Lunch at Michael's with HBO's Sheila Nevins

By Lunch at Michael's Archives
Cover image for  article: Lunch at Michael's with HBO's Sheila Nevins

Never underestimate Sheila Nevins.  After six decades working in media and documentary filmmaking – including 35 years at HBO, where she rose through the ranks to her current position as President of HBO Documentary Films -- she doesn’t hesitate to tell it like it is.  In fact, in her entertaining book You Don’t Look Your Age … And Other Fairy Tales she writes, “My bursts of enthusiasm, I’d like to think, are often innovative and spontaneous ways of looking at a situation.”  The candor with which she infused her book when talking about the obstacles that impeded career women in the ‘60s and ‘70s, her issues with aging, her decision to have plastic surgery, her marriages and the challenge of raising a son with Tourette’s Syndrome was on display during a recent lunch at Michael’s restaurant in New York City with Jack Myers and me.  Within the span of 90 minutes she revealed that she has contacted Jeff Bezos about her issues with Amazon, was subjected to sexual harassment early in her career and did not resist, has had a “cantankerous” but “very creative” relationship with Harvey Weinstein, is “angry” at men, has a “dirty mind,” would rather order in than eat out, loves to shop at TJ Maxx and Home Goods and “hates to lose” -- this from someone with a whopping 32 Primetime Emmy® Awards, 35 News and Documentary Emmys® and 42 George Foster Peabody Awards.  (Also, under her tenure, HBO’s critically acclaimed documentaries have gone on to win 26 Academy Awards®.)

The conversation began with revelations about her book and her newfound problems with Amazon.  It seems that the site’s rating system for books, which is based on one- to five-star reviews from readers, automatically places three-star reviews in its “negative” column even if the review itself is positive.  You Don’t Look Your Age has received many three-star write-ups, many of them raves, and have ended up on the down side.

Nevins won’t take that sitting down.  “I don’t know Jeff Bezos, but I just wrote him a letter on personal stationery,” she said.  “I told him, you put three-star reviews in the negative column, but some of them are positive!  I pulled out my three-star reviews that said, ‘I love this book, etc.’ I told him it’s not fair. These are positive reviews but they are in the negative section!”

Her feelings on the subject were certainly fresh.  “Last night I just had had enough,” she continued.  “I sent out about 84 e-mails and asked people to please write a review on Amazon.

“If Jeff Bezos wants to be a success he has to fix this,” she said with a wry smile.  “You have to have lunch [at Michael’s] with him!  Just tell him I was here before him!  Tell me when it is; I’ll come and speak to him directly."

Nevins wrote the book, she explained, because throughout her life “I’ve sold something for somebody else.  I sold fur coats.   [Modeling furs was her first job, while a freshman at Barnard College].  I sold somebody’s shows.  I never sold myself.  When you write a book you’re selling yourself.  I go to book places and I talk to women and they buy ten books.  My grandfather on the other side of the family sold socks in a push cart on Delancey Street.  I’m doing the same thing!  I’m selling books!  If I see you bought a book I’m excited.  You know how many people in my building asked for a free book?  It’s horrifying!  They’ll say, ‘Can you give me a signed copy?’  I’ll say, ‘Give me your book.’  They say, ‘No, no, give me your book!’” 

She wanted to separate herself from HBO, she further explained.  “I wanted to be a person outside of all the work that I had done there.  I didn’t want to be a documentarian only.  I wanted to be a human being.  I never talked about a lot of things, like my mother’s illness or my son.  It wasn’t for the money. You don’t make any money.  In fact, it cost me a fortune because I decided to [produce] all the audio -- which I knew no one would buy -- with well-known women.  I never went through their agents, I just went to the women.  I had to pay for the recording studios.  There was no makeup, which is why there’s no video of it.  Some of these women, their makeup was $10,000.  Their person would have to come with them to read one story.  So it was audio only.”

Alan Alda, Bob Balaban, Christine Baranski, Ellen Burstyn, Ru Paul, Glenn Close, Kathy Bates, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg, Diane Lane, Judith Light, Liz Smith, Lesley Stahl, Gloria Steinem, Martha Stewart, Marlo Thomas, Gloria Vanderbilt and Diane Von Furstenberg are among the luminaries who agreed to read chapters of her book.  One who was supposed to contribute was Carrie Fisher.  “I loved Carrie,” Nevins recalled.  “She was very special.  The day she died was the day she was going to read the two stories for me.  We were going to California to record them.  I thought she would be well.  I didn’t think she would die.”

Nevins grew up on the Lower East Side.  She attended the High School of the Performing Arts, followed by Barnard and then Yale.  “I wanted to be a dancer, but I was horrible,” she laughed.  “My Aunt Florence, who was Miss Coney Island around 1926, taught me a dance to ‘Sleigh Ride.’  I can still do it!  I got into Performing Arts with everyone who had taken six years of ballet or six years of Martha Graham Modern.  I was completely incompetent.  After a year I moved to acting, which was much easier.  I had no real experience, but I got in.”

Asked what she thinks of the Lower East Side today, Nevins didn’t miss a beat.  “I wish I’d bought real estate!” she exclaimed.  The mention of her old neighborhood brought up a multitude of family memories.  “My mother was a Communist,” she said.  “I didn’t know there was anything else.  No God; my mother told me religion was the opium for the people.  It was tough.”

