“Jeopardy” Host Mayim Bialik and Cranston Native Don Reo Talk Hollywood, Mental Health and Rebooting A ’90s Classic
The “Blossom” star and creator visited Bryant University for a Q&A as part of the school’s Visiting Artist Series.
Bryant University got a heavy dose of ‘90s nostalgia this week when Mayim Bialik, the actress best known for her role on “The Big Bang Theory” and, more recently, as co-host of “Jeopardy” visited the college alongside Cranston native and Hollywood writer and producer Don Reo. The April 17 presentation covered Reo’s expansive career, from his childhood growing up in Garden City to his close working relationship with such greats as Cher, Chris Rock and Clarence Clemons of the E Street Band.
Later known for playing quirky characters that reflect her personal interests (she has a doctoral degree in neuroscience from the University of California, Los Angeles) Bialik got her start in stardom on the ‘90s sitcom “Blossom.” Complete with laugh track and wood-paneled living room, the show followed fifteen-year-old Blossom as she dealt with all the classic teenage challenges of the pre-cell phone age. Though Bialik starred as the show’s face, Reo was the mind behind the operation, writing the script loosely inspired by Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. Reo revealed he originally had a male protagonist in mind before an executive at NBC convinced him to change the main character to a teenage girl. Bialik notes the show was unusual for its time.
“We were a show about a girl growing up in a divorced family which, at the time, people thought that was crazy that there would be a female character that wanted to pursue her own interests and left her family. It was nuts,” she says.
Bialik credits Reo with creating a positive environment on set, noting her teenage years were mostly insulated from the partying and drama that marked other child actors’ careers.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘How did you turn out this way?’ So many actors get involved with drugs or drinking or partying,” she says. “I say a couple things. First of all, that a lot of people get involved with drugs and drinking and partying who are not in the public eye. That is a phenomenon that occurs in our culture, and I think increasingly as we pay less and less attention to the mental health especially of our kids and teens and the parents who raise those kids. We have many crises in our culture. Celebrities get more attention because we’re in the public eye.”
“But I do credit Don with creating a very safe environment,” she continues. “We had a very clean set. Joey, Jenna and I had a very innocent set of teen years. We had a very loving and supportive staff and crew. It was a really positive experience. Don did create a very drama-free environment, which is very rare in our industry.”
Reo himself grew up far from the glitter of Hollywood on the back streets of Cranston, where his father worked in a furniture store on Park Avenue. He briefly considered joining the priesthood and even attended Our Lady of Providence Seminary for a year. However, a teacher at Park View Junior High School set him on another path when she sent him home one night with a creative writing assignment, instructing him to pretend he was a pilgrim on the Mayflower.
“A miracle happened. A movie appeared in my head. I still write this way. I don’t just write words, I write what I see in my head,” he recounts.
He set out on a career as a joke writer and toured for a time with the comedian Slappy White. He later moved into screenwriting, working on shows including “M*A*S*H,” “Cher” (a variety show hosted by its namesake), the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” spinoff “Rhoda” and “Private Benjamin.” Later, he worked as a writer and producer on “Two and a Half Men,” “My Wife and Kids” and “Everybody Hates Chris.” His long friendship with saxophonist Clarence Clemons led to the two writing Big Man about Clemons’ life.
Following her work on “Blossom,” Bialik took a twelve-year break from the industry to pursue her degrees at UCLA. The two remained close friends, and Bialik says they still get together to talk Hollywood and enjoy their shared interest in good television writing. Their favorite shows include “Killing Eve,” “Succession” and Australian comedy-drama “Mr. Inbetween.” Neither has the outward persona of a typical Hollywood star, something Bialik says brought them closer together over the years.
“As much as I loved this phase of my life, I was never comfortable being a public person. I think that’s part of what Don and I really connected about. We were both people who experienced fame but weren’t necessarily interested in everybody knowing about all the parts of our lives,” she says.
For his part, Reo hasn’t completely given up on the ‘90s sitcom that first brought them together. The writer says he’s curious about what happened to Blossom and her family and friends when they grew up and has even talked with Disney executives about a possible reboot.
“I hope they do, because I think we could do something extraordinary together,” he says.
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