on ABC-7 and KOFY-TV 20.
If “being followed” sounds like a bad thing, you don’t have an account on Twitter, the sensationally popular messaging system that has captured the short attention spans of computer and mobile-phone users worldwide. We caught up with Berkeley resident Biz Stone, one of Twitter’s three cofounders, to discuss life in the 140-character fast lane.
Diablo: You and cofounder Evan Williams made Time magazine’s new list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Five years ago, would you have thought you would be on that list?
Biz Stone: Definitely not. We didn’t even think we would be there [the night Time celebrated the 100 honorees]. Michelle Obama gave a speech. Oprah gave a speech. There were celebrities and scientists and world leaders.
A woman named Somaly Mam had an amazing story. She had been sold into sex trafficking in Cambodia at the age of 12, and after 10 years of horrific torture, she escaped. Then, she returned to fight against the system and save young girls. She brought down the house; everyone was sobbing.
After her, I was supposed to get up and do this jokey shtick that we had prearranged, where we would twitter our speech. Luckily, because of the way we view Twitter as this triumph of humanity—the way it’s been used during earthquakes and terrorist attacks and wildfires—I was able to address the crowd of influential people from that perspective, and it went really well.
What’s the best East Bay–related Twitter story that you’ve heard?
One of the big things that happened out of UC Berkeley was the James Buck story. He is a photojournalism student who went to Egypt to try to photograph protests. He kept missing them by an hour or so, so he asked his Egyptian friends how they organized the protests, and they told him that they were using Twitter. He hadn’t heard of it, so he got on Twitter, and it enabled him to be plugged in.
So, there he was at the protest, getting these great photos, but he was arrested by the Egyptian police. They did not take his phone away, so he typed just one word to Twitter: arrested.
Some people back in Berkeley were following his updates, and they called the dean, who called a lawyer, who called the consulate—and they were able to get him out of an Egyptian jail. When he was released, he typed just one word: freed.
Astronaut Mike Massimino just sent the first tweet from space. How often do you get this kind of mind-blowing news?
It feels like every day. At least every week. Twitter is teaching us what it is. There is definitely this emergent quality to what is being developed on the overall ecosystem because of the open platform and the simple tool that people are using. The beauty of it is that we don’t know what wonderful thing people will come up with next.
When I’m asked what I hope people will say about Twitter five or 10 years from now, my answer is I hope they will say that it wasn’t about the science of technology but about the science of humanity because of what people were able to do with the tool.
Which tweeters have impressed you the most?
There is one down in L.A. I’d love to meet. He started a Korean taco truck, and the only way you could find out where the truck was, was to follow him on Twitter. He became a hit. There were aerial photographs of this line of people stretched around the block to get his tacos. Now, he’s opening up a shop.
I was in New York recently and walked by a cookie shop with a sign in the window that said, “Follow us on Twitter, and we’ll tell you when the cookies come out of the oven.”
Diablo has a Twitter account, as do several of our editors. Besides those, are there any East Bay tweeps our readers should be following?
The Cheese Board in Berkeley is using Twitter to “twitter” out the pizza of the day. We’re hearing a lot about small businesses using Twitter this way. There’s a little pie shop, Mission Pie in San Francisco. Since it started twittering out the pie of the day, revenues have increased 15 to 20 percent.
Similar to Ed Sullivan in the ’50s and ‘60s, Stephen Colbert is today’s arbiter of pop culture cool. What was it like going on the Colbert Report?
It was so much fun. For the first 30 seconds of my interview, I was sitting there thinking, I’m watching Stephen Colbert and he’s hilarious. Then it hit me—I’m on the show.
In a recent New York Times profile, you admitted to writing boring tweets and not knowing what to say.
Well, Evan accused me of writing boring tweets in that piece. We go back and forth about this. I think Twitter is this low cognitive load. It lowers the barrier, and it gets people communicating. There are a lot of people who can be amazingly creative and hilarious. But you can just go for it and not worry about it—your last tweet does not have to be etched on your tombstone.
