Whidbey man basking in Oscar spotlight
The spotlight is shining brighter than ever on Northwest talent. Seattle’s Macklemore and Ryan Lewis snagged four Grammy Awards Sunday night. For Seahawks fans, Super Bowl anticipation couldn’t be higher.
And on Whidbey Island, an Oscar nominee is in the midst of his own season in the sun.
Nelson, 57, is best known around here for his work on the comedy show “Almost Live!” which aired on KING-TV from 1984 to 1999. A writer and cast member on the show that poked good-hearted fun at the Seattle area, Nelson now spends time with Hollywood’s elite. He’s a nominee for Best Original Screenplay for the film “Nebraska.”
Nelson’s screenplay, written more than a decade ago, follows a confused old man on a road trip from Montana to Nebraska with his adult son. More than a futile quest for a bogus sweepstakes prize, the story mines funny-sad depths of family bonds.
“Nebraska” was directed by Alexander Payne, who made light of the human condition in his previous films “About Schmidt,” “Sideways” and “The Descendants.”
Nelson said that Woody Grant, the old man played by Bruce Dern in an Oscar-nominated role, is based on his father, George Nelson, a World War II veteran who died years ago. “I started out with some real things from my past, my family, so it had some ring of authenticity,” Nelson said.
With the wide acclaim for “Nebraska,” Nelson’s island life as a writer has become a jet-set whirlwind.
“Usually my favorite time is when it’s quiet out here,” said Nelson, who lives in Freeland with his wife, Valerie Howell. He moved to Whidbey about nine years ago.
His trip to the Academy Awards on March 2 will cap months of travel and attention. Nelson was at the Cannes Film Festival last year, where Dern won a best actor award for “Nebraska.”
On Jan. 12, he was in Los Angeles for the glittering Golden Globe Awards. Nelson said he was seated “up a tier” from A-list stars. “I was out of camera range, much to the frustration of my mother,” said Nelson. “We were right next to U2.”
On Saturday, he’ll be back in Los Angeles for the Writers Guild Awards. Nelson will fly to London for the British Academy of Film Awards on Feb. 16. And on March 1, a day before the Oscars, he’ll be in L.A. for the Spirit Awards, which honor independent filmmaking.
“I’m really grateful for it all, but I look forward to getting back to work,” Nelson said.
His experience wasn’t an overnight success. Nelson wrote “Nebraska” after “Almost Live!” was canceled. It was first optioned by Payne in 2003, when the director was making “Sideways.” Now, with “Nebraska” providing an entree, he looks forward to seeing more original work made into movies, and said he has other scripts ready.
Nelson grew up in Kent. He got into comedy through radio shows when he was at Green River Community College and the University of Washington. Although he appeared on “Almost Live!” he’s a writer first. “I never considered myself an actor,” Nelson said.
He does have ties to the film’s geography. Born in Yankton, S.D., he often visited relatives in a small Nebraska town where his parents grew up.
Nelson said he is still learning about his father’s World War II experiences. He didn’t know until adulthood that his father had been shot down in Europe during the war. The Woody Grant character is a veteran of the Korean War.
“They certainly lived in a different world than we could understand. When I first wrote ‘Nebraska,’ he was a World War II veteran,” said Nelson. “They grew up with the Depression. Their parents had gone through World War I. Then they ran into World War II and had us. To come out of World War II into the time of hippies, I can only imagine.”
Nelson spent a week on the set during the filming of “Nebraska,” and his mother, Jean Wilson, has a tiny part in a restaurant scene. With filming, travel and awards events, he has spent quite a bit of time with the film’s star. “He’s Bruce Dern — everybody loves him,” Nelson said.
Can he go out without notice on Whidbey? Once in a while, Nelson said, he is recognized from “Almost Live!”
“I was pretty much unknown until all this,” he said. “My cover’s been blown.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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