Ordinary People, Extraordinary Experience
Thirty years ago, we had the chance to host a big Hollywood production in our own backyard. But it was the subject matter rather than the locations that ended up hitting a little too close to home.
Photographs by Jim Benton
Prior to Ordinary People, Lake Forest had no trouble flying under the radar. But once the hit movie came out, it felt like every head in the nation turned in our direction and we had a sign stamped on our collective foreheads that read: WEALTHY AND SUICIDAL. Ordinary People, faithfully adapted from Judith Guest’s novel, is a heartbreaking drama filled with endless conversation and very little communication. The story is a gripping examination of pain and loss, teen suicide, and the extraordinary pressure to present the perfect family.
Judith Guest chose Lake Forest as the novel’s setting because of similarities to her own affluent Minneapolis suburb, another “community that had everything.” When Robert Redford secured the rights to the novel for what would be his directorial debut, his desire to ground the film in reality brought him and his production team to Lake Forest in 1979.
“I thought we ought to document this in some way,” says Jim Benton, who taught biology and chemistry, and served as the head of the science department at Lake Forest High School at the time. Bearing a letter of introduction from the school’s superintendent, Dr. Robert Metcalf, Jim approached Robert Redford and the film’s producer, Ron Schwary. “They all said, ‘Fine, that’s no problem. Do everything you want. Just don’t make clicking noises while the sound effects are on,’” Jim remembers. Over the next two months, Jim showed up on set, camera in hand, and captured iconic stills of the cast and crew. “They did most of their filming at the high school on weekends or in the evenings so they wouldn’t disturb classes. That was part of the agreement they made with the school board. My lesson plans went down the tubes for about two months. But it was fun and I got some great work out of it,” Jim says with a smile. “The only person I did not [get a photo of] was Don Sutherland, he was always somewhere else. I never quite nailed him down. He’s a very big guy, like 6' 3", very imposing and very scary. Mary Tyler Moore was just as pleasant as she could be.” Jim’s constant presence on set even resulted in his appearance in the movie. When filming at the Gorton Community Center in Lake Forest, Robert Redford asked Jim to take a seat directly behind Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore during a community theater scene early in the film.
David Miller, Technical Theater Director and telecom teacher at Lake Forest High School at the time, also recalls the scene at the Gorton Community Center. A play wrapped at Gorton just weeks before the movie came to town and the company left the set onstage for use in the film. “They came in to shoot, and they said, ‘Oh, no! We can’t use this. It’s too nice.’ It didn’t read as a community theater set for them,” says David. “They took out half the walls and painted them an awful color.”
David also pointed legendary composer Marvin Hamlisch in the right direction when he got lost in the high school while looking for the choir room. Redford wanted the film’s version of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” sung, not by a choir of professionals, but by actual students, and Hamlisch was there to oversee the recording by the Forester Singers. He was running late because, although he’s won Emmys, Grammys, Oscars, a Tony, and a Pulitzer Prize, he had a little trouble traversing the halls of Lake Forest High School. After successfully recording the song, the group moved upstairs to the Publick Room to lip-sync to their recording for the camera.
But there were some occasions where school extracurricular activities clashed with the production. Though all of the swim team scenes were shot at Lake Forest College’s pool, the exterior for the fight scene between Timothy Hutton and Adam Baldwin was shot at Lake Forest High School. As they were getting in position to shoot, the sound of tools from Denny Herrmann’s adult evening class in the woodshop made it impossible for the sound men to get clean recordings, so when they were ready for a take, the producer called Denny on a walkie-talkie and they shut the tools down until they got the all clear to start up again. His class watched them film all night. In turn, Robert Redford and Ron Schwary came to the woodshop between takes to investigate the class projects. Denny must have made quite an impression that night. “In about the first five minutes in the film, they’re talking at the breakfast table about having Mr. Herrmann come and fix the shutters,” says Denny. “He says something like, ‘He’s an ornery old cuss, but he can come fix the shutters.’”
Another local who made quite an impression on Redford was Carl DiTomasso of Lake Forest, who played Van Buren in the film. When an open casting call was held a few weeks before production began, Carl, who had never acted before, went, just to meet Robert Redford. After a disastrous reading where he called Redford “short” and improvised a slew of curse words into a page of clean dialogue, he was shocked to receive a call from Penny Perry, the film’s casting director, who said that they would like him to read again with Timothy Hutton. Carl was so sure that it was his friends playing a prank on him that he hung up on her three times in a row before storming into Robert Redford’s hotel room in the city to make sure the callback was legitimate. When Robert Redford greeted him with, “Carl, what are you doing here? We’re supposed to see you Sunday,” Carl “Aw-shucks-ed” his way back home and read for the casting team two more times before landing the role of Van Buren, one of Conrad’s friends from the swim team.
“At that last meeting, Mr. Redford told me, ‘Yeah, you’re in.’ I’m like, ‘Come on!’” says Carl. “He was the nicest guy in the world. He was just a regular guy after you got over the ‘It’s Robert Redford’ thing. Everybody in the movie was fun to deal with.”
A week later, Carl was at a table read with the stars at the Sheridan Hotel in Waukegan, which was rented out in its entirety for the sole use of the cast and crew during filming. One week after that, he was on set and the cameras were rolling. “It was ready to go; it all happened really fast,” Carl remembers. “Not a day goes by that somebody doesn’t ask me about Ordinary People. And now my kids are sick of hearing it, because they study it at the high school. I’ve had 15 minutes that have lasted for 30 years.”