You have talked about building the value of Twitter as a worldwide communication system and possibly rolling out a new revenue model this year—can you give us an update?
Someone just told me that [Google CEO] Eric Schmidt used to say URL stands for ubiquity first, revenue later. We’re just beginning to make progress. We have commercial accounts with companies such as JetBlue, Comcast, and Dell, and they each have thousands of followers, so they are getting great value out of that. We have this amazing real-time search engine, and we think that we can introduce some services for commercial usage that will make it even better, and possibly charge for that.
Science fiction movies such as Demon Seed and 2001 cast technology as the villain.
Do you ever worry that Twitter will get so big that it will take over itself and destroy the world, like Skynet in the Terminator films?
[Laughs] No, because it’s really about the people using Twitter. We’re just creating a simple utility for people to organize and do something. I don’t think Twitter itself is capable of taking over. Hopefully, it will be smarter, be more efficient, and change the pace of business and democracy into real time in a good way. Creativity is an infinitely renewable resource—it’s not running out anytime soon. —Peter Crooks
Since baseball victories are measured by scoring more runs than the other team, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that Rickey Henderson was voted into the sport’s Hall of Fame by a nearly unanimous margin in his first year of eligibility. Although he is best known perhaps for breaking (by an enormous margin) the Major League record for stolen bases, Henderson’s primary motivation was always to score runs—another feat he accomplished more times (2,295) than any other player in baseball history.
“Scoring a lot of runs for the ball club—that’s what made me the player [I was]. That’s what made me love the game of baseball—coming across the plate,” he said at the press conference to announce his Hall of Fame induction.
Although Henderson played for nine teams over his 20-plus-year career, the Oakland-raised outfielder did much of that run scoring in his own backyard, in his 14 seasons with the Oakland Athletics, who drafted him straight out of Oakland Technical High in 1976. Henderson is known as a larger-than-life figure in baseball, famous for his showmanship (snapping his glove theatrically through the air while making routine catches in the outfield) as well as for his eccentric personality—and healthy ego—off the field. (He famously referred to himself in the third person when speaking with reporters.)
Current A’s coach Mike Gallego played with Henderson on the A’s 1989 championship team and remembers the unique aura his Hall of Fame teammate brought to the ballpark every day.
“Rickey was a tremendous competitor, and he was a great teammate,” Gallego recalls. “He wanted to be the star player every single day, and basically he was. We all knew he was special—and if you didn’t, he was going to let you know.” —Ethan Fletcher
This summer, you can see Jorma Taccone at every multiplex in the country, though you might not recognize him. Taccone, 32, endured more than three hours of makeup every day to play a cheerful primate alongside Will Ferrell in Land of the Lost, a $100-million big-screen update of the beloved 1970s Saturday morning TV show. Meanwhile, Taccone and his longtime Berkeley buddies and Saturday Night Live cowriters Andy Samberg and Akiva Shaffer recently released a comedy album, The Lonely Island: Incredibad. The album and DVD are packed with new songs and their irreverent SNL digital shorts, and feature guest appearances by Norah Jones, Jack Black, Justin Timberlake, and Blackhawk’s own E-40.
Diablo: You’ve done so many films shot with handheld cameras and edited on MacBooks—what was it like working on a summer blockbuster with CGI dinosaurs and a big budget?
Jorma Taccone: It was almost identical [laughs]. No, it was amazing. Every day we showed up on the set, there was another mammoth soundstage that had been converted into this other world. One day, it would be a temple; the next day, it would a forest. We shot on four or five soundstages on the Universal lot—if you’ve been on the Universal tour, you’ve seen these soundstages. They are tremendously large—and every inch of them would be covered. The first one we did was made up to be a forest—and was flooded with two feet of water so we could run through it like it was swamp. It was like a real forest that you could camp in.
Who will like this movie more—10-year-old boys or 45-year-old potheads who were 10 when the original was on TV?