At Yale in the ‘60s Nevins studied to be a theater director, her dream job that was never to be.  “It was hard being a woman in the ‘60s looking for a job directing,” she recalled.  “There was no way.  There were no female directors!”  There was also an issue in her personal life.  “I wasn’t married to the man I’m married to now,” she said.  “I was married to a different kind of man.  He wanted me home at night and he wanted me home on weekends.  That wouldn’t work in the theater.  So I worked on a television show for two years beginning in 1963.  I was on camera.  I taught English.  It was called Adventures in English.  It was for USIA.  It went overseas.  Don Mischer was the director of that.  He came to New York to do The Great American Dream Machine.  I was separated from my husband.  It was a way out.  That was how it began.  I started as a researcher, and then I was an associate producer, and then I got to produce a few pieces for it.  It was on for three years.”

Nevins then worked at CBS on a show called Who’s Who with Don Hewitt.  “I did three pieces,” she recalled.  “Diane Von Furstenberg’s wrap dress.  Richard Burton in Equus.  And Lily Tomlin.  Lily asked for a woman.  Richard Burton I just died for.”  Nevins did the interviews off-camera; on-camera correspondents would then utilize the footage in their own pieces.  She didn’t want to appear on camera, she said, because she was scared.  “These were famous people and I was very nervous.  I wasn’t scared with Diane but I was with Lily because I admired her so much.  I was very frightened.

“I went to HBO to get away from CBS because I didn’t want to be on camera,” she continued.  “Don wanted me to be on camera.  Even if I had stayed and [eventually] worked on 60 Minutes it wouldn’t have worked because it was a very political show.  Much more so then than now.  I’d be sitting on a rock talking to Arafat.  I would have to know about Arafat.  It wasn’t right for me.  Then I heard about this job at HBO.  Don said to me, you will resent that move.  But I never did.”

Michael Fuchs was running HBO at the time.  [Time Warner Chairman and CEO and former HBO CEO] Jeff Bewkes was in the finance department.  “He used to bring me coffee in the morning,” Nevins said with a smile.  “I think I used to pay him back.”

Reflecting on her time at the pay-cable giant, Nevins said, “I started at the very bottom and I liked what I did.  I was able to make documentaries and cast real people.  I was on the bottom with everybody else and as HBO got bigger I got pushed up.  Never to there.  [She held her hand up, indicating a glass ceiling.]  Women didn’t go there.  Just to the flat part of the pyramid.  I was lucky.  I was good and I worked very hard.  I’ve always had a lot of freedom at HBO, partly because documentaries were not important when I started.  They were the back door.  I always used to joke about coming through the front door at HBO.”

Obviously, working in the documentary arena turned out to be a perfect fit.  “I have a very special interest in documentaries that’s different from what you might think,” Nevins said.  “I appreciate and I learn from celebrities, but I don’t know how to handle celebrity.  I’ve always had trouble with it.  I like to make unknown people famous.  You get invested in telling their stories.

“I know what to say to a taxi driver or a hooker,” she laughed.  “I think I commercialized real people as a form of documentary.  We didn’t call it documentary when I came to HBO.  We used to call it docutainment.  We were afraid if we said ‘documentary’ nobody would watch!”

One of the documentaries Nevins has been involved with that stands out is Gloria: In Her Own Words, about feminist icon Gloria Steinem.  “Gloria is not a celebrity in the same way,” Nevins explained.  “She’s a philosopher statesman.  She changed my life in many ways.  She taught me that I could ask for things, even if I didn’t get them.  I could ask for salary.  I could ask for equality for the women who work for me.  I could guide other women without feeling that it was taking away from myself.”

Before her relationship with Steinem, “I didn’t know you were supposed to take a guy’s hand off your thigh,” she continued.  “I was a pretty little thing.  I was not certain those weren’t the rules of the game.”

Asked if she was harassed as a young woman Nevins replied, “Of course!  I didn’t resist.  But I wasn’t abused.  It wasn’t a ‘why me’?  It was a ‘why not me’?  I want it, I’ve got to do it, right?  I was single, just trying to get a job.  It’s great that you don’t have to do that anymore, and it’s great that you can talk back.  I didn’t know you could.  Honestly, I didn’t.

“There were and are other kinds of harassment that women face,” she added.  “It’s not just sexual.  It’s being interrupted, not being taken seriously, earning less.  There is no comparable expression for ‘distinguished’ for a woman.  You’re an old woman, or an older woman or a crone.  But you don’t have a word like ‘distinguished.’  I was trying to think this morning of why women are harassed.  Somehow this image came to me of a caveman pulling a woman by her hair.  What is that?  Was that a cartoon or did I make it up?”

When I said that we have all seen it somewhere, Nevins replied, “But where?  He’s got a club with spikes on it and he’s pulling her by her hair.  Maybe in cartoons on TV back in the ‘60s?

“There must be a Darwinian reason for men’s empowerment over women,” she mused.  “I wonder if women were not as complicit sexually as men wanted them to be.  I don’t know if this is true.  Maybe it has to do with survival of the species.  Maybe women were less interested in sex than men were.  They had to make babies.  I don’t speak caveman; I don’t know what they talked about.  You hear about cavemen.  You don’t hear about cavewomen, right?"

Given her tenure in the television business and her ongoing success as an executive and a role model, it follows that Nevins should be considered a legend.  The idea makes her laugh.  “When I’m dead I’ll be one,” she declared.  Told that what she has accomplished to date is indeed legendary, she replied,  “I’ve been called a nuisance.  I’ve been told I talk too much.  I’ve been told I’m right.  I’ve been told I’m wrong.  I’ve been told I’m good.  I’ve been told I’m smart.  I find it very moving (to be called a legend), because I didn’t mean to be that.”

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