Dency Nelson: 2013 Franklin J. Schaffner Achievement Award Recipient

DGA Awards 2013

December 19, 2012

Associate Director/Stage Manager/Production Associate Council West (AD/SM/PA) Second Vice Chair Dency Nelson will become the 23rd recipient of the Franklin J. Schaffner Achievement Award, which will be presented at the DGA Awards ceremony on February 2, 2013. The Schaffner Award is given to an Associate Director or Stage Manager in recognition of their service to the industry and the DGA.

Asked why Nelson was deemed worthy for one of the Guild’s highest honors, AD/SM/PA Council West Chair Valdez Flagg answered, “I know Dency as the longtime, entirely tireless, unheralded, defender of the Directors Guild of America and its causes. Far before I was active on the Council, he was educating, encouraging, informing, defending and recruiting members of our Guild; and replacing ignorance and apathy with the inspiration and the challenge to be informed, to participate and make a difference. From prominent directors to associate directors, stage managers and production associates, Dency has been a constant educator about the Guild in this tricky world of major television production. He is one of the DGA’s truly deserving champions.”

Nelson joined the Guild in 1981 after a director friend working for the DGA-covered CBS Cable Network asked him to do a weekend stage managing gig. “He said, ‘It’s going to require you joining the Directors Guild,’” Nelson recalls. “And I said, ‘That’s what I want to do!’ I’ve always believed in the concept of collective bargaining as my father was a Roosevelt Democrat.”

Although extremely proud of his membership in the Guild, initially Nelson was forced to limit his involvement. “As I started getting busier and people started to know me, my name would wind up being put out there for a seat on the Council. I had to decline as I knew I would never be able to make the meetings due to work and travel. After I took a job on The Wayne Brady Show and things slowed to the point where I felt I could commit myself, I started coming to Council meetings again on a regular basis.”

Once Nelson became more engaged in Guild service, he soon joined the Council first as an alternate, then a member and finally an officer. He has served several terms as Second Vice Chair, a position he currently holds, and is the Council’s representative to the DGA Political Action Committee as well as the Council’s Membership Chair. He has also served on multiple Negotiations Committees; as a delegate to the DGA Biennial Conventions; and in 2011, as moderator for Council’s DGA 75th Anniversary event, Variety Game-Changers: The People Who Make TV ‘Special.’

The title of that event could well apply to Nelson himself as he has been one of those “people” since his first job as a driver and mail clerk at the American Film Institute, where he met director George Stevens Jr., who would become a mentor, and began picking up other skills and broadening his education about the industry. While working the desk for the production of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a chance encounter would set the stage for his life to come. “I met Merv Griffin, who was doing a cameo appearance, and – equally importantly – his stage manager Ray Sneath, who would go on to become one of my mentors. Ray later informed me that their cue card guy was leaving and asked if I had any experience. I said, ‘No, but I could probably learn.’”

He would go on to be the “cue card guy” for Griffin for a year before Griffin encouraged him to move to New York as at the time Nelson was still pursuing an acting career. In an attempt to earn enough money to pay for his tuition for a Master’s Degree in Scenic Design and Lighting at NYU, a “happy accident” job would change Nelson’s career path forever.  “I had been doing cue cards on Saturday Night Live with the original ‘Not Ready for Prime Time Players’ when a friend told me they were looking for a cue card guy for some guy named David Letterman who had been guest-hosting for Johnny Carson and was starting his own  morning talk show. I got the job and it was so much fun that when September rolled around and it was time for me to leave to enroll in NYU, I said ‘I can’t leave this!’ Even though it looked like we weren’t going to be on the air for a long time, I knew that Dave was going to be around and the next time, I wanted to be his stage manager. With that focus, I let enough people know that’s what I wanted to do.”

The path to that goal led to his becoming the very first stage manager for the fledgling MTV in 1981 before joining the Guild later that year. He believes he owes much of his success as a stage manager to the philosophy he picked up from Sneath. “What I learned from Ray was that the first job of the stage manager is to take care of people. So that’s what I tried to do.” Nelson’s success in carrying out that philosophy would be acknowledged over and over, as in the accolades he once earned from Letterman. Nelson recalls the incident. “When Dave finally landed his late night show, pretty much everyone who worked on the original morning show came back. We were fiercely loyal to Dave because we knew it was something special and Dave was loyal to us. One day when I was applying for a stage manager position he said to the brass, ‘Well fellas, I wish you could make this work out because all I know is when the grenade goes off in the trenches, Dency throws himself on it for me.’”

Over the years, Nelson has been a stage manager for almost every major awards and event show, including 24 Academy Awards telecasts, more than a dozen Grammys and Emmys telecasts, and two dozen Kennedy Center Honors. He also stage managed special events including the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics and the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, the 1996 and 2000 Democratic National Conventions and President Barack Obama’s “We Are One” Inaugural event, in addition to special live broadcasts of ER, Fail Safe, On Golden Pond and The Drew Carey Show. He has been part of the directorial team for award and event shows that have been nominated 31 times and won seven times for the DGA Award for Musical Variety. He says he owes much of that success to the relationships he’s formed with fellow Guild members such as Directors Don Mischer, Walter Miller, the late Dwight Hemion, Jeff Margolis, and Louis J. Horvitz and well regarded Stage Managers Steve Santos, David Wader, Kenny Stein and Garry Hood. “After meeting those guys, I never needed a resume again. I was brought along on their coattails.”

Nelson strongly believes in following their sterling example and is always willing to give advice to younger members coming up in the industry. “I tell them, ‘Be proud of your membership, but be aware that this doesn’t come free. When you have the Rolls Royce of pension and healthcare to take care of you and your family for the 30 years you may be in this business and beyond, know that it wasn’t by accident, and with that in mind, don’t take non-Guild work. And become engaged in your Guild and come to meetings and participate as much as you can.”

He finds he is extremely proud and protective of his Guild and tries to pass on that point of view. “We will be the last union standing in this industry. The industry counts on the Directors Guild for leadership. So whenever I’ve heard complaints like ‘the Guild only takes our money,’ I would say, ‘Wait a second. Do you have any idea what the Directors Guild really does for us? Let me start with the health plan that you have because of collective bargaining. You have continuity of coverage with hundreds of employers because of that. What about all the things that our contract guarantees us? All of that starts with contract negotiations derived from the hard work that happens in that building. Government is only as good as the people who participate in it. So if you’ve got a complaint, come on down and get involved. If you don’t speak up, nothing’s going to change.”

Known for passionately speaking his mind, Nelson found himself in an unusual position when DGA President Taylor Hackford called to inform him that he would be the latest recipient of the Schaffner Award. “I was speechless, which really isn’t me,” Nelson laughs. “It’s an incredible honor that also goes along with a certain amount of guilt telling me ‘I’m not worthy.’ But that’s okay because for the rest of my career, it’ll just make me work harder to really earn this recognition and respect.”

Past recipients of the DGA Franklin J. Schaffner Achievement Award
  • Dennis W. Mazzocco (2012)
  • Maria Jimenez Henley (2010)
  • Scott Berger (2009)
  • Barbara J. Roche (2008)
  • Terry Benson (2007)
  • Donald E. Jacob (2006)
  • Stanley Faer (2005)
  • Peery Forbis (2004)
  • Esperanza “Candy” Martinez (2003)
  • Anita Cooper-Avrick (2002)
  • Robert N. Van Ry (2001)
  • Scott L. Rindenow (2000)