Academy Awards Veteran Tells Stories of Great Women and Great Oscar Moments (Guest Column)

Danette Herman, who has worked on Oscar shows in five different decades, shares awards-show memories of Katharine Hepburn, Olivia de Havilland and others

Past Oscar Winners Reunion at the 75th Academy Awards
Past Oscar Winners Reunion at the 75th Academy Awards (Getty Images)

Danette Herman was one of the key staff members of the Academy Awards ceremonies from the 1970s into the 2010s, beginning as a production assistant and rising through the ranks to become the show’s executive in charge of talent and coordinating producer. One of the few women to serve in key positions at the Oscars, she was with the show during the years of its highest ratings and largest cultural impact.

As the Academy prepares for the 95th Oscars ceremony, Herman asked TheWrap if she could share some memories of past shows, from an encounter with Katharine Hepburn in 1974 to a pair of anniversary shows in which she assembled historic groups of past winners. —STEVE POND     

Congratulations to the Academy on 95 years of the Academy Awards. Almost 40 of those years are my history, also. 

It began in April 1968 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. The 40th Academy Awards were hosted by Bob Hope, produced by Arthur Freed and directed by Dick Dunlap. It was my first job as production assistant on a live awards show.

It was also a tumultuous, turbulent time. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had tragically been assassinated and out of respect the show was postponed two days, from April 8th to April 10th.

It was a stellar year of nominees, recipients, presenters, and performers. Little did I know at the time that I would (much later) get to work with Gregory Peck, Gene Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Sidney Poitier, Eva Marie Saint, Robert Wise, Angela Lansbury, Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Paul Newman, John Williams, Quincy Jones, Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand, Warren Beatty, Sammy Davis, Jr., Olivia de Havilland, Julie Christie, Vanessa Redgrave, Patricia Neal and Karl Malden on subsequent Oscar shows.

My responsibilities were keeping track of show badges and handing out pink, yellow and blue script revisions. (When I walked by Greer Garson seated in the audience, she smiled and said, “Us redheads have to stick together.”) It was an intense, exhilarating experience and I knew instinctively it was something I was meant to be a part of. And I was, for a very long time.

I created a career when there were few opportunities for women, working with respected producers Howard W. Koch, Jack Haley, Jr., William Friedkin, Stanley Donen, Gene Allen/Larry Gelbart/Gregory Peck/Robert Wise, Alan Carr, Richard D. and Lili Fini Zanuck, Quincy Jones/David Salzman, Joe Roth, Bill Condon/Laurence Mark, Bill Mechanic/Adam Shankman, Bruce Cohen/Don Mischer, Neil Meron/Craig Zadan, Laura Ziskin and Gil Cates on all 14 shows he produced.   

Here are a few stories to share out of so many.  

Lawrence Weingarten Katharine Hepburn Oscars
Lawrence Weingarten Katharine Hepburn at the Oscars in 1974 (Getty Images

46th Academy Awards
April 2, 1974
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Produced by Jack Haley, Jr.

Legendary producer Lawrence Weingarten was recipient of the Irving G. Thalberg Award, and his longtime friend and colleague Katharine Hepburn was going to present to him.  This would be the first and only time, after multiple Oscar nominations and a record four wins over the years, she would ever appear on the show.

We were at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and our makeshift production office was backstage. Ms. Hepburn was to arrive for rehearsal “the back way” (the loading dock) as many stars did to avoid being seen by photographers. She hadn’t arrived at her scheduled time and we were concerned, looking all over the building for her.  

On my way backstage, I made a pit stop in the production office, and behold – there was Ms. Hepburn, my movie star icon, sitting at my space at a production table, typing on a manual typewriter, very frustrated.  She had her speech and needed to make corrections for the cue cards.

I approached her carefully and offered to help re-type, but she insisted on doing it herself and was getting more frustrated. I had a bottle of the liquid correction fluid “Wite-Out,” which we used in those days. So I sat beside her and explained how it can “erase” errors. In those days, copies were made with carbon paper – so in the interest of time, I showed her how to Wite-Out the typos on the original and suggested, “Let’s just forget the carbon copies.”   

She was greatly relieved and we shared a laugh. Before she was escorted to stage for rehearsal, I gave her two bottles of Wite-Out to take home. She thanked me and put them in her pocket as she walked to the stage. 

70th Academy Awards
Oscar’s Family Album at the 70th Academy Awards (Getty Images)

70th Academy Awards
March 23, 1998
Shrine Auditorium
Produced by Gil Cates

As 2023 is an anniversary year, I would be remiss in not adding my thoughts about two historic shows. For the 70th anniversary, Gil Cates wanted to do something big to celebrate. That was the beginning of  what came to be known as the “Oscars Family Album.” It took a village and was a herculean effort on the part of everyone — the Academy, Gil and the production team — to make it happen creatively, technically, and logistically. But it was well worth it.

The Academy sent out invites and “Save the Date” cards to all the past Oscar winners in acting and honorary categories. RSVP’s went to the Academy first for their master list, with copies to me for follow-up. Most of our communications were either by phone, mail or fax. Gil made calls as he knew many of the actors personally.

