Alan Greenberg queried everyone from actresses Katharine Hepburn and Claudette Colbert to President Richard Nixon
For nearly 25 years, University City resident Alan Greenberg served as a sort of luminary liaison, helping foreign college students studying in the United States learn about film, arts, politics and the military by posing their questions directly to celebrities and notable figures — oftentimes conducting his interviews in La Jolla over lunch at sites such as the Grande Colonial and La Valencia hotels, or at the Dunemere Drive home of Academy Award-winning actor, Cliff Robertson.
Greenberg would have his students submit questions for everyone from comedian George Burns and actors Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon to former U.S. President Gerald Ford and feminist icon Gloria Steinem.
Greenberg said his students — largely from Japan, China, Korea or Vietnam — would ask questions via fax or index cards. After reading Steinem’s memoir, they had a lot of questions for the co-founder of Ms. magazine.
“I got five or six pages of questions, single-spaced,” recalled Greenberg, 66. “I can’t ask Gloria Steinem 180 questions — she has a busy day and she’s running a magazine — so I paired it down to 20.”
Greenberg founded the lecture and Q&A series, Orco Development in 1981 at the urging of Academy Award-winning director Frank Capra (“It’s a Wonderful Life”), whom he befriended as a young man living in Palm Springs.
In the late 1970s, when Greenberg was in his 20s, he read in a newspaper that Capra had just retired to nearby La Quinta and requested a meeting with the Hollywood legend, poring over Capra’s 500-page autobiography twice beforehand and astounding Capra with his in-depth knowledge of his career.
From there, a friendship was struck that found the young real estate broker and tax consultant at a Palm Springs pancake house with his Hollywood mentor, who was then in his late 70s. When Capra was approached by a group of star-struck Japanese students studying film at the University of Southern California, Greenberg inquired about their curious green textbook. Capra, who directed most of the “Why We Fight” documentaries commissioned by the U.S. government during World War II (also shown in England at the request of Winston Churchill), lit up, Greenberg recalled.
However, when Capra and Greenberg leafed through the Japanese textbook, what they found was “the most lopsided version of World War II you’ve ever heard,” Greenberg recalled.
“You would have thought we attacked the Japanese,” he said. “Mr. Capra was very, very discouraged and depressed after that meeting was over. He said, ‘Let’s tell the truth to the students. Let’s not have it biased on my side or their side.’ ”
Having heard Greenberg lecture on real estate and finance, Capra was convinced he would do a stellar job conducting the free lectures — the first of which were intended solely to correct factual and perceptual inaccuracies on the U.S.’ role in World War II.
Greenberg would drive to universities throughout Southern California posting index card notices about the lecture series in the administrative offices of UCLA and other colleges and universities.
“The index card would say, ‘Community Service Program: Frank Capra and Al Greenberg present the unbiased, unvarnished truth about World War II’ — or something like that,” Greenberg said. “At that point Capra was as big as Steven Spielberg is today. The phone would ring off the hook! That’s how we got started.”
One student suggested they broaden the discussions to include film, art and politics.
“They said, ‘Couldn’t Mr. Capra bring in people he would know, like Gregory Peck or Barbara Stanwyck? Wouldn’t it be a great thing to screen ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and have your guest speaker be Jimmy Stewart?’ ”
Capra and Greenberg did just that, expanding what would become more than 1,500 lectures to bookstores in the Newport Beach and Orange County area, where Greenberg relocated in the 1980s. Greenberg would have students read autobiographies by everyone from former Republican Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater to Gen. Aaron Bank, founder of the Green Berets, and the late La Jolla resident and four-star Gen. Lemuel Shepherd, the 20th Commandant of the Marine Corps (who would help Greenberg arrange many of his high-profile military interviews).
“He had stories that were just fabulous,” Greenberg said of Shepherd. “If I ever wanted a Marine who won a congressional medal of honor, I’d call Gen. Shepherd and the next morning that Marine would be on the phone with me. When the commandant calls you, you respond.” When Capra died in September 1991, Greenberg had a Rolodex brimming with celebrity contacts, and would continue the free educational program through 2005, living largely off his real estate portfolio.
In one of his interviews, President Gerald Ford told Greenberg his life’s biggest disappointment was Nixon lying to him about the Watergate scandal when he was his vice-president. Nixon himself told Greenberg how he financed his first congressional race with thousands of dollars in poker winnings. Interviewed at his favorite Mexican restaurant in San Juan Capistrano, Nixon confirmed the rumor that he did not do well with one-on-one exchanges, often glancing down into his menu long after ordering, Greenberg said.
Interviews conducted in La Jolla included chats with Milton Berle, Carol Channing, Buddy Ebsen, Burt Lancaster, Jack Lemmon, Karl Malden and Gregory Peck.
Some subjects were strictly professional associates, while others became close friends — particularly George Burns — who would bounce new comedic lines off Greenberg to get an unbiased opinion not always forthcoming from his staff — and Jack Lemmon, who let Greenberg film him getting into character on the set of one his last films, the 1999 TV movie “Inherit the Wind.”
“Imagine how much my students learned from that,” Greenberg said, going on to recall the time one of his students awkwardly asked Lemmon’s “Some Like It Hot” co-star, Tony Curtis, about his love life during a course.
As Greenberg recalls, the leading man didn’t miss a beat. “He says to all of us, ‘You people wouldn’t believe the women I’ve had!’ and we’re all just like, whoa, here he is a top movie star looking like that, and you know he’s telling the truth.”
Cliff Robertson—who Greenberg says would order a side of butter to slather on an already oily pizza — recounted to Greenberg his nerve-racking, early experience filming a passionate love scene with seasoned and stern Joan Crawford. “In the love scenes she was saying, ‘Cliff, over here, put this over here, don’t do this’ … with 50 men around,” Greenberg recalled.
Among his most difficult subjects to land an interview with was curmudgeonly “60 Minutes” commentator, Andy Rooney.
“There was absolutely no way, he was going to do it,” Greenberg said. That is, until CBS News journalist Eric Sevareid suggested Greenberg stroke Rooney’s ego by talking about a little-known screenplay Rooney had written for a major studio early in his life, which was never made into a film. Sevareid mailed a copy of the script to Greenberg, and it opened the door for him.
“Rooney said, ‘Where did you get that?’ ” Greenberg recalled. “I said, ‘Mr. Rooney, that’s how we do it. We do our research.’ ”