Iowa Falls family finds ties to show business

Iowa Falls family finds ties to show business

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What do the director of "See Spot Run," a co-head writer for "One Life to Live," a writer-producer for the HBO series "Oz" and an agent for stars such as Drew Barrymore and Ben Affleck all have in common?

They're all from Iowa Falls, and they are brothers.

Two of the sons followed the footsteps of their father, Jack Whitesell, into law school. But they later pursued careers in show business, which their father always considered pursuing.

The elder Whitesell, an Iowa Falls attorney, entered the University of Iowa radio program, thinking television would be big one day. He couldn't find a job and headed to law school but remained interested in movies.

His first son John, 47, director of "See Spot Run," went to law school, but changed course as a senior in college. Wanting to pursue directing, he moved to Florida. Then he moved to New York to participate in the graduate program in theater offered in Circle of the Square. He joined the minions of starving artists and became involved in Broadway.

Jack Whitesell said he never worried about his son.

"This was their passion - you always want children to do their passion," Whitesell said.

John broke into television in 1981, working as a go-fer for a soap opera called "Texas."

"I was the lowest person you could be on the show," said John Whitesell from his Universal City, Calf., office.

The producer said he was overqualified for the job, but gave it to him anyway. In between making runs for coffee and picking up cast members for the since-canceled soap, an offspring of "Another World," he tried to convince the producer to let him direct a show.

"I badgered her, I told her I could do it, for about four months," John said. He left scripts on her desk until she caved in.

"I conned her into giving me a shot. … From then on I never had to look back," he said.

But he always looked back to his family. They were watching him, too. And his younger brothers became more interested in theater as John worked on his projects. When he could, John opened doors of opportunity for his younger brothers.

His brother, Christopher, 45, was second to arrive in show business. He too first went to law school.

Christopher Whitesell practiced law in Minnesota, but decided to write for a soap opera in 1984. He wrote a script and John showed it to the right people. Now after writing for them all, Christopher is co-head writer for "One Life to Live." Before that he wrote for "Days of Our Lives."

"You go back and forth on those shows," John said.

His other brothers, Thomas, 43, is senior vice president of Fremont Investment and Loan in Santa Monica, Calif. And James, 41, is head basketball coach at NCAA Division II Lewis College in Romeoville, Ill.

But brother Sean, 38, went straight to drama and studied fine arts. John introduced Sean to his friend, Tom Fontana, who was working on "Homicide: Life on the Street."

From there Sean moved to acting a part on the HBO series "Oz." He played the role of Donald Groves, a long-haired inmate who killed his parents, ate his father and was saving his mother in the freezer. He was executed in the second season by a firing squad. Then Sean was resurrected as a writer and producer of the series.

Patrick, 36, the youngest in the family, also longed for a career in show business, but he wanted to stay on the business side. In 1991, John introduced Patrick to someone at a talent agency, and he began work in the mail room. Now he's an agent at Endeavor, and he personally represents such stars as Drew Barrymore, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Aniston.

"He's done extremely well," John said.

While Whitesell introduced his brothers to the right people. "They did all the rest," he said. "They are all very gifted and talented."

John Whitesell's movie "See Spot Run" was second at the box office when it opened two weeks ago, and was in third place last weekend. Before making in to the big screen he directed several sitcoms.

John moved to Los Angeles in 1988, where he began working in nighttime television. He directed such shows as "Rosanne," "Coach," "Law and Order" and "Cosby."

He directed the pilot, "Grounded for Life," which aired on the Fox this season, and he directed the movie "Calendar Girl" in 1993.

His love for movies began at a young age. He went to the Iowa Falls Met Theater every Saturday, no matter what was playing. And he watched a fair share of television. His parents bought one when he was about 5 years old, and it quickly became a part of John's life. His mother, Pat, called him a "television bum" - she thought he was addicted.

"I kept saying, 'I'm studying, Mom.' She laughed. Now she realizes I was," John said.

"I always expected (John) to succeed," Jack said. He always expected all his sons to succeed, as did their mother. "We just didn't know where," he said.

John said his father may have had something to do with his career in show business, but only to an extent.

"He exposed us to it," John said. His father took him to plays, but he went with others, too. His father never pushed anybody.

"But he likes it - he loves it - as you can tell," John said.

Jack worked to create the theater group and helped restore the Met Theater in Iowa Falls. "Show business is in his blood," John said.

Jack Whitesell, however, takes no credit for his sons' success. Their talent doesn't come from him, he said. Where did they get it?

"Probably from the mother. That's what I say, 'cause she says it's me," Jack said. His wife, Pat, is living in their Santa Barbara, Calif., apartment at the moment.

Jack was responsible, though, for organizing the Iowa Falls Community Theater Group in the 1950s that most of his sons had a role or two in.

"The children were there a lot," Jack said.

John performed in "Tea House of the August Moon," directed by his father.

"He was always upset because he didn't get any lines," Jack said of the production.

And John still doesn't. He plans to remain behind the scenes. He is obligated to direct a remake of the television series "Get Smart," which aired in the 1960s. He has already done his homework for that, no doubt.

"You make something and go on and do something different; it is never the same," John said. "That's what is really appealing about it."


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