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After becoming the youngest-ever joke writer for Bob Hope, Tom Shadyac went on to write, direct and produce some of the most successful comedies of the late 1990s and early 2000s. He had his first big hit when he co-wrote and directed "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" (1994), which helped turn Jim Carrey into a box office star. He followed that with another hit, a remake of "The Nutty Professor" (1996) with Eddie Murphy, before striking gold with Carrey again on the massively successful "Liar, Liar" (1997). Though critics often decried his movies as crass and lowbrow, they scored with audiences who flocked to see the likes of Carrey and Murphy engage in no-holds-barred physical comedy. After directing Robin Williams in the financially successful, but critically maligned "Patch Adams" (1998), Shadyac took a risk directing the moody supernatural thriller, "Dragonfly" (2002), and paid the price when the movie flopped with critics and audiences. He returned to what he did best, directing limber-limbed Jim Carrey in another box office hit, "Bruce Almighty" (2003) and Steve Carell in its mediocre sequel "Evan Almighty" (2007). But Shadyac's life took a sudden turn in 2007 when he suffered a serious concussion...
After becoming the youngest-ever joke writer for Bob Hope, Tom Shadyac went on to write, direct and produce some of the most successful comedies of the late 1990s and early 2000s. He had his first big hit when he co-wrote and directed "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" (1994), which helped turn Jim Carrey into a box office star. He followed that with another hit, a remake of "The Nutty Professor" (1996) with Eddie Murphy, before striking gold with Carrey again on the massively successful "Liar, Liar" (1997). Though critics often decried his movies as crass and lowbrow, they scored with audiences who flocked to see the likes of Carrey and Murphy engage in no-holds-barred physical comedy. After directing Robin Williams in the financially successful, but critically maligned "Patch Adams" (1998), Shadyac took a risk directing the moody supernatural thriller, "Dragonfly" (2002), and paid the price when the movie flopped with critics and audiences. He returned to what he did best, directing limber-limbed Jim Carrey in another box office hit, "Bruce Almighty" (2003) and Steve Carell in its mediocre sequel "Evan Almighty" (2007). But Shadyac's life took a sudden turn in 2007 when he suffered a serious concussion that left him with severe side effects that prompted him to simplify his life by donating his excess fortune and moving into a trailer park. Shadyac explored his personal journey and mankind's addiction to materialism in the documentary "I Am" (2011), marking a decidedly drastic turn in the comedy director's career.
Born Dec. 11, 1958, Shadyac was raised in Falls Church, VA by his father, Richard, a lawyer, and his mother, Julie. He excelled at J.E.B. Stuart High School, where he played basketball, was a member of the Key Club, and earned entry into the National Honor Society. After graduating, Shadyac attended the University of Virginia, where he showed a knack for comedy by producing a poster called "Are You a Preppy?" which targeted the then-popular preppy movement with National Lampoon-like flare. He printed multiple orders and used the profits to fund his fraternity, Sigma Chi. Shadyac graduated with his BA in 1981 and moved to the West Coast, where he pursued his master's degree in film from the University of California at Los Angeles. Also at the time, he entered acting and comedy writing, and at 23 years old became the youngest-ever joke writer for comedian Bob Hope. Unfortunately Shadyac fared poorly as a performer, though he did manage to land an episode of "Magnum, P.I." (CBS, 1980-88). Luckily, a 1989 short film project earned him enough attention that he began writing and directing for Fox television, including his first directing credit on the likable comedy, "Frankenstein: The College Years," (Fox, 1991).
Three years later, Shayac wrote a script with Jack Bernstein about a manic pet detective and hired up-and-coming comic actor, Jim Carrey, to star in the title role of "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" (1994), a smash comedy hit that established Carrey as a breakout star and propelled Shadyac's career as a director. Though initially panned by a majority of critics who noted the film's rampant sexism and homophobia, "Ace Ventura" nonetheless was a big commercial hit, while time also helped elevate its stature. Fortunately for Shadyac, he declined to participate in the lackluster sequel, "Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls" (1995), and instead chose to partner with another marquee comic actor, Eddie Murphy, on "The Nutty Professor" (1996). Murphy had been suffering from box office doldrums at the time and Shadyac's remake of the Jerry Lewis classic from 1963 proved to be the right remedy, thanks in part to Murphy's gift for multiple impersonations. The massive international success of "The Nutty Professor" quickly made Shadyac the go-to director for gifted comics looking for someone able to direct solid vehicles for their talents.
