Dennis Mazzocco (left) received the prestigious Franklin J. Schaffner Award from Taylor Hackford. (photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images North America)
At the 2 p.m. walkthrough in the Grand Ballroom at Hollywood & Hyland in Los Angeles this past January, Dr. Dennis W. Mazzocco, associate professor of radio, television, film, walked up to the podium, practiced his speech on the teleprompter and then went down to check the seating arrangements at the tables directly in front of the stage. “I went around and made sure I knew where Martin Scorsese was sitting, where George Clooney and Jennifer Aniston were, where Helen Mirren was going to be,” he says. “I knew very famous people were going to be there, and I wanted to be able to visualize it so I wouldn’t be startled later.” That evening, Mazzocco would be honored at the 64th Annual Directors Guild of America (DGA) awards ceremony, where he would receive the Franklin J. Schaffner Award for outstanding career achievement and extraordinary service.
“Winning that honor has been the highlight of my career,” says Mazzocco, an Emmy Award-winning director, producer, and writer. The award was presented to him before an audience of 1,600 by DGA president and Academy Award-winning director Taylor Hackford, who praised him as a longtime Guild leader who stood up for members’ creative and economic rights. Knowing ahead of time which A-listers would be in his line of sight helped calm Mazzocco’s nerves during his acceptance speech, where he shared that his interest in broadcasting began when he saw The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.
He was only about 9 years old at the time, but watching that performance, he recalls, “was the first time I became aware of the connection between the picture and the sound, and was able to connect the visuals with the cuts in the music. But I never thought I could be in media or television; I thought it was beyond me.”
Later, as a pre-med student at Seton Hall University, Mazzocco re-ignited his passion when he got involved with the student-run college radio station. “It’s one of those experiences of someone going to college and discovering a whole new side of himself that he never knew existed; I realized I could have a media career after all,” he says. He graduated with a double major in psychology and communication arts, and would later go on to pursue doctoral studies at the University of California at San Diego.
His first job was with ABC, where, among the many hats he wore, he was an associate director in the sports division during the 1980s. As the industry’s technology evolved and Mazzocco’s skills grew, he wanted to challenge himself creatively and was able to compete for jobs that required him to not only direct, but also produce and write. Over the years he’s worked on many notable news, entertainment and sports programs, including The Academy Awards, Good Morning America, Nightline, Dancing with the Stars, The Super Bowl, The World Series and 12 Olympic broadcasts. He has won nine Emmy Awards (among 20 career nominations) and three Cine-Gold Awards for documentary excellence, and has also worked on the Peabody Award-winning and DGA Award-nominated ABC 2000, a 23-hour ABC News special seen by 175 million viewers. At the DGA, he served as a council chair for six years before being elected an associate member of the National Board in 2009 – the third tenured professor and the only one with a Ph.D. on the board in the Guild’s 75-year history.
Mazzocco came to Hofstra in 1999, where he now teaches in the School of Communication’s M.F.A. in Documentary Studies program, as well as undergraduate classes in television writing, production, media aesthetics and history. “When I was looking for my place in academe, I knew I had to find an institution that respected the scholarly side of me, but also was flexible enough and open to accommodate my artistic and professional sides as well,” he says. “I looked all over the country and felt Hofstra was one of those unique places where I would fit in.” Hofstra’s location also afforded him the convenience of being close to his family in New Jersey as well as media contacts in New York City.
Over the years, his teaching philosophy has centered on preparing students not only with technical skills, but with the problem-solving skills that are so crucial for survival in the industry. “A lot of students believe that if they just learn the software or hardware, they are going to be a better candidate for a job after graduation,” he says. “But what I generally tell them is that it might land you an entry-level position, but won’t prepare you for a career in leadership in the industry. After a while, most students aspire for a deeper experience.” What’s most in demand, according to Mazzocco, is the ability to think critically about how to approach problems in the workplace. “Today’s graduates not only have to be flexible and collaborative, but they also need to be able to speak well and argue logically, as well as work on a superior level.”
Students have taken his lessons to heart – Mazzocco was named the School of Communication’s Distinguished Teacher of the Year in 2006. “Hofstra students choosing me, when we have so many great faculty, was really a thrill and I cherish it as much as I do my Emmy Awards, my Schaffner Award or any other professional award because to be a professor that students appreciate and acknowledge is a real honor and makes it all worthwhile,” he notes.
“Dennis combines in-depth industry experience with serious scholarly engagement – a wonderful combination for his students and colleagues,” says School of Communication Dean Evan W. Cornog, who was in the audience when Mazzocco received his DGA award. Hofstra President Stuart Rabinowitz also notes that Mazzocco is among the many accomplished artists and communication professionals (including alumni Francis Ford Coppola, Scott Ross, Avi Arad, Phil Rosenthal and Chris Albrecht) who have attended or taught at Hofstra.
Over the last four years, when he isn’t teaching, Mazzocco has worked at ABC News as a stage manager and associate director on shows such as Nightline and Weekend Good Morning America. This spring, he also began handling control room operations for This Week with George Stephanopoulos.
He should probably clear some room on his shelf for a few more Emmys.