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Donor Profile: Mike '65 and Joan Haley remember adventures in film
Saturday, October 1, 2016
Saturday, October 1, 2016
Mike Haley was the first person in his family to go to college. “It was my dime,” he said, and initially, his approach was “what can I major in to get a job?”
Affiliation: Mike Haley, speech therapy, class of 1965 and Joan Haley
A favorite UMass Theater memory: Mike joked that his favorite memory was building the high-rise dorms after he graduated, but quickly pointed out that he also loved his theater experience — it was his only extra-curricular activity, in fact. He recalled acting in All The Kings’s Men, a production directed by the late Harry Mahnken. “Harry Mahnken was such an incredible guy, he really was!” said Mike.
Why do you donate to the Department of Theater? The Haleys praised the professionalism of the productions they've seen since returning to western Massachusetts. They donate, says Joan, "Because it’s fabulous!" Mike agrees: "Because it’s great quality… these kids are getting a quality education!"
Accordingly, he started out in engineering at Berkshire Community College. “But after my 15th electrical shock… I said, ‘This doesn’t seem to be working for me’.” His advisor at BCC urged him to consider the liberal arts, and he wound up at the University of Massachusetts in the speech department, then home to UMass’s theater classes. He majored in speech therapy and acted in his free time.
It was the beginning of a life-long engagement with the arts, as Haley followed his muse to Spain, to New York City — where he met his wife Joan, a similarly adventurous person — and into the film and television industry, where he worked for years as a first assistant director, often with director Mike Nichols, and as a producer, while Joan held positions with various productions as well. Now both retired and living in western Massachusetts, the Haleys remain passionate supporters of the arts, both as patrons and as participants, notably in the Greenfield Double Take Fringe and in projects with fellow UMass Theater alumna Linda McInerney ‘98G. “We love the theater department, we love the way it’s run,” said Joan Haley. “It’s a good department.”
Finding the arts
After his misadventures with engineering and his time in the speech department, it was a Spanish class that pulled Mike Haley into theater in a new way. “I wasn’t a great Spanish student, but I really fell in love with it,” Haley said, and after graduating he decided to go to Granada, Spain, to study at the city’s university. The theater department there was bare-bones, “lights in coffee cans hanging from the ceiling,” as Haley remembered it, but he wrote a play called The Blue Balloon, about a sculptor who wanted to make the perfect round globe. It was Haley’s first time writing a play — he scripted it in English, some friends translated it into Spanish. Because the dictator, Franco, was still in power, they had a register the play so it could be vetted for content Franco’s government found objectionable. “We got away with a few things,” Haley recalled.
Returning home to western Massachusetts, he held a number of jobs and fell in with his then-brother-in-law, who was writing what might now be termed “experimental theater,” and became part of a company that brought his plays to LaMama and the Berkshire Theatre Festival.
Mike Haley was teaching part-time at BCC when, he said, “Out of nowhere, someone called to see if I was available to work on a B movie being made in Pittsfield, to be a gopher.”
He did, and he found out that for him, “This was an adrenaline high that just couldn’t be beat!”
When it was over, the producer offered him a job on the William F Buckley Show in New York. “I had no idea about New York or what it was, but I said 'sure',” said Haley.
When he asked for more than $60 a show, he was fired, but a fortuitous meeting with an acquaintance kept him in New York. Some years before, musician friends of his had been in a movie and Haley, tagging along to Long Island City, had hit it off with the producer, a colorful character named Charles Carmello who carried stiletto in his boot and produced films for the pornography industry.
(“You see more on TV now,” Joan Haley noted about the films that qualified for that label back then.)
Carmello offered him some odd jobs as well as occasional film gigs. It turned into an education in film. “I learned to load magazines, I learned how to cook for 12 people, I learned how to hang lights, I learned camera work, etc. etc.,” Haley said. That, in turn, led to a job as production manager with a public television station in New York.
When the Director’s Guild of America opened its first east coast training program to train assistant directors, Haley successfully applied. “With that training program, I don’t know how many of them there were that first year,” Joan Haley said, “and they pick, what’d they pick, 10? It’s looking for quality, leadership, quick thinking.”
A rough and tumble industry
It was around this time that Joan Haley was also making her way into the industry where they would meet.
“I grew up in New York City, and it was the late 60s. I was going to college part-time, not liking having to take courses I had no interest in, in order to get to where I wanted to go. I was working at a production house; they did TV spots, trailers, radio spots,” she said. When the company owner prepared to produce his first full-length film, she “begged” to work on the project, only to be told she couldn’t.
“I figured out how to show them I could do anything they needed me to do,” and eventually got hired as a production assistant.
Joan Haley said, “I opened the studio at 5:30 in the morning in what is now Tribeca but what was in 1969 —“ “the creepy warehouse district!” her husband finished for her.
“It was the heyday of the independent film industry in New York,” she said, and it was a rough and tumble business.
Her local know-how meant she became the "go-to" person for Hollywood films that came into town just for a few weeks of location shoots, since they needs someone local who knew the ins and outs of payroll, union rules, etc. She also worked as an accountant. Joan Haley worked for a who's who of 1960s and 1970s film directors including Robert Downey Sr. and Bob Rafelson and shifted to LA for a time. The Haleys originally met working on Godfather II, but then didn't cross paths again until 1979.
"I was living in Sunderland and had just finished a movie down south," Mike Haley said. He'd driven home intending to take a break, but a friend called him with an urgent offer to head to take over for the first assistant director on a film in Boston.
That night, there was a fire in the Copley hotel where they were staying; several were injured and one person died.
For Joan Haley, it was her husband's calm under pressure that stood out. After a harrowing evacuation, he assessed the situation and corralled her and the production assistant for the film. The three headed to the production office nearby and Mike Haley found walkie talkies and crew sheets so the three of them could get to work figuring out who was safe from their crew.
"It was part of the reason I fell in love with him. He was so brilliant. ... It was amazing for somebody to be so clear thinking," she said. "We've been together ever since."
Joan Haley retired from the industry before her husband did because they realized that both of them being on location for long stretches wasn't good for a long-term relationship; she logged about 25 years, while he served 40 years before retiring.
Reflecting on their work, both say it's hard to offer advice to current students because the industry has formalized its training and the winding paths they took would likely not work today.
"We couldn't get our jobs today," Mike Haley said — his assistant director training aside, they learned much of what they did on the job.
But they did have encouraging words for artists. Even the lousiest jobs give you the opportunity to observe and learn people, Mike Haley pointed out.
"You pick up their quirks and peculiarities, their languages, their mannerisms, you’re building a portfolio whether you realize it or not, and also how people think and treat each other," he said.