Though the exterior of the Jarrett family home was shot on Lincoln Avenue in Highland Park, the interiors were all sets built inside of a rented airplane hangar in Fort Sheridan. But it was the extensive use of North Shore exteriors and locations that truly made the movie feel real. Anyone who’s been to Walker Bros. Original Pancake House in Wilmette recognizes it immediately in one scene of the movie. Ray Walker had to close down for an entire day to accommodate production.
“A couple of guys walked in and asked about the possibility of a movie shoot at the restaurant. Of course, it was very busy. Then it suddenly dawned on me that one of the gentlemen was Robert Redford,” says Ray. “They told me that they wanted to go to a place that was centrally North Shore oriented. He said, ‘We need to do it here.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ I wanted the opportunity. I felt excited about it, so I did everything I could.”
The production team arrived at 7 a.m., two days after meeting with Ray, and over the course of 10 hours, they shot the three-minute scene. Toward the end of the day, word got around that the film was shooting in Wilmette, and so many people gathered that the police had to be called in to maintain order. As soon as they finished shooting, Robert Redford made his way back into the kitchen, signing autographs and taking pictures with everyone who wanted one. “Redford was talking a lot about Sundance [the independent film festival Redford helped to create in 1978]. He wanted to create an opportunity for people who were not as big, but who were creative. He was really enthusiastic about it,” says Ray.
After weeks of watching the crew eat most of their meals out of the catering truck, Carl DiTomasso’s mother couldn’t take it anymore. “She made her pasta and sauce, and we had everybody over at the house,” says Carl. “Redford, Tim Hutton, Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, all the mic guys. They loved it. At the time, Robert Redford always drank Perrier water, so I said, ‘Mom, we have to get this Perrier water.’ She said, ‘He can drink tap water like the rest of us!’” As to Mr. Redford’s opinion of our tap water, I’m afraid we’ll have to speculate.
As production wrapped up, life on the North Shore began to return to normal. Except, that is, for Carl, who was flown to Los Angeles for two weeks of voiceover work on the Paramount backlot. “Redford showed us around California. But then at night I’d go out to parties—oh, some weirdos out there. They know you’re an 18-year-old kid that doesn’t know anything,” Carl says, shaking his head. Prior to the movie, he had never been out of Lake Forest. “So I was at a party one night, and I think this guy was trying to slip me pills or something. I was a pretty tough kid, but I was scared. I went to the L.A. airport, got on an airplane, and flew home. They’re looking for me the next day, can’t find me. They call the house. I answer the phone. It’s Ron Schwary. He says, ‘What are you doing?!’ I go, ‘You people are weird out there. If you need me, I’ll come back out, otherwise, I’m not staying out there anymore.’ Now I look back, I tell my kids I should have been gay. I could have gone out with a couple of these guys and been a movie star now,” says Carl with a laugh.
The movie was released on September 19, 1980. It garnered massive critical acclaim and won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture of 1980. And the people of Lake Forest began to feel a little self-conscious about the emotional well-being of our local youth. It became important to make sure that the teens in our community had supportive and reliable environments in which to socialize and connect; shortly thereafter, CROYA (Committee Representing Our Young Adults) was formed. “Perhaps the storyline of the film served as an additional catalyst for city leaders who were already armed with fresh research pointing to the potential need for a community organization like CROYA. It’s entirely possible they felt the time had come to take a closer look at the well-being of the teens in the community and to ensure that the youths’ concerns were being addressed,” says David Steck, one of the first youths to be involved with CROYA 30 years ago.
But, despite the fact that it’s become more socially acceptable to seek treatment for depression within the last 30 years, a study by Cummins Behavioral Health Systems shows that teen suicide rates have increased by 11 percent since 1980 and adolescent suicide rates have increased by 105 percent. It’s particularly important in affluent areas to address depression in young adults. Being surrounded by success promotes unbelievable pressure to achieve at the highest level, and even the smallest setbacks can be seen as insurmountable obstacles. At a time when it was the last thing anyone wanted to talk about, Ordinary People showed us that sincerity and communication were more important for a family than creating a good impression. But while it brought the problem to light, it didn’t resolve anything. “Having been the psychiatrist at Lake Forest Hospital for a number of years, I’m really looking forward to Northwestern developing psychiatric programs, because it’s been difficult to get Lake Forest to do this. One of the things that is very clear is that there are a number of people in this area who look at it, to some extent, as a public relations nightmare to admit that they have psychiatric or chemical dependency problems and that they’re going to address them,” says Dr. Brad Greenspan, one of only three psychiatrists on staff at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital. “The good news is that over the last seven years people have come to see me on the basis of a referral from a neighbor or a friend. So that’s the other part of this. There are those who take the view that behavioral problems are not something that are shameful and that there needs to be help for that.” Then again, considering how hard it was during the research of this piece to find even one area psychologist to speak generally about the pressures put on successful families, or that anyone in the North Shore ever chose to seek any form of therapy, perhaps things haven’t changed so much.
If you or anyone you know needs someone to talk to, Dr. Brad Greenspan can be reached at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital, or at his private practice, Lakeside Psychology and Counseling, at 847-604-9441.