Brian Grazer on Growing Up With Dyslexia
And the importance of having one real champion
Clinical Expert: Harold S. Koplewicz, MD
Brian Grazer has been writing and producing smart, commercially successful movies and television programs for more than 25 years. He’s the man we can thank for Apollo 13, The Grinch, Frost/Nixon, J. Edgar, Splash, and A Beautiful Mind, which earned him an Oscar. He has also produced many of our favorite shows, including Parenthood, Friday Night Lights, 24, and Arrested Development.
At the 2012 Adam Jeffrey Katz Memorial Conversation he sat down with Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz to discuss growing up with dyslexia. Here are some highlights from their conversation.
What was it like going to school?
It was horrible. From the very beginning. Because I couldn’t read, and at that time they didn’t classify it as dyslexia, it was just that you couldn’t read. I was always being reprimanded. And not being able to read also disables you from answering questions, so you’re hiding when the teacher’s looking around to say, “show of hands.” There’d never be a show of my hand. I would act out in different ways—not horribly, but I was mischievous. It was a way to find my way through the embarrassment of not being able to read.
Day-to-day, was it a carefree or a worried kind of experience?
At school I felt very anxious because in some ways I was part of a group, but always outside of the group. Later in life I think that helped me as a writer, being a person who was kind of accepted but always feeling outside, because it gives you the ability to write about something and have perspective.
My mom and my grandmother always said, “Brian, he’s carrying the weight of the world on his back,” and I always did feel the weight of the world on my back, every day since kindergarten. I’m still feeling that way now.
Were you getting support at home?
It was pretty evident I was struggling. But I grew up living this very interesting counterpoint: I was getting all F’s, maybe an occasional D, but I had a grandmother, on the other hand, who was telling me that I was special. I’d be looking at the report card, and she’d be saying I’m special. And I thought, does she not see this report card? But she was always there for me. My mom and dad were—well, my dad really wasn’t a very present dad, and my mom, she was busy getting me to my tutor and trying to fix the learning disability. My grandmother, on the other hand, didn’t work on those things. She just said, “You’re going to find your way through this. Think big, be big,” you know, she had all those adages. I was kind of living through the adages that my grandmother would say, and I was trying to integrate that into my sense of self-worth and think big and be resourceful, and at the same time, getting the F’s.
And did you keep getting F’s in school?
In high school I started getting C’s and D’s and an occasional B. Because I was resourceful! I had very good eyesight at the time, and I was able to look over shoulders. I had a pretty good sense of who to sit next to. I’m trying to avoid the word “cheating” but that’s what I did…
So you were resourceful!
Also in high school and in college I was able to get a lot of my grades upgraded because you could challenge your grades. I’d change a C to a B or a B to an A or even a C to an A, which I was able to do, just through a conversation with a professor. I did that by being creative, having some focus, and will. And I’ve applied those traits to accomplish everything in my career, really.
Tell me about sports. Were you an athlete?
I accidented into swimming. The reason I got into it was because it was a way to avoid first period. I got to avoid a class and go into swimming. I wasn’t very disciplined with it. At our first city meet the coach said, “Grazer, lane 8.” Now, lane 8 is the worst lane, you’re way out on the outside, and I was swimming the hundred meter butterfly, which was a stroke that I didn’t know, but I somehow had some natural ability at that, and I broke the LA city record, at the first meet. I thought as I touched down that everybody had already gotten out of the pool, but they were at least 25 meters behind me.
And that was unbelievable—it was a gigantic victory for me and it lasted a long time. It kind of supercharged me, and it empowered me to do other things.
So sports were an ego booster?
Sometimes. The first year of high school, a semester before stumbling into the swimming, I was cut from high school football. I was in an auditorium the size of this room, and I was cut by Coach Ogawa in football, in front of the JV and varsity football team. Absolutely the most humiliating experience and scarring experience, and that’s what lead me into the character in Parenthood, and definitely lead me into wanting to make Friday Night Lights, the movie and the TV series. Friday Night Lights, it’s about so many different things, but it’s about more than football.
From my perspective, the reason I was making the movie Friday Night Lights was, sure, it was a slice of life, and it was about Odessa, Texas and those worlds, but mostly it’s about how vulnerable boys are at 16-, 17-, and 18-years-old, and how any little thing can completely have a gigantic effect on one’s psyche. How it can completely destabilize them, impair them, or, in some cases, empower them. That moment in football, for me, was the most disempowering moment of my life.
Any other hard moments?
In college I still couldn’t really express myself in a group, and I took a speech class, which was hard. The speech teacher Mr. French pulled me aside, in a class of about 250 kids, put his arm around me, and he recommended that I drop out of college and go to occupational school. That was his advice for me. And he was literally the only person I made a point to, once I won an Oscar and did well, to get a hold of. I let Ogawa go but I couldn’t let the speech teacher go!
Did school ever get easier?
Finally in college I figured out how to study. In the last part of my career in college I got straight A’s. I learned that I was a good synthesizer—I’m actually pretty good at understanding what’s important. Like the big picture of things. So I was able to highlight what was actually important, identify central ideas, and umbrella ideas that would lead into questions that are subsets. I realized that I had that gift or trait where I could highlight things and then look at that highlighted material just before going to bed and wake up with pretty much total understanding. Not total memory, but complete understanding of all of the implications of the big ideas. So I could take tests, and do well at them.
