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Power of the Alumnus

aestage-headerCamryn Manheim on show biz, reality checks and the importance of keeping close ties to UC Santa Cruz

She was the woman who shouted, “This is for all the fat girls,” during her unforgettable Emmy acceptance speech in 1998. Camryn Manheim—then and now—leads a very full life: There was the time she auditioned for David Kelley and challenged the television producer to a game of cribbage—it won her a role on The Practice. There’s her work for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); her support of the size acceptance movement; and there’s the blessed job of mother to her 7-year-old son who will go to university, she says, quite emphatically. With her warm and big-hearted personality, it’s no surprise that UC Santa Cruz has invited one of the school’s most famous alumni back for a special event. On Feb. 9, Manheim will be the keynote speaker at the school’s fifth annual Scholarship Benefit Dinner.

This much is guaranteed: Manheim will likely be a gracious, charming, funny, smart speaker. The actress, who, because of the writers’ strike, is currently on hiatus from her television series, Ghost Whisperer, spoke with GT about the importance of education, self-acceptance, her former hometown of Santa Cruz and how Surf City helped her develop into the actor and person she is today.

“The Flying Karamazov Brothers brought me to Santa Cruz,” she says of the well-known juggling/performance art group. “I worked at the renaissance faire in Agoura, Calif., and I fell in love with them. They told me of this town up north—Santa Cruz—and how incredible it was. One weekend I hitchhiked there to Santa Cruz and was dropped off at the Pacific Garden Mall where all my people were hanging out, playing music and dancing. And I thought, this is my home and I’m coming here.”

aestage-bodyThat was 20 years ago. After moving to Santa Cruz, she took some classes at Cabrillo College and attended UCSC from 1980 to 1983, when she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in theater.

During her years here, she studied with acting teacher Wilma Marcus Chandler, and when Manheim won an Emmy, she thanked Chandler. “I promised her if I ever won that she’d be the first person I’d thank,” Manheim says. “She taught me how to respect the theater, the stage, the sum of all parts that make up a play. … Wilma had these strict demands and it was slightly terrifying and exhilarating. In Santa Cruz, I really developed some lifelong friendships. This group of Merry Pranksters really defined my respect for the theater.” While here, Manheim acted in numerous productions, not only at the university, but also in various venues around town.

From there, she went on to New York University where she obtained her master’s degree and began her pursuit as a professional actress.

“Leaving Santa Cruz and going to New York City was a huge reality check for me,” she says. “Santa Cruz is not reality. Santa Cruz was this paradise for me, these big, warm arms wrapped around me and told me anything was possible and I could do anything. … I changed from a girl who relied on everyone to a young woman who could be relied on. It all happened in Santa Cruz. There’s no place like it on the planet. … When I went to get my master’s, it was the absolute reverse. In my first play at NYU they said we weren’t ready for props. … The whole time that I was struggling to be an actor, I knew what it felt like to feel victorious and I knew I had to get back to that feeling.”

Following her stint at NYU, Manheim put on a one-woman show, and during its run she got a call to audition for über producer David Kelley for a show he was about to kick off called The Practice.

“I hadn’t done much television,” Manheim says. “I did play two lawyers for a minute each on Law and Order and New York Undercover. My demo reel was sent to David Kelley and he didn’t think I was right for the part. But, [it was] insisted I fly myself out. It was hard for me to swallow—so much money to fly out and meet the guy who didn’t want me, and that’s how he conducted the interview.”

While the interview didn’t go so well, the exit did. The ballsy Manheim saw that Kelley had a cribbage board in his office and she challenged him to a game—for the part in the television show. Not long after, she received the script, which had obviously been re-written with her in mind.

From there, as we all know, she went on to star in The Practice for many years, and she won both Emmy and Golden Globe awards. Following The Practice, she’s been seen on both the big screen and little screen: She’s currently in the cast of Ghost Whisperer, and she has a possible upcoming film called Dirty Girl, which, according to imdb.com, has Michael Clarke Duncan also set to star.

“I agreed [to speak locally] because UCSC played such a huge role in my life and my passion,” Manheim says. “I’m happy and honored and thrilled to come up. I think it goes without saying that having schools and educating our youth are the most important focus, I think, of a child’s life. I have my own son, and I want to make sure that there are opportunities for him to go to school and go to a university that might be like-minded in politics and global issues.”

As for what she’ll be speaking about, Manheim says that she will talk about what it’s like to live generously and what it does when you’re able to do that. She’ll also share about her own story.

“I’m never comfortable getting in front of a group and asking for money,” she says. “[But] I’ll tell them what their money has done in the past, and hopefully inspire them to give more.”

Camryn Manheim will be speaking at UCSC’s fifth annual Scholarship Benefit Dinner at 6 p.m. on Feb. 9 in the University Center. For more information, visit ucsc.edu/sbd.

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