Hollywood Highlights — UI alumni who have made it to stardom

Hollywood producers Robin Green, Mitchell Burgess, and Robert Lorenz have won countless awards and worked with some of the biggest names in the film industry, like Tom Selleck or Clint Eastwood. They all share something in common — graduating from the University of Iowa.

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Feb 6, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Actor Ashton Kutcher in attendance of the NASCAR Cup Series Busch Light Clash at The Coliseum at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Parker Jones, Arts Editor


Ashton Kutcher, Gene Wilder, Tennessee Williams — like most colleges, the University of Iowa boasts its share of famous alumni. Whether they studied on the Pentacrest, got pumped for games at Kinnick Stadium, or strolled the streets of Iowa City, these celebs were once everyday Hawkeyes.

It is likely that the students who “made it” in Hollywood mostly graduated from one of the UI’s renowned writing programs or in the cinema major. The Nonfiction Writing Program, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the Iowa Writers Room are just some of the channels that famous alumni have succeeded through.

Producers Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess are two examples of UI graduates who have flourished in Hollywood. Among many other achievements, the married couple is best known for serving as executive producers and writers of “The Sopranos” and co-creating the 2010 CBS drama “Blue Bloods.” Between Green and Burgess, they have been nominated for dozens of Emmy Awards and won six for “The Sopranos” alone. These awards include Best Writing of a Drama Series in 2001 and 2003 and Outstanding Drama Series in 2004.

Before becoming award-winning screenwriters, Green and Burgess met in a writing class at the UI.

“I was a teaching writing fellow, and Mitch was just fresh out of the army on the G.I. bill in 1976, and he came in my class, and we met then,” Green said. “He was a very good short story writer, but he was an undergraduate at the time, and we met people at Iowa that helped us. So, we met and became a couple, and went out to California together.”

Green graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in 1977 while Burgess graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1978. Before her time at Iowa, Green already achieved a noteworthy career in Northern California as a writer for Rolling Stone magazine. However, she said once she came to Iowa and met Burgess, she felt motivated to combine their writing talent.

“I just had the feeling that we could make money as writers in Hollywood,” Green said.

After graduation, the duo promptly moved to Los Angeles. After several years, they were contacted by fellow UI alum John Falsey and his writing partner Josh Brand, who created the show “A Year in the Life,” and gave Green an in to the world of television writing in 1987. Green later won an Emmy for her work on the show “Northern Exposure,” which was another Falsey-Brand creation.

Both Green and Burgess said the connections they made at the UI prepared them for their work in Hollywood. Burgess recalled several now-acclaimed authors they met in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, including Michelle Huneven and T.C. Boyle, who he remains close friends with to this day.

“We met friends that we’ve kept for life, for a long, long time. I mean, that’s one of the reasons why you go to college, to meet people and, you know, find your cohort,” Burgess said.

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The couple remains financially and socially involved in the UI to this day. Notably, they help fund the Writers’ Workshop and the Iowa Writers Room, which aims to help prospective writers enter long-form television professionally. Additionally, Green was awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award from the UI in 2014.  Currently, she and Burgess live in New York City.

Green recalled sitting in the Iowa Memorial Union one morning with novelist Henry Bromell. The two noticed famed Argentinian writer Jean Luis Borges walking by with his breakfast on a tray.

“I remember him eating cereal dry out of a bowl — one of those little boxes of Kellogg’s cornflakes. And I mean, that was the sort of thing about Iowa. Every writer came through there, right?”

Another alum who sought stardom and succeeded is producer and director Robert Lorenz. In addition to three nominations for the Academy Award for Best Picture, Lorenz is also known for working alongside Clint Eastwood. He has a prolific filmography, serving as an executive producer on films like “Blood Work” and “Million Dollar Baby” and producing the Oscar-nominated films “Mystic River,” “Letters from Iwo Jima,” and “American Sniper.”

Lorenz, who graduated with his bachelor’s in 1989, made it his mission to move to California as soon as possible after he graduated. Not to any fault of his experiences at the UI, but he simply said he wanted to “commit.”

“I remember the last class I had, a professor asked, ‘What’s everybody doing?’ and started going around the room, and I said, ‘I’m going to move out to Los Angeles,’” Lorenz said. “And a whole bunch of people started laughing and they said, ‘What for?’ And I said, ‘I’m going to go get new business.’ That’s what we all got degrees for, and there was a lot of snickers, but to me, it made perfect sense.”

Ultimately, it turned out that Lorenz was right.

He got his start as a production assistant on the low-budget 1990 slasher film “Slumber Party Massacre III,” which hired him for his ability to load film, to which he credits UI classes. Lorenz described his education at the UI as “very well-rounded,” especially when it came to the fundamentals of filmmaking.

He said his time at the UI helped him not only make his way to the top of the film industry but with work throughout his entire career. Though Lorenz began as a producer, he said his dream was always to direct films.

“I grew up in the Chicago area and wanted to learn how to make movies, and I wanted that to be my life. After school, I worked in the summer, saved up a few bucks, and then just drove out to California,” Lorenz said. “And so, I’ve been here ever since. I wanted to eventually direct, and that’s what I’m doing these days.”

RELATED: Star Trek director, UI alum Nicholas Meyer speaks about career

In addition to his memories of learning the ins and outs of putting films together, solving editorial problems, and loading film, Lorenz said he had some roommates who were wrestling fanatics. Although not interested in the sport much himself, Lorenz said they taught him some moves and brought him to meets where he saw Dan Gable, who is one of the state’s famous wrestling athletes, coaching.

The filmmaker also recalled inspiring moments in the Iowa countryside.

“I would jump in my car and drive out into cornfields and film them and, just sort of taking in these beautiful, breathtaking landscapes and stuff. I enjoyed my time there a lot,” Lorenz said.

Lorenz is currently working on the upcoming drama film “In the Land of Saints and Sinners” as the director. His biggest piece of advice for aspiring film students: Move to Los Angeles.

Green and Burgess echoed Lorenz’s thoughts, noting that, as producers, part of their job has been to look for fresh, prospective writers in Hollywood. They also noted that other Hawkeyes who have made their way to LA look out for their own.

“It doesn’t really matter where you’re from. People are just looking for good writing,” Burgess said. “It’s a very wide-open thing if you’ve got the talent and you keep at it. And frankly, there’s a network now of people, of Iowa people in the industry in Los Angeles, who really do want to lend a hand.”

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