Writer/actor John Blenn on why he's been a lifelong Long Islander, Kevin James' new sit-com, upcoming movie “Nine Eleven” and more
John Blenn has one of the go-to people within Long Island's entertainment field over the past four decades. He was a key creative force at publications including Good Times, The Island Ear, and Long Island Entertainment. He wrote and produced over 80 staged plays through his Middle Class American Productions; some of the plays were presented at Five Towns College, where John was the Playwright-In-Residence for eight years. He was the General Manager at Westbury Music Fair and later Five Towns College's Performing Arts Center. And that's far from everything of note that John has done.
In recent years, John has also resumed his acting career. He appeared in Here Comes The Boom, which featured long-time friend Kevin James. He was part of The Bronx Bull, which screened at last year's Long Beach International Film Festival. He recently completed work on the upcoming film Nine Eleven, which stars Charlie Sheen, Whoopi Goldberg, Luis Guzman and Gina Gershon.
John took the time to answer for Q&A for No Place Like Long Island, which turned out to be very inspiring. The East Meadow native and Hofstra University graduate remains prolific and craft-oriented all these years later yet in touch with his roots. As he explained within one of his responses, it's his flexibility that he credits for being able to work so long within the entertainment realm. John can be found on Facebook, and his page often includes worthwhile photos and anecdotes.
As far as I know, you've always been a Long Islander. Did you ever consider living elsewhere?
JB: I've been all over the country and have enjoyed just about every place I've ever been. I thought about St. Louis for a long time, because its suburbs were a lot like the Long Island I grew up in the 70's and 80's when I was out there. I'm not a huge fan of Hollywood, though I'm doing more and more acting and have several writing projects in the works. I'm far more used to the East Coast pace. I guess in the end, I'd go anywhere the work takes me, but I'll probably always have New York roots on some sorts. If the taxes were better, I'd say staying here could be chiseled in stone, but the property taxes are ludicrous.
Have you always been able to have a job based on Long Island?
JB: I've always found work on Long Island because I've had a career that has afforded me a lot of variety. I went to college to become a radio DJ, but it's about the only thing I've never done professionally. I've been a journalist for 38 years, an actor since college – SAG since 2011 -- a playwright for 22 years, a screenwriting since college, worked for 20 publications, been General Manager of Westbury Music Fair and the Dix Hills Performing Arts Center, worked on special projects for the Village Of Valley Stream, taught college for 15 years, managed artists, done publicity...You get the drift. If you aren't versatile in New York, you find yourself out of the business in a hurry, so thank God I've had a lot of people give me the opportunity to do different things and the ability to adapt to them.
At what point do you think Long Island began to hold its own as a destination for entertainment and culture? As opposed to just being secondary to Manhattan...
JB: I think Long Island is evolving as we speak as an entertainment hub. Kevin James shot the first major network sitcom pilot on Long Island at Gold Coast Studios in Bethpage on April 1 of this year. We had CBS' Elementary shoot a scene in downtown Valley Stream in early March. Heck, I was driving home from Five Towns College last Thursday and they were filming a car on a flatbed right next to me for a film, police escort and everything.
The problem on the Island has always been that other areas have done a better job in terms of support and financial grants for films and they became the hotbeds, places like the greater Boston area. Long Island and New York are catching up and making an effort to make it more attractive to shoot here. I shot an indie sitcom pilot, Reelin', on the Island in 1993 on a shoestring budget, so I always knew this was a great place to shoot. A lot of indie films have always shot here...the big companies are finally starting to catch on. There are also so many New York City-based productions now, it was just a matter of time until they began investigating here. It will be a major plus for the economy over the long haul, but it's just starting to make an impact.
I've heard that you recently filmed a part in a Charlie Sheen movie. What can you tell me about that?
JB: I did a tiny part as a diner owner named Marky Dee in Nine Eleven. It shot in three weeks flat in Long Beach, California in early March, and it stars Charlie Sheen, Whoopi Goldberg, Luis Guzman, Gina Gershon, Olga Fonda and Wood Harris, to name a few. The post-production will take a while, naturally, but it is exactly what it sounds like...a story about an elevator in the World Trade Center on that fateful day.
