Magazine article The New Yorker

Always Come Back

Magazine article The New Yorker

Always Come Back

Article excerpt

ALWAYS COME BACK

Lewis Teague, the filmmaker, dropped out of the New York University undergraduate film program in 1963. A short that he'd shot, "It's About This Carpenter," had earned him an N.Y.U. scholarship, some festival attention, and a now-or-never offer from Universal to go to Hollywood and work on "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour." So he bailed on school a semester short of a degree. He also relinquished the scholarship money, which was awarded instead to a classmate by the name of Martin Scorsese. Teague's mentor, Haig Manoogian, told him, "You can always come back."

Teague had matriculated at N.Y.U. late, after a tumultuous adolescence. Born in Brooklyn, he got kicked out of high school, in Washington Heights, and did a stint in juvie for stealing cars. ("We were only joyriding," he says now.) He enlisted in the Army and was twice court-martialled (more car theft, AWOL) before he somehow managed to get an honorable discharge. He aced his high-school-equivalency test, got his act together at N.Y.U., and went on to have a solid career. He directed some big features ("Cujo," "The Jewel of the Nile") and worked as the second-unit director on many others ("Death Race 2000," "The Big Red One"). There was no "Raging Bull" among them, but it was the big time, all the same. Like so many, he has an unofficial degree from the school of Roger Corman.

Still, for decades the failure to earn a real college degree gnawed at him. He was a serial continuing-education customer, taking classes in all manner of subjects. A few years ago, he was teaching a film course at U.C.L.A., and a professor from California Lutheran University, who was consulting with him on a screenplay, kidded him about his lack of a diploma. The professor decided to take up the cause. Over the course of several months, he badgered N.Y.U.'s administrators, who tried to explain that there is no such thing as an honorary bachelor's degree. That one you have to earn.

Back to school, then. To round out his transcript, Teague, at the direction of N.Y.U., signed up for pertinent classes at U.C.L.A. and Santa Monica College; for example, one in screenwriting, which gave him an impetus to workshop a stalled script, and another on foreign-film history, which in some respects was a better course now than in 1963, because, thanks to YouTube, you can actually watch all the films.

And so it was that, one morning earlier this month, Teague, age seventy-eight, joined the throngs of twenty-somethings converging on Radio City Music Hall in their purple caps and gowns, for the ceremony celebrating the N. …

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