by Lou Mancinelli
Growing up in Flourtown, Hollywood director, actor and writer Steve Kampmann, 68, wasn’t the type to dream of the big screen. He never imagined he’d end up doing what he eventually did, like landing a feature role beside Robin Williams in the movie “Club Paradise.”
So in the mid-1980s, when he returned to the Chestnut Hill area to shoot “Stealing Home,” a 1988 film he wrote and directed, starring Jodie Foster and Mark Harmon, it was a very meaningful homecoming.
Though not without its pain. The film, co-written with Kampmann’s long-time partner Will Porter, is about Kampmann’s father, who died in an automobile crash on the Walt Whitman Bridge when Kampmann was only 16. That tragedy is one that has formed his life and work.
It was written in three weeks. Two weeks later it was picked up by a studio. Then it took four years to make. A week before production was scheduled to begin, it was dropped by Columbia Pictures, which sent Kampmann scrambling.
But before that, Kampmann was a 1970 University of Pennsylvania graduate. He’d studied history, and when he finished, had no idea what he wanted to do. The Lawrenceville School (’65, near Princeton, N.J.) graduate, who had attended Chestnut Hill Academy through the eighth grade, thought that maybe he wanted to be a writer.
So he moved to a small farmhouse in Vermont overlooking a mountain. He’d always believed that “if you don’t know what you wanna do with yourself, at least go where you want to live.” It was picturesque, but after some time passed, he realized “it was too isolating.”
Ultimately, his wife of the time decided she’d go back to school, so they moved to the Burlington area. Kampmann worked at the Vermont State Hospital with psychology- and drug-related patients.
At the time a friend called him and asked if Kampmann wanted to join him in putting on a play. They put on Edward Albee’s “Zoo Story” without paying for the rights. One of the venues where they appeared, the Vermont College of Fine Arts, liked it so much, they asked the duo back the following year.
It was the beginning of Kampmann’s career. When he and his friend returned, they did a sketch comedy routine modeled on the work of comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. It went well. Kampmann started taking a few acting classes.
Then, “We decided to do a wild summer of taking risks.” They went to Chicago. He was 27. It was 1974. Kampmann auditioned for the legendary Second City improvisational comedy troupe whose alumni include Joan Rivers, John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Stephen Colbert and many others.
Kampmann’s buddy didn’t make it, but he did. Within three months, he became part of the main company. Turns out he had more than a funny bone up his sleeve. Eventually, Kampmann moved to Toronto and joined the Second City crew there, which included the likes of Martin Short (who starred in Kampmann’s cult classic, “Clifford”), John Candy, Eugene Levy, Gilda Radner, etc.
In under four years Kampmann performed in 1500 shows. Next came L.A. Within three weeks, he was hired as part of the writing team to create a female version of “Animal House.” It was the start of a Hollywood career in which Kampmann would write 30 scripts, nine of which were made into movies.
In the early ’80s he was writing for the sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati.” There was another show about to start, looking for a male character. One of its writers remembered Kampmann from Second City. This led to his playing the character of Kirk Devane on the first two seasons of “Newhart.”
When his run concluded in 1982 it led to Kampmann working directly with Rodney Dangerfield for his show: “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me.” Kampmann would co-write “Back To School,” a Dangerfield classic film, a few years later.
So now, it’s 1982. Kampmann has just bought a home in the glamorous Pacific Palisades and has a child on the way, but he’s out of work. That’s when he and Porter, in a few weeks, wrote “Stealing Home” on legal pads at restaurants around town.
In May of this year, Kampmann spoke about “Stealing Home” in a talk called “When Hollywood Came to Springfield” for the Springfield Township Historical Society. The film features local landmarks, like the home Kampmann grew up in. He figured, if I’ve got the budget, why not shoot the film where it really takes place. “I was shooting scenes that I experienced, about my father, in the actual place … It intensified the entire experience and gave it more meaning.”
Kampmann and Porter’s script, “Great Shame,” is the followup to that film. Porter turned it into a novel, and Kampmann has turned it into a play. The script is featured in Kampmann’s most recent film, 2012’s “Buzzkill,” another film he wrote and directed, that stars numerous Second City members.
It’s a story that mirrors Kampmann’s own life. He’s been trying to get “Great Shame” produced for five years. Until 2010, Kampmann taught creative writing, screenwriting and public speaking at Blair Academy, a boarding school in northwestern New Jersey. His wife started the school’s video program.
Kampmann is currently working on a book called “The Dreams Course,” a collection of essays and lectures for young dreamers. (He has a master’s degree in psychological counseling from St. Michael’s College in Burlington, Vermont.)
It was there he started recording his dreams and learning how to interpret them. “Every day you dream a movie in your head,” Kampmann said. The trick for movie makers is to translate that dream onto the screen.