A Plot with a CMU Twist
Screenwriter Charlie Peters has crafted a life story where CMU takes center stage.
By Deborah Taylor
Charlie Peters (A 1977) knows firsthand that truth can be stranger than fiction. An unexpected encounter with a Carnegie Mellon professor changed his life.
Peters earned his master’s degree in playwriting at CMU and was working in New York City when the City Theatre’s production of his play, "The Comeback," brought him back to Pittsburgh in 1978. On a downtown street, he bumped into his former School of Drama teacher, famed professor and playwright Leon Katz.
He recalls: “Leon said, ‘I got something in the mail. There’s a studio in Los Angeles asking if I would nominate a playwriting student for a program there for new film writers. You’d be a good person. I’ll put your name in.’”
That studio was Columbia Pictures, and Peters, accepted into its writing program, sold his first script, a highly unlikely outcome for a novice. The resulting film, “Paternity,” featuring the then No. 1 box office star in the world, Burt Reynolds, was a hit.
“It put me on the map,” he says. “The only reason I got the opportunity to go to Columbia Pictures was because of Carnegie Mellon.”
CMU’s School of Drama transformed Peters’ life, and he wants today’s students to benefit from the same outstanding arts education. As the SoD develops them into the artists, filmmakers and storytellers of the future, he is helping to shape their training. One way he has accomplished this was by supporting the Purnell Center for the Arts through a gift during the complex’s construction. The school’s prop room is housed in the room that was named to commemorate his generosity.
Peters has loved the arts since his mother introduced him to the theater when he was a child growing up in New York City. He saw scores of shows, both on and off Broadway, and then acted in many productions when he attended high school at England’s Stonyhurst College.
“In England, theater is not an extracurricular activity ― it’s something important that is taught and is part of their culture. It was a great experience for me to spend my teen years in another country,” he says.
From that period abroad came his conviction that all student artists need to experience international cultures, so he made a gift to support CMU’s drama students’ trip last spring to attend Italy’s Meeting of the European Theatre Academies (META) Festival.
“It’s important that American students see other countries and their art,” Peters says.
His own experiences translated into a prosperous career filled with noteworthy screenwriting credits. In the 1980s and 1990s, Peters’ adapted screenplays became “Kiss Me Goodbye,” “Blame It on Rio” and “3 Men and a Little Lady,” starring, respectively, Sally Field, Demi Moore and Tom Selleck and Ted Danson (A 1972). More recently, his adaptation of a Jill Ciment book became 2014’s “Five Flights Up,” starring Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman.
Peters started his formal theater education at the University of Connecticut, graduating with a theater degree. After working for a year in New York as a playwright and receiving a Shubert Fellowship, he applied to Carnegie Mellon, based on its “theater school” reputation, to refine his talent.
“Carnegie Mellon gave me a good way to learn about theatrical storytelling, which morphed quickly into cinematic storytelling,” he says.
Peters wrote the original script for 2009’s “My One and Only,” starring Renée Zellweger, which garnered a prize at the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival, and even directed his scripts of “Music from Another Room,” with Jude Law, and “Passed Away,” with Bob Hoskins, which he filmed in Pittsburgh. Also, he has script doctored more than 40 other movies’ screenplays and taught screenwriting at USC.
Now a resident of Connecticut, Peters is engaged with a film, set to begin shooting soon, whose script he and his co-writer have been nurturing for 12 years.
“What I liked about CMU was it gave me the actors, directors and scene people to put up plays and try things out,” he says. “I made a lot of good relationships, some with people who have become quite well known. Others who are not famous are the people who do the work that nobody sees.”
In addition to helping today’s students, Peters has also made it his priority to leave a legacy for future students to have access to the education and eventually the career opportunities he has received.
“My goal is to make it easier for students to attend CMU. The grants I got ― like the Shubert Fellowship ― enabled me to go there,” Peters says. “With this rich education, I hope the drama students see both the great accomplishments of past artists and use the new voices of current artists to create good work.”