Cheryl Downey ’66

English Major
Posted on November 22nd, 2022 by

“Be resilient. Have faith in yourself.”

“I was very aware of being a pioneer,” Downey says. One of the first women in the Directors Guild of America two-year apprenticeship program, she started as the second assistant director for the 1976 Western The Missouri Breaks, starring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson. She was the first woman the crew had ever worked with. “The crews’ willingness to work with and support me was critical for women who would be coming after me,” she says. To borrow language from Westerns, she blazed a trail—and spent the next four decades making movies in male-dominated Hollywood, relying on her sense of humor, no-nonsense problem solving skills, and quick thinking to bring stories to life.

Her job was always to help directors tell their story. “My career was about getting the director’s version and vision of the story on the screen,” Downey says. “Both as assistant director and production manager, it was always about what the director saw or how he wanted to see it. And I say ‘he’ because in my 40 years of DGA work, I never assisted a woman director.”

Her role in the collaborative storytelling of movie-making was in the details. “We have a job to do within a certain amount of time, and we want to get everything the director imagines onto that screen,” she says. Money is a major factor. She wrangled budgets to get things done. Need a crane? Downey would cut back on extras for a particular scene. “I could almost always come up with a way for the director to get what he wanted on the screen,” she says.

To make her way in the movie business, Downey adopted an unassuming way of interacting with her co-workers. “Ultimately, crews worked with me wonderfully. And partly, I’m sure it was my style, which was not authoritative,” she says.

That’s not to say she wasn’t powerful. Downey was a founding member of the DGA Women’s Committee, whose research persuaded the larger DGA to bring a class action suit on behalf of women and minority members against Warner Brothers in 1983. The judge ruled the suit couldn’t go forward, but individual members could sue. “Naturally that would be career suicide for a woman or minority director,” she says. “Litigation basically ended until #MeToo.”

Later, in 2000, she was the first woman on the west coast to be honored with a Frank Capra Achievement Award from the DGA, the highest honor an assistant director/production manager can receive.

Downey’s first career plan was to become a high school English teacher. Her Gustavus mentors—English professor Larry Owen (whom she would end up marrying much later in life when they reconnected at a Gustavus reunion), and Evelyn Anderson (“Mrs. A”)—encouraged her to dream big. “Evelyn said, ‘Oh, you must apply for graduate school and not to any school, one of the best in theater,’” Downey says. She won the Chancellors Fellowship at UCLA and earned both her masters and doctorate there.

Though she had a PhD, she couldn’t get a teaching job in L.A. She was asked, “When are you planning to start your family?” in interviews. She felt lucky to get a job as secretary for a movie company. There, “I fell in love with the film business,” she says. “I loved the fact that every day was new and completely different.” The next year, she was accepted into the DGA training program, where she was interviewed by a long table of white men. “And at the foot stood a very tall bearded huge presence—a fellow named Wally Worsley,” Downey recalls. “He said, “What makes you think a little girl like you can run a crew of 100 men?” She was assigned to Universal, the only woman on Worsley’s film crew. He said he wanted to see if she would sink or swim. She swam, and the two became lifelong friends.

Visiting the Gustavus campus back in February, Downey met up with students who thanked her for paving the way. “They said, we are aware we are standing on your shoulders. And I think I had that consciousness all the way along that I didn’t want to screw anything up and make a bad name for women. It was such a small number of us at the beginning, and I’m delighted that these Gustavus women felt that way.”

Since retiring in 2012, Downey has also been organizing her archive and is in talks with her daughter about doing a podcast (@ladycaprahollywood, on Instagram) to share stories about her career. Like the one about knocking on actor Doug McClure’s trailer. He said, “Don’t ever knock on my door when I have a hangover,” and then picked her up by her ankles and shook her upside down. She got him some Alka Seltzer, tapped gentlyon the window of his trailer and poured him the hangover treatment into two glasses through the window.

She’s heartened to see all the changes in the film and TV industry. “If you look at the credits, you’re going to see so many women now. There’s a real commitment to change. Women are finally getting a break.”


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