We talked about dyslexia, but the way you describe yourself in school makes it sound like you may have had ADHD. Did any doctor suggest that?
No. I don’t know if I have that, I haven’t been diagnosed as having that. But I’ve been making movies with my partner Ron Howard for over 30 years, and not until about ten years in did he say, “I thought you used to be on coke all the time.” And that was in the early 80s, when people were on coke. I asked, “Why would you say that?” and he said, “You couldn’t concentrate!” I always thought I was concentrating—I was understanding what everybody was saying, I just would look around, and maybe I lost interest. But you could make a case in both directions. One is that I was getting what people were saying, and often I was getting it before they could finish. On the other hand, you don’t make people feel important when you’re looking around. And that’s what I gained on the other side of it; even if I was getting what people were saying, you owe it to them to have eye contact as much as you can, and make them feel important and let them finish what they’re saying. And by the way, there might be a surprise in what they’re saying. So you owe ’em that. And I did think it was funny that he thought I was on coke the whole time.
So what about life after college?
After college I got accepted to law school, but over the summer I got a job. One day I overheard a couple of guys talking about this really easy job at Warner Brothers—”It’s so cushy, it’s the greatest, easiest thing.” They said it was at Warner Brothers, working for a man named Peter Knecht, so I dialed information, got the phone number of Warner Brothers, 843-6000, and asked for Peter Knecht. I went and got a meeting with him that very day and got hired that very day, at 3 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, and I started on Monday.
The job was a law clerk, and I worked in a tiny little cubicle with no windows. I had a guaranteed 8-hour day, a 40-hour-a-week job, and I could get my job done in an hour. That meant I had seven hours to myself, so I dedicated my seven hours to the Brian Grazer business.
I was able to create access to everything, and I used all of this information for the Brian Grazer business. Also I asked my boss if I could use this huge office right within the cadre of executives, the chairman of the board, the vice chairman of the board, and the president. It had two union secretaries and the office was the size of a handball court. And he said, “Go ahead.”
So I used that office, with the two union secretaries, and I pretended to be something that I wasn’t. I met every single person that was actually doing something—the chairmans of the board, Lew Wassermann, Sid Sheinberg, the founder of MCA Jules Stein, Richard Brooks, Mel Brooks, the chairman of Columbia Pictures—and I said, “Hi, my name is Brian Grazer, I work at Warner Brothers business affairs, this is not associated with studio business, I’d like five minutes of your time, and I do not want a job.” And every person said yes. I quit the idea of going to law school and stayed there for the extra 8 or 9, 10 months until they fired me, but I’d gathered up so much information, and I was able to wrap my arms around all of that information and my contacts. I was able to understand how leverage was created within a creative enterprise.
Your experiences with dyslexia—the real bumps and struggles through school—how has that affected your ability to parent?
I think having dyslexia has helped me be a better parent, because in some areas I have a heightened sense of empathy. I think I have a better sense of what it feels like to be humiliated or feel invisible, and I do my best as a parent, and as a friend to people, to elevate others.
You have a son with learning disabilities too, right?
My oldest son Riley has very serious learning disabilities. He used to go to a public school where he had lots of Special Ed classes, but it got to the point where we felt like it wasn’t going to work. He wasn’t learning as much as he could—maybe he wasn’t learning at all—and I started to research different special schools. I got him into this great special school, which was very difficult and required a lot of work on my part. But Riley said to me, “Dad, I’m gonna run for office.” I go, “What office?” and he says, “I’m gonna run for president.” I thought to myself, Oh, shit, he’s not going to win president. I thought he was going to try to be an assemblyman or something! And he doesn’t know it, but I’m working my ass off to get him into this school, and I’ve been thinking about it for years. We had just come to the conclusion, with experts, that public school isn’t working for Riley.
But anyway, he runs, and he’s running against these kids that have great grades or are really popular and good in sports. But he develops a grassroots campaign, which his sister runs for him—”Riley’s going to have better restrooms, better food…” And he wins! Riley wins president! So I had to make a decision, should I let him be president of the school, or should I send him to this other special school? And I realized, I can’t take him out of this. This is going to make him feel so much more important than anything possible. So I let Riley be president of the school, and it was amazing for him. It was amazing. He had a lot of people helping him because he wasn’t the guy that could really be the president. But I know that it was a gigantic thing in formulating his identity and giving him a sense of self-worth.
Do you have any advice for the parents in the audience? What helped you?
I think all you need is one real champion, all you need is one real success, and the more specific that person, that mentor is, the better it works on your brain. Because my grandmother, she did convince me that I was special. And as much as all of the forces of reality, meaning empirical evidence, was showing that I wasn’t, I guess she was able to overpower me, and I did believe that I was special, and I operated on that definition. So any time I could have a success, that was a unique success, I felt like Superman. I really felt good.
What about kids? Sometimes it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
You know, it’s really hard because I’m still working on coping mechanisms. I think we’re all trying to cope. But it’s important to try and find peace, and be with people that you trust and like and who empower you. With all those tools, you’re going to be the best that you can be.