Pat Proft, a Hollywood screenwriter and director who makes his home in Medina, has been known to interrupt a movie’s filming to deliver a compelling new line to an actor.
It goes to show that “you never stop writing. Even the day of filming, you keep slugging away,” he said.
At 66, and with more than four decades in the business, Proft still gets revved up about his job. He has no plans to retire.
Maybe that enthusiasm is an ingredient in his success. Proft is a creator behind numerous Hollywood blockbusters, including such comedies as “Police Academy” and several of the “Naked Gun” and “Scary Movie” series, and “Wrongfully Accused,” which is full of local references.
Each project brings a fresh set of jokes, dialogue and physical humor. Volleying ideas back and forth with writing partners, “you laugh every day. It’s a joy to go to work,” he said.
The same can be said during filming. And, well after the production has wrapped up, it’s rewarding to know that a movie will be seen around the world, he said.
Proft usually attends the premiere events for his films. Often, he drops by some of the regular screenings, too, embedding himself in the audience.
For him, those moments are a bit surreal. Having thought through every character in the screenplay, it’s like, “I’m everyone on the screen. I get that performing feeling. It’s like I’m back onstage,” he said.
Proft used to do a one-man comedy show. “A lot of things I did in my act ended up in the films,” he said, adding that he wants to return to the stage.
Right now, he has several screenplays in the works. The next movie that will go into production is “Counter Intelligence,” which he’s cowriting with David Zucker, a frequent collaborator. Proft describes the film as a “‘Naked Gun’ take on ‘Mission Impossible’ and ‘Bourne’ film genres.”
Proft puts in long hours at work every day. “I work all the time. I sleep on Sundays,” he said.
An early calling
Proft always sought the spotlight. As a child, his heroes were Laurel and Hardy, Red Skelton and Sid Caesar.
At Columbia Heights High School, Stuart J. Anderson, an English and speech teacher, encouraged Proft to develop his talent. Notably, Anderson’s son, Richard Dean Anderson, went on to star in the hit TV series, “MacGyver.”
Early in his career, Proft performed at the Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis. That’s where he got a sense for what makes something funny, along with comic timing and “how far to push it.”
Dudley Riggs, artistic director emeritus of the Brave New Workshop, said Proft had an “easy, carefree approach to the material,” adding that writing came naturally to him. “It’s kind of as if he was viewing the world through a different lens than the rest of us.”
Although it may not always be immediately obvious in his comedy, Proft is a “profound humanist in his thoughts,” Riggs said.
Proft also performed on the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre’s stage, acting in musicals even though “I can’t sing or dance,” he said.
In 1972, Proft relocated to Los Angeles. He made his mark at The Comedy Store, a West Hollywood club. “Anyone who became something [in comedy] was there,” he said.
From there, Proft moved on to writing movies and TV series.
Getting into work mode
Proft, who once shared a bungalow-type office with actor Geena Davis at 20th Century Fox, now enjoys the quietude of working from his Medina home.
Movie posters, photos, memorabilia and various props, including a vintage brown suitcase he once incorporated into his act, set the tone in his basement-level office.
His wife, Karen (Phillips) Proft, a singer with the Brasil ’66 music group in the 1960s and ’70s, and an actor on several early episodes of the hit TV series, “M*A*S*H,” steers clear of him of during the workday. Sometimes they even do FaceTime on their smartphones, while she’s working upstairs.
Proft still dresses up for work in a sport coat and a tie everyday, a habit going back to the 1980s. He runs on a daily basis, even during the winter.
And he is always watching movies, even while he’s working out or doing other things. For writing inspiration, he turns to drama. It’s about the storytelling, or, “what the character has to go through to achieve something,” he said.
He has numerous drafts in progress. When he’s working on a script, the biggest challenge is “keeping a logical through line,” especially when it comes to big physical comedy scenes, he said.
The real deal
Rod Augustine, who lives in Portland, met Proft as an eighth-grader. Proft pantomimed a doctor performing surgery on a patient, and “when he mistakenly took out the patient’s heart, I thought I’d die laughing.”
Many laughs later, he’s still impressed by Proft’s abilities. “I think the thing that impresses me most about him is his discipline. He didn’t get spoiled by Hollywood. He never lost sight of where he’s from,” he said.
Jim Abrahams, a former Hollywood screenwriter who now leads The Charlie Foundation in Los Angeles, which focuses on curing epilepsy, also has high praise for Proft. “He’s a cheerful, funny guy. He doesn’t take things so seriously,” he said.
Abrahams and brothers Jerry and David Zucker, all of whom are from the Midwest, invited Proft to join them at Kentucky Fried Theater after catching his slapsticky act at The Comedy Store. Proft’s sense of humor brought value onstage and off. When they pitched movie ideas to studios, Proft always had jokes, which helped “make executives be able to see the movie,” he said.
Steve Bluestein, a Los Angeles playwright and comedian who is also a veteran of The Comedy Store, mentions Proft in his book, “It’s So Hard to Type With a Gun in My Mouth,” a collection of essays and short stories about his career. Proft is working on a screenplay of the book. Said Bluestein, he “was always the gifted one who you knew was going to be huge. His mind just worked like nobody else’s.”
Proft is a true “Hollywood success story,” he added. “He came to this town with nothing, living on unemployment wages. Since then, his films have earned millions and millions of dollars.”
Anna Pratt is a Twin Cities freelance writer.