Robert Mandel ’67 sat in a straight-backed chair on the Harvey M. Powers Theatre stage and smiled warmly at the Bucknell students in the audience. He’d talked for an hour about his career, emphasizing commitment, patience, investment, passion and perseverance. He occasionally paused to show clips of films he’d directed, brief snippets of the gripping and tense films that are his hallmark. “Each film is an initiation rite,” he told the audience. They listened raptly.
Mandel left Bucknell in 1967 as a young man with a degree in chemistry and returned as an award-winning director of film, television and stage. Now Dean of the American Film Institute Conservatory in Los Angeles, Calif., he accepted the Bucknell Association for the Arts Academy of Artistic Achievement Award at Homecoming 2009. But it all started there, in Coleman Hall. Mandel was a chemistry major with a passion for the stage, but he lacked the confidence to pursue it as a career.
“I took a theatre history class with Professor Harvey Powers,” remembers Mandel. “He went on to teach directing and acting the year after, and I took those classes as well.” Before long, Powers invited Mandel into his home for long discussions of the theatre and his future. “I told him of my interest in directing plays, and he said, ‘Why don’t you try one?’ Sometimes all you need is a poke, a push,” says Mandel. “Harvey continued to encourage me all the way through my time at Bucknell.”
Mandel studied chemistry by day and explored his growing interested in directing at night. He directed several plays, including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? After graduating from Bucknell, he went on to earn master of fine arts degree at Columbia University and AFI.
Mandel began his career as a stage director and spent 10 years working in regional theater and off-Broadway. His big break was a small, 1983 film for Warner Bros. called Independence Day. It had a $4 million budget and Mandel remembers his first day on the set. “It was terrifying,” he says.
Experience soon conquered his fear, leading to jobs directing films including F/X, School Ties, Big Shots and The Substitute. He directed numerous television movies for HBO, Fox, ESPN, Lifetime and A&E, as well as episodic television such as The X-Files pilot, Lost and Prison Break. He won an Emmy Award for his first afterschool special, Andrea’s Story.
“Directing is about deciding which questions and decisions take priority. You have to know about many jobs other than your own, and many needs other than your own, and what needs have to be met, and when,” says Mandel.
As dean of the AFI Conservatory, he has reveled in the opportunity to mentor many enthusiastic film students. “You have influence in other people’s lives,” he says. “It really is a balancing act of letting them find their own paths and staying away from their decision-making, and yet supporting them when they need it. When they enter AFI, they are so completely hopeful and positive. You don’t want to get in their way.”
Mandel credits Bucknell with expanding his vision of the world, and its possibilities. His undergraduate experience helped shape a career he could barely imagine when he first stepped on campus. “I think most people really have no idea what they want to do when they come to college,” he says. “It is a time to discover everything. And that’s what I did.”
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