James Franco Does It All

James Franco is a film director, screenwriter, painter, author, performance artist and actor. And working on a PhD at Yale.

I learned from his recent appearance on one of the late-night comedy shows that actor James Franco was pursuing a PhD in English at Yale. A feature article in yesterday’s NYT (“James Franco Straddles Two Roles at Yale“) shows just how impressive this is.

On Sunday night he was in Hollywood, as co-host of the Oscar telecast in black tie. At 9 the next morning, he was in a Starbucks in New Haven, hunched over a book and barely recognizable in a gray sweatshirt, but still wearing his tuxedo pants. James Franco, movie star, had rushed back on the red-eye to play his other big role: Yale doctoral student. By 9:25, he was at his seat in a seminar on medieval manuscripts. “I was surprised and delighted that he made it to class,” said Jessica Brantley, an associate professor of English. “He’s a dedicated student.”

[…]

Yale has had its share of screen-star students, including Jodie Foster and Claire Danes, who have walked a delicate line between visibility and aloofness. But by all accounts, Mr. Franco, 32, who arrived last fall as a full-time student in Yale’s Ph.D. program in English, has straddled the line like no one else — at once the retiring scholar and the focus of attention.

In campus interviews this week, several people said he had worked to keep his new role more of an intense character part than a lead.”He’s very good at not attracting attention to himself and blending in,” said Michael Warner, chairman of Yale’s English department, whose graduate course on Walt Whitman Mr. Franco took last semester. “He goes down in his charisma, and he looks with thoughtful attention at the people around him and doesn’t display the Hollywood wattage.”

But Mr. Franco, who declined to be interviewed, has hardly escaped the glare of publicity. Student journalists chronicle his every move. Twitter messages breathlessly report sighting him in his habitual hoodie and shades. A student-generated blog, James Franco Has Fun, lampoons all things Franco, soliciting pictures of “James being a crazy dude.”

And the fascination is fed by Mr. Franco himself, a self-promoting — and often self-mocking — polymath who is a film director, screenwriter, painter, author, performance artist and actor, with several film projects under way. In addition to the Yale program, which could take several years, he is on track to earn a master’s degree in film from New York University this spring. (“It’s a full-time program,” an N.Y.U. spokesman said. “You can’t do it any other way.”)

Last year, Mr. Franco received a master’s degree in writing from Brooklyn College, and this semester he is co-teaching a course on film editing at Columbia College Hollywood, a private school in Los Angeles. It is called “Master Class: Editing James Franco — With James Franco.”

Even at Yale, home of overachievers, he stands out. He has found time to undertake a multimedia musical production with about four dozen undergraduates that will open on campus in April. He is listed as a producer, but has worked with students on all aspects of the show, “The Stargazer,” including casting, making script revisions and acting in the film elements.

“We’re all really fascinated and awed,” said Cokey Cohen, the columnist at The Yale Daily News who drew Mr. Franco’s ire. “To see someone who has what we all consider to have an ideal life — with a fun, successful career — to be voluntarily doing so much schoolwork all the time is both really admirable and something I can’t even comprehend.”

Dr. Warner said the actor’s academic ambitions were impressive. “We have had experience before with students pursuing parallel degrees,” he said, “although the scale of his obligations is something that we’ve never seen before — but who has?”

So, let’s review: he’s been steadily employed as an actor since 1997, including roles in the blockbuster Spider-Man trilogy and; has 10 director credits, 8 writer credits, and 3 producer credits. In his spare time, he’s picked up a master’s degree, is working on another one and a PhD–and he’s teaching a class. All at different institutions separated by, oh, 3000 miles.

He is, let’s just say, a rarity. Having the talent to do all these things is unusual enough. Mustering the discipline and willpower to do it all in such a short span even more so. And, frankly, simply being interested enough in all these things to spread himself so thin–he certainly doesn’t need a PhD, much less a few bucks from adjunct teaching, after all–may be the most impressive thing of all.

While people tend to think of celebrities as people blessed with good looks and some particular gift, a surprising number of them seem to be good at everything.

Hugh Laurie, the star of House, won the British national title as a junior rower and had a stellar athletic career at Cambridge. In his spare time, he was president of the Footlights comedy troupe and wrote a revue that won the most prestigious comedy prize in the UK.  He also plays the piano, guitar, drums, harmonica, and saxophone.

Danica McKellar, the actress who played Winnie Cooper in the “Wonder Years,” is a math genius with a theorem to her credit.

Skunk Baxter, the virtuoso guitarist of Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan fame, is a self-taught engineer and defense guru. He came up with the idea of turning the Aegis ship-based anti-aircraft missile into a ground-based missile defense system. He’s been a top DoD consultant for more than two decades, has chaired the Civilian Advisory Board for Ballistic Missile Defense, and serves on NASA’sExploration Systems Advisory Committee (ESAC). Oh, and his music career continues unabated.

Almost all the members of the Monty Python troupe have had enormous success in a wide variety of endeavors. Graham Chapman was a licensed physician, although he never practiced medicine.  John Cleese is a lawyer by training.

And, while Mike Huckabee might not approve of  Natalie Portman, she was a semi-finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search and studied neuroscience at Harvard. The same article notes that Hedy Lamarr was a rocket scientist who came up with several major defense innovations during WWII and the Mayim Bialik of “Blossum” fame has a PhD from UCLA in neurobiology.

There are probably dozens of others who commenters will name.

None of this is to say that everyone–or even most people–who are successful in the entertainment industry are geniuses. But a surprising number of them are.

UPDATE: UCLA’s Matthew Kahn notes that Brian May, lead guitarist and prolific songwriter for Queen, recently completed his PhD in astrophysics.