[Laughs.] Hopefully both! I think those dudes in their forties will be bringing their 10-year-old sons to see it. I have a bizarre sense of humor—out of Will Ferrell’s movies, Anchorman is one of my favorites—and there’s a lot of that type of humor in the movie. For a big action movie, it also takes its time to have a lot of silly humor.
Was it fun to work with Ferrell, one of the biggest movie stars to come from Saturday Night Live?
I never got to meet him on SNL—he left two years before I started there. So he’s a huge comedy hero of mine. Getting to work with him, and hang out with him, was amazing.
What can you tell us about your character, Chaka?
He’s a little monkey boy, not very attractive. It took three and a half hours to get into the makeup every day, and a half hour to get out. And I did 60 days on the movie, so it was something like 200 hours getting in and out of makeup.
What were you watching on Saturday mornings, growing up in Berkeley?
I sometimes watched Smurfs and The Thundercats. Being in Berkeley, my parents weren’t huge on television in general. I remember sneaking to watch Sesame Street, thinking, “I hope my parents don’t catch me watching educational programming!”
Your dad, Tony Taccone, is the artistic director at Berkeley Rep. Are the performing arts encoded in your DNA?
Well, my dad gets to work with people such as [playwright] Tony Kushner and [stage actress] Sarah Jones, and I make up stuff about putting your penis in a box. It’s been kind of fascinating to see my dad witness the stuff that we’ve done—I’ve been surprised to see how much he enjoys it. When your dad directs a play on Broadway, you don’t really expect him to be impressed with anything you do.
My dad will get mad at me for taking credit for this, but a couple years ago, I called him and said, “Dude, you should do Green Day’s American Idiot at the Rep as a musical.” And, a couple months ago, he called me up and said, “Guess what we’re doing?” [Berkeley Rep will debut a musical version of American Idiot in September.]
When you were working temp jobs and making short comedy movies on your own dime, did you and Shaffer and Samberg talk about hitting it this big?
Yes. This is almost exactly the dream we set out to accomplish. There was a moment where we all met up out of college—we were all back for a summer—and we showed each other the films we had been making, and we said we have to work together because they were all so similar. So we all moved to Los Angeles.
There’s a picture that my mom took of us in my front yard in Berkeley, in which we’re sort of deciding what we want to do. And, five and a half years later, we took another picture in front of Paramount Studios, after a meeting in which we were told we were going to get to make a movie [2007’s Hot Rod] together. It was the moment of realizing that this was exactly what we wanted to do, after so much time being completely poor and taking little assistant jobs. It was difficult to think that it could ever happen.
On your new album, you got to work with E-40, one of the East Bay's legendary rap artists. How did you hook that up?
Well, growing up in the Bay Area, we were huge fans. Almost every house party we ever went to would be playing E-40’s “Da Bumble” when we walked in. He was the only person on the album who we approached without actually knowing him. If you listen to his albums, he clearly has a great sense of humor.
When we play the Lonely Island album for our friends from the East Bay, you could play the entire thing, and they won’t mention Norah Jones or all these artists on it, but E-40 was the one guy who would make people say, “What? How’d you get E-40?”
One more question: What is the deal with the videos of you on YouTube, dancing topless like a maniac while the SNL musical guests are rehearsing?
I’m just a big, big fan of music. We shoot those between dress rehearsal and air. I’m not sure how to describe them—other than they’re so embarrassing. —Peter Crooks
As the artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Tony Taccone is looking forward to an exciting season in 2009–10 that will feature new shows by Pulitzer Prize–winner Tony Kushner as well as rock stars Green Day and Matthew Sweet. Meanwhile, Taccone’s production of Carrie Fisher’s solo show, Wishful Drinking, is headed to a New York engagement in the fall. We chatted with Taccone about directing Princess Leia on Broadway, bringing Green Day to the Rep, and why his comedy star son, Jorma (see previous page), should eat his vegetables.
Diablo: Wishful Drinking was a huge hit in Berkeley in 2008, and it’s coming back to Berkeley Rep July 9–23, and then headed for Broadway in September. This continues the Rep’s streak of sending one show to New York per season for four years. Has this become part of the plan as you shape each season?
