College's TV elite praise liberal arts education

by Rebecca Leffler | 11/13/03 6:00am

Editor's Note: This is the seventh in a series of articles profiling alums working on the big and small screens.

It's senior year -- time to sit back, relax and take all those fun courses you missed out on for the past three years while you were scrambling to complete all those major requirements, right? Then why are you signed up for that seven-hour lab science, Italian drill and a course on courtship rituals in Kazakhstan?

While you may have spent the last few months cursing that reincarnation of Satan we at Dartmouth like to call "distributive requirements," Dartmouth alums Paul Lazarus '76 and John Donvan '77 are living proof that a liberal arts education is an invaluable experience.

Both Lazarus and Donvan have used their well-rounded Dartmouth experiences to succeed in the television and media industry. Donvan, an NBC "Nightline" correspondent and guest anchor, has covered such major international stories as the Persian Gulf War and the revolutions in Eastern Europe, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the assassination of Anwar Sadat.

While Donvan is usually found at the forefront of all the action, Lazarus has excelled behind the scenes, acting, directing, writing and producing for both the big and small screens. Since moving to Los Angeles in 1989, Mr. Lazarus has directed many notable prime time television series including: "Friends," "Mad About You," "Everybody Loves Raymond," "LA Law," "Melrose Place," "Beverly Hills 90210," "Murder She Wrote," and many others. He recently wrote, directed and produced his first feature film, "Seven Girlfriends" starring Tim Daly, Mimi Rogers, Laura Leighton and Elizabeth Pea which is currently showing on HBO/Cinemax and on Comedy Central, and which earned numerous awards at film festivals all over the world.

An English major from New York City, Donvan was active at WDCR during his time at Dartmouth and claims to have spent some of his best Hanoverian times over at the campus radio station headquarters.

"Radio is so elegant and light and pure. It is so entirely dependent on language and on voice. There is so much more of a perceived agenda in television to keep pictures moving, when you can explain much more by describing something verbally than by showing a picture. In fact, a picture can be very misleading or numbing. They say 'a picture is worth 1000 words,' but I disagree," Donvan said.

He added: "In 1986, Ghaddafi, the leader of Libya had pissed off Reagan. I was working for CNN at that point and went to Libya just as Reagan sent planes to attack the city. I was describing that moment live on the telephone as the attack unfolded. Later, I got mail from people saying they had seen me on television. 'Are you alright?' and 'I have such vivid memories of you standing there.' However, in reality, they had never seen any pictures. This really hit home for me how the words carry much more power than pictures."

Donvan credits many of his professors as having made a lasting impact on his way of thinking, including Peter Travis in the English department and James Tatum in the Classics department. According to Donvan, English professor Alan Gaylord was "terrific. He taught me Chaucer, and that has stayed with me throughout my life."

Lazarus, a double major in Psychology and Drama who became neither a psychologist nor an actor, feels similarly about taking a very wide range of courses. "I'm a big fan of the notion of an eclectic and wide ranging education because I think that ultimately what college is useful for is learning how to learn, rather than learning anything in particular. The language requirement completely opened my eyes to a world I would have never gone into," Lazarus said.

In fact, after spending three months in France with renowned language professor John Rassias, Lazarus opted to stay in France for a short period of time. According to Lazarus, "Rassias was such a force and such a dynamic human being that anything you learn from him, you want to learn as much as possible." Lazarus also cites Comparative Literature professor Wolf as one of his strongest influences. "He tied everything together in ways I had never though about: how music can relate to Buster Keaton and how Buster Keaton can relate to film, etc. The inter-disciplinarian aspect has really served me in my work today."

Lazarus even started a Dartmouth radio show about musicals, which he later turned into a professional project in New York called "Anything Goes" which was loosely based on his Dartmouth radio show.

Yet the most significant change for Lazarus was the Reynolds scholarship he received to study with the Royal Shakespeare Company in London after graduation. "This seminar was the turning point in my life. I realized I was more interested in directing than in performing," Lazarus said.

Donvan also spent a great deal of time in London. From 1989 to 1991, Donvan reported from London for ABCNEWS and from 1986 to 1989, he reported for CNN. His overseas experience in London was only the beginning of an exciting career of frontline reporting.

"This past year, I covered the war as an independent reporter, which was very dangerous but very rewarding. I saw very early on the signs of very obvious trouble. The Iraqis were not happy to have us there and not certain that they were willing to collaborate. They all had high suspicions and resentment."

Despite his incredible success and exciting lifestyle, Donvan remains modest. "Journalism is not brain surgery; it's not hard to get it down. All journalism is is curiosity, common sense and honesty, and everything else doesn't really matter."

"In southern Iraq, people came up to me on the street showing me their wounds, mouth cancer or paper work to get medicine. I think a lot of journalists would say 'These people are slowing me down and preventing me from getting to the real story' but I though 'These people are the real story.' I am much more willing to tell story in the first person and to show the world: 'here are where my feet went today.'"

While Donvan has spent his post-Dartmouth years in the spotlight on television sets all over the country, Lazarus has been successful behind the scenes. Like Donvan, Lazarus prefers not to follow the typical cookie-cutter approach to life, and always tries to take on exciting projects. After directing so many hit television series and achieving worldwide success with his first feature film, Lazarus claims: "I've hit the point in my life where I only seek to do the impossible, to achieve the ambitious thing."

While he has found his niche in film and television, Lazarus cites the theater as his true passion. "The camera is an amazing tool and is a completely different way to tell a story, but I suppose my heart will always be in the theater."

His first feature film, 1999's "Seven Girlfriends" addressed the light romantic question: "How do you have a relationship that works?," a personal notion that, for Lazarus, defined the purpose of feature film. According to Lazarus, "Most romantic comedy leads are guys who don't want to commit, so I created a central character desperate to find commitment but can't seem to pull it off. He goes back to visit his seven serious girlfriends to find out what he is doing wrong."

"Of all the arenas I've been in, selling a film is absolutely the most painful and difficult experience I've ever been involved in...You just get beaten and beaten," he said. But Lazarus feels that this hard work does pay off in the end. "The best thing is when you get an email from Indonesia because someone from Indonesia liked your movie enough that they actually feel they had to write you."