The Brandeis Questionnaire
Marshall Herskovitz ’73
The raison d’être of the Proust Questionnaire hasn’t changed since the French novelist popularized it as a party game more than a century ago. By answering a set of seemingly simple questions, people are invited to reveal their deepest selves.
Now, with a grateful tip of the chapeau to Marcel, we present the Brandeis Questionnaire — featuring our inaugural respondent, producer/writer/director Marshall Herskovitz ’73.
Herskovitz is one of Hollywood’s most prolific and decorated denizens. His film credits include “Legends of the Fall” (1994) and “Traffic” (2000), which he produced; and “The Last Samurai” (2003) and “Love and Other Drugs” (2010), which he wrote and produced.
With longtime collaborator Edward Zwick, he runs the Bedford Falls Company, a film and TV production house named for the fictional setting of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Herskovitz and Zwick revolutionized television in the late 1980s with “thirtysomething,” a drama that captured the zeitgeist and set a new television standard for quality and social relevance. In 1994, they struck critical gold again with “My So-Called Life,” a teen drama that dealt unflinchingly with alcoholism, homophobia and sexual longing.
Over the course of his career, the Oscar-nominated Herskovitz has won four Emmys and numerous other awards from such organizations as the American Film Institute and the Producers Guild of America.
Currently, he’s developing a film based on the book “In the Heart of the Sea,” a true story about survival at sea in 1820 after a ship is wrecked by a massive sperm whale.
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What was your idea of perfect happiness when you were at Brandeis?
A fall day picking apples.
When or where were you most miserable at Brandeis?
During the first three months of my freshman year.
Where did you usually spend Saturday night?
At the Orson Welles Theater in Cambridge, seeing old movies like “Bringing Up Baby” and “Fort Apache.” Though I didn’t know it at the time, this was my true education at Brandeis.
Who was your favorite Brandeis professor?
Allen Grossman [Ph.D.’60, professor of English]. He was a true eccentric and had a brilliant, poetic mind. He seemed to embody all the Sturm und Drang that an artist goes through.
What book do you read again and again?
The “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, I’m embarrassed to say. I had a great desire when I was young to live in another time, and that book expressed that wish intensely.
What movie changed your life?
“It’s a Wonderful Life.” It’s far and away the greatest movie ever made. It helped me understand something about the nature of being an adult in America. The film is an incredibly truthful look at what a man has to sacrifice in order to fit into civilized culture. And that was a profound lesson for me.
What was the most important shortcut you learned in college?
I learned I could read 100 pages of a classic novel and extrapolate the rest.
What three words of advice would you give to current Brandeis students?
Have more fun.
Which talent did Brandeis help you develop most?
Writing — fiction and, by extension, screenwriting.
What do you wish you had studied harder?
I have plenty of regrets about my life at Brandeis but none about my education. I wish I had studied life harder.
What is the most important value you learned at Brandeis?
Authenticity of experience — understanding what your inner experience actually is is essential to being an artist. Brandeis certainly encouraged me to be an artist and taught me much more profoundly what it means to be an artist.
If you could go back to college, what would you do differently?
Have more fun and be less self-conscious. You know that famous Frank Capra line from “It’s a Wonderful Life”:
“Oh! Youth is wasted on the wrong people!”
Which deadly sin is your middle name?
What would your friends say is your greatest strength?
What would your friends say is your greatest weakness?
If you could climb into a time machine, whom would you like to hang out with?
Teddy Roosevelt — probably the greatest American who ever lived.
On your deathbed, what will you be most grateful for?
My two daughters.
If you could be any other Brandeisian, who would it be?
I would be a student now.