It would be hard to find two places more different than Pittsburgh and Hollywood — they are, literally and figuratively, thousands of miles apart. Yet the movie and TV business would be a lot worse off without Pittsburgh.
We’ve come up with our lists of the 16 best films ever made in Pittsburgh, and the best actors and actresses to come from the region. Here’s our list of the most influential Pittsburghers behind the camera — or otherwise behind the scenes, making things happen in movies and TV. Though, to be fair, some of them were in front of the camera as well. And while they aren’t all strictly from Pittsburgh, this is where they made a name for themselves.
There are, of course, other notable Pittsburghers in film and television: TV producer and writer Sally Lapiduss (“Family Matters,” “The Nanny,” “Hannah Montana”), director Rob Marshall (“Chicago,” “Memoirs of a Geisha”) and producer/screenwriter Carl Kurlander (“St. Elmo’s Fire,” “The Shot Felt ‘Round the World”).
And this doesn’t mark the end of Pittsburgh’s influence. For instance, who knows if Billy Porter will fare as well behind the camera in his directorial debut as he has in front of it. And the Hill District’s Antoine Fuqua, who burst onto the scene with “Training Day,” has a long career as a director in front of him.
In an interview that I did with Quentin Tarantino at Romero’s “Land of the Dead” (2005) premiere, he told me that the American independent film movement was born in Pittsburgh with George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” (1968). In 1999, the movie was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.
Romero (who previously worked on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”), along with some friends, family and friends-of-friends, didn’t realize they were inventing the modern horror movie or a zombie genre that still refuses to die. The claustrophobic, walls-closing-in sets, shadowy black and white film, and wartime newsreel-like cinematography weren’t selected to maximize terror — they were just cheap. The guts and innards yanked from screaming victims weren’t elaborate special effects — they were pieces of meat the butcher shop didn’t want. Duane Jones wasn’t intended to break new ground for African-American actors — he just gave the best audition.
Romero’s other masterpiece, “Dawn of the Dead” (1978), has some surprisingly sharp satire of modern consumer culture buried beneath the endless severed limbs and decapitated heads, as a few lonely survivors try to ride out the apocalypse holed up in Monroeville Mall, while the undead return to wander endlessly, aimlessly — not that much different than when they were alive, actually. Key films: “Night of the Living Dead,” “Dawn of the Dead,” “The Crazies” (1973).
The Warner Bros.
Founded 98 years ago as the Pittsburgh-based Duquesne Amusement & Supply Company, Warner Brothers had $30.4 billion in revenue in 2020. The Polish-Jewish immigrant brothers — who anglicized their names to Harry, Jack, Sam and Albert Warner — bought a movie projector and began showing movies such as “The Great Train Robbery” (1903) in the mining towns of western Pennsylvania and Ohio. They opened their first movie theater in New Castle in 1903.
By 1918, the siblings opened the first Warner Brothers Studio on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. They were pioneers of synchronized sound (“talking pictures”) with the landmark film, “The Jazz Singer” (1927). They were also known for the splashy synchronized musicals of Busby Berkeley, and hard-boiled gangster pictures, such as “The Public Enemy” (1931) with James Cagney. The company eventually branched out into TV and music production, and it remains a giant fixture in global media, after merging with Time Inc. in 1989 to become Time Warner. Key films: “Looney Tunes” (1930-1969), “The Jazz Singer,” “Casablanca” (1942).
Public television icon Fred Rogers impacted the lives of generations of Americans — and he did it in a low-key way from a studio in Pittsburgh. With “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” (1968-2001), Rogers took children — their fears, conflicts, feelings — seriously. When tragedy struck — like the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, or many years later the Challenger space shuttle disaster — Rogers was asked to interpret these events for children.
Though Rogers’ benevolent demeanor rarely wavered, there were moments when his steely tenacity peeked through. In particular, when defending public television before Congress, Rogers showed the kind of grit that Pittsburghers usually associate with linebackers and defensemen.
David O. Selznick
The legendary producer of “Gone with the Wind,” “Rebecca,” “A Star is Born” and dozens of other major films was born in Pittsburgh to immigrant Lithuanian Jews. His father was a silent movie producer who went bankrupt. Selznick moved to Hollywood and got an assistant story editor job at MGM.
Selznick worked his way up at various other studios and formed Selznick International Pictures, which would go on to create “Gone with the Wind” (1939). Selznick brought Alfred Hitchcock over from England, which led to some of the greatest films of all time, including “Rebecca” (1940), winner of an Academy Award for Best Picture. Selznick signed Pittsburgher Gene Kelly to his first contract after seeing him on Broadway. Key films: “Gone with the Wind,” “Rebecca,” “Spellbound” (1945).
Pittsburgh special effects legend Tom Savini once told me that he was working on a play in North Carolina when a telegram arrived from director George Romero. “‘We got another gig,’” it read. “‘Start thinking of ways to kill people.’” So he started working on building things like a retractable screwdriver, to drive through a zombie’s ear. “Dawn of the Dead” (1978) was the result, and movie mayhem was never the same.
Then, came “Friday the 13th” (1980), which kicked off the mania for ultra-gory “splatter” movies that dominated horror for the next decade. The only living person on this list, Savini was inspired partly by his experience as a combat photographer in Vietnam, where he was haunted by the horrific carnage that he saw. Savini has been a pioneer of gore and guts for decades, making his blood-splattering special effects the hard way, without computers.
He’s also a stuntman, actor and educator — teaching his craft to generations of students, including Greg Nicotero (“The Walking Dead”), the current master of splatter. Savini oversees the Tom Savini Special Make-up Effects Program at the Douglas Education Center in Monessen, which attracts students from around the world. Key films: “Dawn of the Dead,” “Friday the 13th” “Creepshow” (1982).