A storybook homecoming for Washington’s Tommy Oliver

  • Welcome home: George Washington football coach Ron Cohen (left) and school principal Gene Jones present filmmaker (and 2002 GW graduate) Tommy Oliver with his old high school football jersey. Oliver came back for a talk with the student body regarding his new film, “1982.” Sitting at left is Hill Harper, the star of the film. ED MORRONE / TIMES PHOTO

  • George Washington helped welcome filmmaker Tommy Oliver back to his alma mater with a special assembly in which he was presented with his old No. 36 football jersey. To Oliver’s left are State Rep. Brendan Boyle and Hill Harper, who stars in Oliver’s debut film, 1982.

Tommy Oliv­er may have moved on from Phil­adelphia to an ex­cit­ing ca­reer as a fea­ture film­maker, but that didn’t stop his high school alma ma­ter from giv­ing him a Hol­ly­wood home­com­ing.

On Oct. 25, George Wash­ing­ton High School in­vited one of its own back home to hon­or him for the suc­cess of 1982, Oliv­er’s fea­ture film de­but that fol­lows a char­ac­ter named Tim Brown (played by Hill Harp­er of CSI: NY fame), a man at­tempt­ing to shield his young daugh­ter from her moth­er’s crip­pling drug ad­dic­tion.

The film was shot on the block where Oliv­er grew up in West Oak Lane and is a semi-auto­bi­o­graph­ic­al ac­count of his own moth­er’s crack ad­dic­tion. In­stead of let­ting the drugs and crime sur­round­ing him swal­low him up, Oliv­er con­cen­trated on his school­work at Wash­ing­ton, where he was a foot­ball play­er un­der long­time coach Ron Co­hen. 1982 also fea­tures known act­ors such as Wayne Brady, Quin­ton Aaron (The Blind Side) and Academy Award nom­in­ee Ruby Dee (Amer­ic­an Gang­ster) and has been well-re­ceived at film fest­ivals in Toronto and Par­is.

Oliv­er came back to ad­dress Wash­ing­ton’s en­tire stu­dent body, let­ting the jam-packed aud­it­or­i­um know that no dream is un­at­tain­able, no mat­ter how im­possible it may seem as a teen­ager.

“There are so many good things hap­pen­ing at this school, and that’s part of what makes your high school ex­per­i­ence, find­ing your own niche,” Oliv­er said. “I’m from the ‘hood, and I wanted to get out. I nev­er touched a drug in my life, be­cause I saw what it could do to a fam­ily. I just did whatever I needed to do to get where I wanted to be. It could have gone dif­fer­ently, but I wouldn’t let it.”

Oliv­er’s suc­cess at Wash­ing­ton led him to en­roll at Pitt­s­burgh’s pres­ti­gi­ous Carne­gie Mel­lon Uni­versity, and the young film­maker hasn’t looked back since. He helped pro­duce shorts and doc­u­ment­ar­ies fol­low­ing col­lege, but 1982 was his first big break. He shot the film en­tirely on loc­a­tion in his old neigh­bor­hood, want­ing the au­then­ti­city of the set­ting to come across to view­ers.

Judging by the suc­cess the film and Oliv­er have had — he was re­cently signed by the Cre­at­ive Artists Agency, the top en­ter­tain­ment tal­ent agency in the world — o far, so good.

“It’s an hon­or for me to be here to cel­eb­rate my friend Tommy Oliv­er,” said Harp­er, on hand with Oliv­er to help pro­mote the film. “We shot it lit­er­ally in the house he grew up in, which was a first for me in my ca­reer. If you think about it, he was sit­ting in these same seats as all of you, with sim­il­ar obstacles to over­come. In 10 years, he’s gone from that to be­ing repped by CAA and be­ing re­cruited to dir­ect big-budget films. No mat­ter what you dream, it can be mani­fes­ted. You can cre­ate the life you want for your­self. Tommy Oliv­er is an ex­ample of that.”

Wash­ing­ton not only got to wel­come Oliv­er back home, but the school got a sur­prise when Harp­er pledged to write a check to fund com­puters and books for a new school lib­rary. Prin­cip­al Gene Jones vowed to name the lib­rary in Harp­er’s hon­or.

The vis­it was an up­lift­ing one for a school like Wash­ing­ton, like many in the dis­trict, that are strug­gling with fund­ing and mor­ale due to all the cut­backs brought on by the massive de­fi­cit the dis­trict is fa­cing. For kids who think they aren’t get­ting a fair shake at suc­cess, hear­ing firsthand from Oliv­er that any­thing was pos­sible was something they needed to hear.

But suc­cess, he told them, will not just be handed to them.

“People want suc­cess without the hard work but frankly, you have to be ready to work your (butt) off,” he said. “The op­por­tun­ity will come so long as you make your­self ready for it. My moth­er was ad­dicted from the time I was 4 years old, and I cried my­self to sleep many nights.

“What you do today will af­fect what goes on the rest of your life. It’s about get­ting your­self away from those bad in­flu­ences that weigh you down. Fol­low what you love and al­ways be pre­pared.”

State Rep. Brendan Boyle, on hand for the event, backed up Oliv­er’s mes­sage to the crowd. Boyle him­self grew up in Ol­ney and has turned an up­bring­ing in a troubled neigh­bor­hood to a ca­reer as a suc­cess­ful young politi­cian help­ing con­stitu­ents on a statewide level.

“Where you start doesn’t mat­ter,” Boyle said. “It’s where you fin­ish that counts. What Tommy said about hard work, that’s ab­so­lutely true. You see his film, but what you didn’t see is the hours and hours he put in just to get one scene right. You can’t let people tell you no. It’s your life, not theirs. That’s 99 per­cent of what de­term­ines a per­son’s suc­cess.”

Co­hen, who has seen his share of high-pro­file gradu­ates start with­in Wash­ing­ton’s foot­ball pro­gram, con­curred with Boyle.

“It’s nev­er the size of the per­son, it’s the size of their heart,” Co­hen said after present­ing Oliv­er with his old No. 36 foot­ball jer­sey. “Tommy didn’t al­ways start, but his at­ti­tude made him a very good play­er, which he’s taken in­to his ca­reer as a film­maker.”

Oliv­er read­ily ac­know­ledged that he was a much bet­ter dir­ect­or than he ever was a foot­ball play­er, but that’s OK. Some are ath­letes, while some grav­it­ate to­ward art or stu­dent coun­cil. What mat­ters most, Oliv­er said, is that every­one be a dream­er no mat­ter the dream.

“I read a book here by Fre­d­er­ick Dou­glass when I was in 11th grade, and that book taught me that I’d rather be hated for who I am than to be loved for someone I am not,” he said. “Be true to your­self. Don’t change, just be you.” ••

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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