I've worked with the director, Martin Guigui, several times and he's telling a story that balances both triumph and tragedy. I think it's uniquely personal in its approach. The cast and crew were just wonderful souls, encouraging, kind, fun to be around. I was blessed to be there and proud to be a small part of it. Martin is probably the singularly most talented person I know as he is as brilliant as musician as he is director, screenwriter, actor and comedian. It will be out in the fall.
I also heard that you were at the taping of Kevin James' TV pilot in Bethpage. Any idea what the status of that is? Are there more things being filmed there?
JB: Kevin James' pilot was a terrific event. Full house watching the taping and -- all things being equal -- the plans are to shoot the entire series at Bethpage. Michael Rock Reuben, who was head writer of King Of Queens, is on board here and I have to tell you, I think this has a chance to be an even better series. Yes, King Of Queens is an iconic show, but the writing on the new pilot [Kevin Can Wait] is really crisp. The actors that play Kevin's wife and three kids, and supporting circles, were outstanding.
Christopher Roach, who plays a fellow cop, is a Long Island comic/actor who is about to really break out; he's a great and unique talent. Kevin continues to grow as an actor and is perfect for this premise. It is set in Massapequa, so it will definitely have a Long Island-centric feel. Gary Valentine is part of the ensemble as well, playing a firefighting brother of Kevin's character with plenty of quirky charm. It was really nice to see Long Island buzzing about one of its own.
What's coming up for you as a playwright? Is there another play scheduled?
JB: I never say never on plays, but I have a couple of screenplays in development and have most of my attention focused on that. My dad just passed at 98 in late March, and had been struggling for months after breaking his hip, so family has had to come first. Right now, I'm at a crossroads...I'm open to all the possibilities and fielding offers as they come. Doing MCAP, Long Island's only all-original theatre company for 21 years with my wife and my rock, Joni, has provided me with the opportunity to work on my craft as a writer to the tune of 81 staged plays. I have accomplished everything I needed to do at this level and I've been on the next level for brief visits.
Now that I have more time with family obligations changed, I need to make the next transition and hope that some of my friends who have made that leap give me a little help to stay on that next tier. I'm on the road to find out.
Anything of note coming up at Five Towns College of note?
JB: Five Towns College has changed leadership, former provost David Cohen is now back as President. The plan with the Dix Hills Performing Arts Center is to be more school-project driven and less outside bookings, though they haven't eliminated them all together. These days I just show up, teach, and head out on my way. If the opportunity to do another play there in the future presented itself, I'm sure I'd jump at it. I was Playwright-In-Residence there for eight years and also directed the world premiere of Eddie Money's autobiographical Two Tickets To Paradise there. I loved working with the students on projects, they have always had phenomenally gifted young artists.
Finally, what do you wish more people knew about Long Island?
JB: I think a lot of people don't realize the amount of originality that is going on on Long Island. There's always been this total misconception that New York City has not made as much original art as the Island does. WRONG. It's a coin flip. Unless you take a long look, people think Long Island is the land of endless tribute bands and theater classics done on tiny budgets. There are a LOT of talented playwrights on Long Island, but they often struggle to find an audience -- it doesn't mean they aren't high quality.
Being a journalist for almost 39 years now taught me quickly how good the original artists are from the neck of the woods. For people who question how well Long Island stacks up with any major art scenes, I simply offer this...Billy Joel, Kevin James, Eddie Murphy, Criss Angel, Robert Davi, Adam Levine, Eddie Money, Ray Romano – yeah, he's from Queens, but cut his teeth on the Long Island scene – Jerry Seinfeld, Twisted Sister, Zebra, Adam Ferrara, Steve Buscemi, Fred Armisen, Jim Breuer, Joey Kola, Gary Valentine...I could go on all day but you get the drift. I'm proud to be part of this community and, now that I think back to your original question, I'm just fine being here.