By John Martin Fey
Photo courtesy JPI Studios
Not everyone who finishes college maps out a career plan. Not so with Gordon Sweeney. The day he graduated from UNO in January 1971, Sweeney knew exactly what he wanted to do with his degree in broadcast communication: Make it in Hollywood.
The only problem was, Sweeney had a vision but no job and no prospects. Still, he heeded the call to “go west, young man.”
So just 24 hours after receiving his diploma, Sweeney packed up his belongings, gassed up his car and headed for California.
“It was pretty scary,” Sweeney says from his home in Studio City, Calif. “I lived at home for all my college career. I jumped in the car, and I didn’t have much money in my pocket, like all college kids.”
Today, the 57-year-old Omaha native marks a quarter century as an Emmy Award-winning cameraman for CBS. He has spent most of the past 16 years as the longest-tenured cameraman for one of TV’s most popular soap operas, “The Bold and the Beautiful.”
“It’s a funny thing how you go down the road and doors open up,” Sweeney says, summing up the start of his career. “I never would have envisioned that the doors would open up for me.”
Sweeney knocked on a lot of doors before landing his first job in the television industry. He relied on some help from a brother in Los Angeles who worked as a dress manufacturer.
“I started selling, of all things, a dress line in Los Angeles,” Sweeney says. “I did that for three months.”
Little did Sweeney know that years later, he would be a cameraman for a soap opera that centers around the Los Angeles fashion industry.
“He really made it big,” says Norm Herzog, who this year retired as broadcast manager at KYNE, UNO’s campus television station. “He’s pretty humble. He lets his work speak for him.”
Herzog was a mentor of sorts during Sweeney’s undergraduate years. Sweeney came to UNO as a scholarship athlete for track coach Lloyd Cardwell. Recalls Sweeney: “In between track and television courses, Norm would let me work at the station. It really did excite me right away.”
Sweeney’s experiences at KYNE paved the way to a career that earned him seven Emmy Awards—six coming from his association with “The Bold and the Beautiful.”
Sweeney is humbled by his success but won’t forget his humble beginning.
He broke into television with Los Angles station KTLA. But it took a lot of persistence before chief engineer Hector Highton gave Sweeney his first job.
“He hired me after about two or three months of calling him,” Sweeney recalls. “I said to him later, ‘Why did you hire me?’ He says, ‘I just got tired of you calling me all the time.’”
With his foot firmly in the door, Sweeney eventually became a boom microphone operator for various shows, including “Dinah,” which starred Dinah Shore. The show’s director, Glen Swanson, gave Sweeney’s career a boost with a letter of introduction to ABC, where he worked for a couple of years before moving to CBS.
Sweeney’s first big break with CBS came on the groundbreaking sitcom “All in the Family,” where he filled in for a cameraman who was ill. Sweeney was thrust among cameramen who had 30 years experience on him.
“That was a nail-biting day,” Sweeney remembers. “There was a rehearsal day, and you shot it the next day. I was assured that the cameraman would come back the next day, but he didn’t.”
One of Sweeney’s early thrills came during his association with “60 Minutes,” in particular, a trip to Ronald Reagan’s California ranch to film an interview conducted by Mike Wallace.
Driving one of the equipment trucks, Sweeney found the path to the house impeded by several large oak tree branches.
“Lo and behold, here comes Reagan and his ranch hand riding on horses,” Sweeney says. “He says, ‘I see you have a problem here.’ I says, ‘Yeah, we can’t get the trucks through this road.’ He says, ‘We’ll take care of that right now.’
“So he sent the ranch hand to get a chain saw. We held the branch while Ron chopped the branch with the chain saw.”
Sweeney also recalled Reagan’s wife, Nancy, providing the CBS crew with home-baked chocolate chip cookies. “She was just a real delight, just a real sweet lady,” Sweeney says.
After 13 years of traveling the country, Sweeney joined CBS’ new soap opera, “The Bold and the Beautiful.” He says it’s been a great run.
“All these (actors) have become my friends,” Sweeney says. “Some of them, I’m a little closer to than others.”
One of Sweeney’s closest friends from the show is leading actress Susan Flannery, who plays Stephanie Forrester.
“He and I have become good friends,” Flannery says. “I’m very fond of Gordon. He’s one of those outstanding professional people that you get a chance to work with in your career.
“Aside from just being a really terrific pro, he’s really a lovely, lovely gentleman.”
Flannery says viewers probably don’t appreciate the importance of a soap opera cameraman. “They contribute a lot to the show,” says Flannery, who has been with the show since it started in 1987. “You count on those cameramen to be there for you when the time comes. You can’t have people that miss the shot. They’re a very integral part of the whole process.”
Because soap operas air 12 months a year, cast members have little time to rehearse their lines.
“Some of the actors actually learn (their lines) right on the set,” Sweeney says. “They learn their dialogue by flubbing it and going through it.”
It often results in humorous—and colorful—moments that viewers don’t get to see. “We can’t talk about them,” Flannery says, laughing, “because it usually involves bad language. If you think the locker room is bad, sometimes that can be worse.”
There’s a bit of a Nebraska connection with the show’s cast. Winsor Harmon, who plays Thorne Forrester, was a 1982 football recruit of Nebraska’s Tom Osborne.
“I was being recruited by pretty much everybody in the nation,” Harmon says, tossing out such names as Barry Switzer, Jackie Sherrill and even Bear Bryant. “Switzer was all flash. Tom just offered the Nebraska program.”
Harmon first committed to Osborne but later changed his mind and accepted an offer to play for Sherrill at Texas A&M.
“To this day, without a doubt, it was one of the single biggest mistakes I’ve ever made,” Harmon says. “I think I could have started for Nebraska as a freshman. Osborne says that.”
Harmon left Texas A&M with a sour taste in his mouth. He used his handsome looks to become a male model before landing a role on “The Bold and the Beautiful” eight years ago. He, like Flannery, counts Sweeney as one of his friends from the show.
Sweeney says it’s been a pleasure working with Harmon and the others. And he couldn’t be more proud of his Emmy Awards. One of the seven trophies is on display at KYNE.
Sweeney says he’s glad to give something back to his alma mater. And he’s grateful for an enjoyable career.
“I feel very fortunate to have taken this path,” he says. “With luck at my side, I was in the right place at the right time.”
For Sweeney, heeding the voice to “go west, young man,” really paid off.
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