It was a privilege speaking with actors from some of my favorite films, among them Harold Russell and Teresa Wright from “The Best Years of our Lives.” A lot of effort from everyone on the team went into coordinating details for every participant. My five production books each weighed about five pounds, as they were filled with correspondence plus copies of each RSVP card. 

The enormity of what we’d been working on didn’t really sink in until the participants arrived for rehearsal at the Shrine Auditorium. Production had built a large enclosed area/green room backstage specifically for the past winners. It was a reunion for actors and actresses who hadn’t seen one another in years: Russell and Wright, Gregory Peck and Claude Jarman, Jr. (who played father and son in “The Yearling” in 1946).

It was wonderful to see Jennifer Jones (I think Gregory Peck called her about attending) and everyone was excited about Shirley Temple. Luise Rainer, the oldest living Oscar recipient, received a lot of attention from many of the women, especially Anjelica Huston and Vanessa Redgrave (who sat next to her on stage).  

When it was time for rehearsal, the stage managers came into the green room and asked all the stars to line up alphabetically before going on stage. There was a lot of talk amongst them as they walked. Gil spoke briefly before they rehearsed. All the weeks of planning were finally coming to fruition.  

Backstage was electric on the night of the show. Billy Crystal was hosting, and in addition to the Oscars Family Album participants we also had presenters waiting in the show’s main green room. “Titanic” was the big movie and there was a tremendous amount of energy to the night.  

As the Oscar winners again lined up alphabetically and walked to the stage, I went into the Shrine Auditorium audience and stood against a wall so I could watch. Susan Sarandon intro’d the Oscars Family Album, the curtain opened and on stage were 70 Oscar recipients. The audience was surprised and reacted with a standing ovation. As the camera panned to each winner, you could see the tremendous pride they felt being part of this moment.  

Of course I cried for the entire 13 minutes. Colleagues said it was from exhaustion. Maybe, but it was truly memorable and a great honor to have been part of.  

Gil framed the Oscars Family Album photo for some of us. On mine, he wrote, “Danetsky, You did it!” (Gil gave us all nicknames, that was mine.) And the day after the show Gregory Peck called Gil and me to tell us just how wonderful the reunion had been.

Olivia de Havilland Oscars
Olivia de Havilland at the 75th Oscars (Getty Images)

75th Academy Awards
March 23, 2003
Kodak Theatre

Produced by Gil Cates

After the success of the 70th anniversary, Gil wanted to do it again for the 75th.

This time we were at the Kodak Theatre.  Steve Martin was the host. Many of the procedures used on the 70th were still viable, with the addition of communicating via email. There were many new attendees confirmed, along with some who had also appeared on the 70th. 

We reached out to Olivia de Havilland to introduce what we called the Past Oscars Winners Reunion. Robert Osborne from TCM was a great friend of Ms. De Havilland, who lived in Paris, and he put in a good word. Gil also spoke with her and I followed up with my own calls to discuss her travel arrangements, rehearsal schedule and other details. She was very organized and appreciated information, and it was great speaking with her.  

Days before the show, everyone was confirmed and rehearsals were scheduled to begin. Then, “Shock and Awe” – the U.S. went to war with Iraq!   

We all watched it on monitors in our Kodak backstage dressing room offices. Music director Bill Conti  and the orchestra were on stage rehearsing the songs that would be used as entrance music for our presenters. One of the songs was “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” which was quite ironic.

The show was not postponed, but the red carpet was eliminated and other changes were made. The phones never stopped ringing and Gil and I encouraged participants to “stick with us.” After getting exactly 70 past winners on stage at the 70th anniversary show, we really wanted 75 for the 75th. We didn’t get there, but it was a stellar group and I’ve always been a firm believer that whomever is on the show is meant to be there.    

Among those who did attend were five strong, courageous women who traveled long distances to honor their commitment. One was Ms. De Havilland, who would be traveling from Paris. I called her after the war began and she recognized my voice immediately. “Danette, I know why you’re calling,” she said. “I’ve been through war. Nothing is going to stop me from being there. I’ll look forward to giving you a hug when I see you”.  (She did.) 

Luise Rainer traveled from London, alone. Nothing was going to stop her, either. (This time she was seated on stage next to Julia Roberts, who was very gracious with her). Celeste Holm, Patricia Neal and Teresa Wright also traveled alone from various parts of the U.S.  

When Ms. De Havilland returned to Paris, she sent me a beautiful typed letter on very thin blue paper, thanking me. I still have it.  

Looking back at those shows I think about how a lot has changed over the years. I was very fortunate to work with two women who played an important role in that change: Lili Fini Zanuck, who co-produced the 72nd Academy Awards with Richard D. Zanuck on March 26, 2000, and Laura Ziskin, the first woman to produce the show solo. She produced the 74th Academy Awards on March 24, 2002, the first year the show was at The Kodak Theatre, and the 79th Academy Awards on February 25, 2007.

They paved the way. I’d like to think I was part of that, also. 

History does matter.