FILED UNDER: Popular Culture, Science & Technology
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Michael says:

    Franco teaching film editing – typical University course where a teacher teaches something he doesn’t do in real life.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Michael:

    He has directed and produced multiple films. He’s teaching people to edit existing film into a documentary. (See course description PDF.) I’d say he’s eminently qualified.

    Beyond that, I don’t understand your criticism. Most college classes aren’t training people to perform a task but teaching them about some subject matter from a theoretical and analytical perspective. My political science classes weren’t designed to teach people to run a city or craft legislation but rather to understand how government works in the context of a larger environment. A PhD in political science is pretty good background for that.

  3. sam says:

    And as I pointed out in the Natalie Portman thread, we all owe our cell phones to Hedy Lamarr. Also, in the Times piece on Natalie Portman, there’s this:

    As a teenager in the 1990s, Mayim Bialik starred in the title role of the hit kid-com “Blossom.” Now she appears in another hit sitcom aimed at slightly older kids, “The Big Bang Theory,” playing the adorably frumpy-nerdy Amy Farrah Fowler, a neurobiologist and sometime love interest for the adorably nerdy germophobic physicist Sheldon Cooper. The actress is pleased with her new role. After all, Dr. Bialik has a Ph.D. from U.C.L.A. in … neurobiology. “I tell people, I am a neuroscientist, and I play one on TV,” said Dr. Bialik

    Let me expand my comment from that thread: Show business has to be the most interesting business on Planet Earth.

  4. Jack says:

    Just makes Charlie Sheen look all the worse, doesn’t it?

  5. James Joyner says:

    Jack,

    Sheen’s probably a genius, too. A mentally ill one, unfortunately.

  6. Franklin says:

    I dunno about Sheen, it’s been all downhill since Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

  7. marsden says:

    studying film editing just isn’t the same academically as studying neuroscience at all. Those artsy subjects aren’t apples to apples. Winnie’s math talents are genuinely impressive.

    Multitasking is one thing, but doing them well is another. English is hardly a keep-you-hones subject. Far too vague and pretentious, and film editing – well, ok. But his celebrity gets him a long way too.

    The hype around Franco is ridiculous. People want so badly to have their superheroes. I’d like to see them too, but he’s just not one of them. He’s not a great actor. He multitasks, yes. Incredibly talented, etc etc? Meh.

  8. James Joyner says:

    Marsden,

    Winnie Cooper was a fictional character; the actress-mathematician is Danica McKellar.

    And, yes, I agree that being a movie star/actor/director and getting an MFA and PhD is a related field isn’t as impressive as being an actor-physicist or musician-military theorist. But it’s still quite impressive. Just the sheer energy and ambition makes it noteworthy.

  9. Alex Knapp says:

    Isn’t Art Garfunkel a professor of mathematics?

  10. mantis says:

    English is hardly a keep-you-hones subject.

    Go get a PhD in English at Yale and reassess.

  11. anjin-san says:

    Isn’t Art Garfunkel a professor of mathematics?

    He has a masters from Columbia, but I am not sure if he ever did any teaching. Stories like this are endless. Artie Shaw walked away from the music business at the very top and became one of the top target shooters in the country.

  12. wr says:

    I took an English lit class through the UCLA Extension that Franco was in. This must have been the beginning of his educational odyssey, and he missed a lot of sessions because he was shooting a Spiderman (I think two) at the time. But he was pleasand and dedicated and never acted like a star. Just wanted to do his work and learn.

    I agree that there’s a lot of hype around him now, but thanks to the insane media culture there’s a lot of hype around everything. I certainly don’t believe he’s doing any of this for press…

  13. Neil Hudelson says:

    Not quite as impressive as the rest, but Geena Davis qualified to be on the olympic shooting team (bow and arrow–whatever the official title is).

  14. mantis says:

    A bit of recent Franco entertainment for your enjoyment.

  15. anjin-san says:

    Franco got his start on a short-lived but brilliant TV show called “Freaks & Geeks”. Highly recommended.

  16. mantis says:

    Franco got his start on a short-lived but brilliant TV show called “Freaks & Geeks”. Highly recommended.

    One of my favorite shows of all time, and my first exposure to Franco. It’s being re-run on IFC on Fridays, I think. If you missed it back in the day, check it out, especially if you grew up in the 80s.

  17. EddieInCA says:

    Multitasking is one thing, but doing them well is another. English is hardly a keep-you-hones subject. Far too vague and pretentious, and film editing – well, ok.

    Obviously, you’ve never edited film or video. A journeyman editor on a network TV Series makes upwards of $3500 per week, plus health benefits and a pension plan. And the top editors on feature films make upwards of $8,000 per week, with many making more than $10K per week. You don’t command that sort of salary if film editing isn’t hard.

    Put another way, there aren’t many $10K per week jobs out there. That you so blithely write off a profession with such disdain says alot about you – none of it good.

  18. Not sure why anyone should have anything bad to say about this quite accomplished ad motivated young man. Too bad everyone isn’t as talented or as industrious.

  19. Gerry W. says:

    Since there was no topic on the oscars, let me add this. I would have preferred to hold off James Franco and Anne Hathaway for one year, and would have had Betty White as host of the Oscars. At age 89, she is amazing.

  20. anjin-san says:

    > Obviously, you’ve never edited film or video

    As someone who occasionally has to do video editing, I promise doing it reasonably well is not easy. Broadcast or film work requires a very high skill level that takes years of focus and hard work to attain.

    mantis – the cancellation of Freaks and Geeks after one season says it all about network television. Great show across the board. The kid who played Bill was priceless, one of the great TV characters ever.