Shadyac went on to reunite with Carrey on "Liar, Liar" (1997), a broad comedy where Carrey played an unscrupulous lawyer who cannot tell the truth and who suddenly finds himself unable to tell a lie thanks to a birthday wish from his despondent son (Justin Cooper). Critics were more generous this time around, giving "Liar, Liar" favorable reviews, as the movie became another international hit for the actor-director duo. Shadyac stumbled hard with his next film, "Patch Adams" (1998), an overwrought dramedy that starred Robin Williams as an unorthodox mental institute physician who uses a clown routine to make his patients feel better. Though it did well enough in theaters, "Patch Adams" was savaged by critics over its cloying sentimentality. Shadyac returned to familiar territory as the executive producer of "Nutty Professor II: The Klumps" (2000), which allowed Murphy to use his chameleon-like talents to trot out more broad comic characterizations. Another box office hit, "The Klumps" was again pounded on by critics for its lowbrow humor. Shadyac erred mightily with his next directing choice, "Dragonfly" (2002), an overly sentimental drama with supernatural overtones that starred Kevin Costner as a doctor and widower who is contacted by his late wife through his patients. The film was soundly rejected by critics and moviegoers.
Perhaps sensing that a hit was badly needed at this point in his career, Shadyac reunited with Carrey again for the broad comedy "Bruce Almighty" (2003). The movie, which portrayed Carrey as an ordinary man suddenly imbued with limitless powers after a visit from God (Morgan Freeman), was a big hit with audiences the world over, taking in close to $500 million in international box office and making it one of the most successful live action comedy of all time. The movies also gave a forum for Shadyac - himself a self-avowed Christian - to explore religious themes in a largely secular forum. In all cases, it was a win-win situation for the director, the star and its audience. Around the same time as "Bruce Almighty," Shadyac tried his hand at producing television. The end result of his initial efforts was "Platonically Incorrect" (ABC, 2003), a romantic comedy that never blossomed past the pilot stage. He next joined the host of producers on "8 Simple Rules" (ABC, 2002-05) during its 2004-05 season as it floundered to regain its footing after the sudden death of its star, John Ritter.
Shadyac moved back to features as the producer of the little-seen college comedy "Accepted" (2006) and the successful comedy vehicle "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" (2007), which starred Adam Sandler and Kevin James as firemen pretending to be gay in order to secure domestic partner insurance. But since the success of "Bruce Almighty," his real passion had been to make the sequel "Evan Almighty" (2007). Instead of Carrey, the comedy starred Steve Carell as a newly elected Congressman tasked by God (Morgan Freeman again) to build an ark like the biblical Noah in preparation of a second Great Flood. Despite releasing to great hype, "Evan Almighty" underperformed in contrast to its predecessor and, at twice the budget, made what could have been a fairly successful box office take into a relative commercial failure. In 2007, Shadyac - who was in the midst of being disillusioned with Hollywood - had a bike accident in Virginia and suffered from post-concussion syndrome, where he experienced months of severe headaches and sensitivity to light. The pain forced him to retreat into the quiet dark and led to a major life transformation.
During his agonizing convalescence from his debilitating concussion, Shadyac - who had actually grown uncomfortable with the wealth he had acquired since directing "Liar, Liar" - decided that he no longer wanted a lavish lifestyle. So he donated much of his fortune to a number of worthy causes, including opening a homeless shelter in Charlottesville, VA and helping to preserve land in Telluride, CO, and moved from his 17,000-foot mansion in Los Angeles to a trailer park in Malibu - albeit an exclusive one resting on prime real estate overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Having rejected materialism in favor of a simpler Thoreau-like lifestyle, Shadyac still had the urge to make films and channeled his experience into the documentary, "I Am" (2011), which explored how both individuals and the entirety of humanity can improve the ways we live. The documentary featured a number of notable interview subjects including radio host Thom Hartmann, noted historian Howard Zinn, linguistics professor and political commentator Noam Chomsky, and anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu. The little-seen film traveled to a few film festivals, including the 2011 Palms Springs International Film Festival, but was unable to find a wide audience. Meanwhile, Shadyac maintained employment as a communication and screenwriting professor at Pepperdine University.
By Shawn Dwyer
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"They say never work with animals and children. I've got about 50 animals AND Jim Carrey [in 'Ace Ventura']. That pretty much says its, don't you think?" --Tom Shadyac in press kit for "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective"
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