Tony Taccone: No, we certainly don’t have a minimum annual requirement of getting shows to Broadway [laughs]. Once you start planning that, it would be a disaster. We need to focus on making the work great for Berkeley Rep, not, “let’s work on it here, but just wait ’til we get to New York.” It’s been a happy coincidence that a number of shows have been so well received there. A lot of it is our reputation and the relationships we have developed. Then, of course, when you are working with astonishingly talented people such as [Tony Award–winning solo performer] Sarah Jones and [playwright and MacArthur fellow] Sarah Ruhl, you’re not sitting in a cave, thinking, “Who would ever watch this?”
Of these recent shows that have gone Berkeley to Broadway—Wishful Drinking, Bridge and Tunnel, Passing Strange, and In the Next Room (the Vibrator Play)—which was the biggest surprise?
Passing Strange’s going to Broadway was a surprise. I love Passing Strange—the writing and music are phenomenal—but I did not think of it as a Broadway event. But Broadway has changed a great deal in the past 10 years. There’s a whole other host of projects that are outside the box of the Disney-themed musical that brings in the tourists.
What is your favorite part of the job: creating a season of shows, working with playwrights, directing, or being there opening night?
It’s the creative process. As an artist and a director, I have the best time being in rehearsal. When the audience comes and gets it or doesn’t get it, that can be rewarding or disappointing, but either way, those shows require a letting-go process. Frankly, over the years, I have become less fond of opening nights. They’re always exciting, but the massive infusion of energy is overwhelming. I know a bunch of directors who don’t go to opening nights anymore because of that. But I do go to opening nights—I’m artistic director, so if I didn’t, it would be some kind of statement.
I just interviewed your son, Jorma, about his new movie and comedy album. Have you been surprised by his success?
On some level, he’s still my eight-year-old son, singing in the shower, and he won’t get out. So yeah! I’m surprised that the kid is an adult, let alone a writer on Saturday Night Live or acting with Will Ferrell in a movie. But did I know he was talented? Yeah. He’s smart and engaging, and a really nice guy. He wasn’t the kind of kid who said, at three years old, “I’m going to be a doctor.” But he was president of the Lego club at Berkeley High. You knew he was going to do something different.
Have you given him advice on his acting projects?
I give advice only when I’m asked. I try to be there completely for him at all times. But the advice I have given is more about the business aspect than the creative one, about the negotiation of relationships. And, he’s in a different business—film and TV are much different from theater. It’s a different set of relationships and a different power structure.
I’ve been doing this for, like, 50 years, and he’s famous. Which is great, fantastic. But part of what is happening to him is really hard. To the outside observer, he’s the luckiest guy in the world, but he works really hard. It’s a little freaky, the whole rhythm that he’s on. It’s a little worrisome as a parent. As a parent, I think he needs to sleep more and eat more vegetables.
Have you learned something about comedy from the kind of material that he and his buddies are doing?
They are working from a much different worldview than I am. Certainly, there is a different sense of humor.
We’ve talked a lot about comedy and humor, and how differently we see it. There’s a generational difference—I’m a ’60s kid; there’s an eternal optimist inside me. He grew up in a world where there wasn’t a lot of hope, there isn’t the same belief in systemic change or political leadership. It’s been interesting to see where we’re both right and wrong.
I’ve been getting an education from Jorma and his younger brother, Asa, for their entire life. They are great kids.
Jorma said that the Green Day American Idiot musical that debuts at the Rep in September was his idea.
Jorma absolutely planted the seed, and I loved the album. But the project came together when a producer named Tom Hulce [who, as an actor, played Mozart in the film Amadeus] called me up and said that he and Michael Mayer, who did a great show called Spring Awakening at the Rep, were interested in doing something with Green Day.
I just said, immediately, we’re doing that. It was a no-brainer. They’re a fantastic rock band, they’re from the East Bay, and they want to do it at Berkeley Rep! It’s going to be great. —Peter Crooks