Just reach … a verb and a noun

Just reach … a verb and a noun

Arthur Smith talks about motivation and his successful career in television

As he moved from acting to producing, Mr. Smith realized that he liked being in charge.
As he moved from acting to producing, Mr. Smith realized that he liked being in charge.

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,

“Or what’s a heaven for?”

Robert Browning’s famous question was sad, hopeful, knowing — complicated.

Arthur Smith’s take on reaching seems far more straightforward. If you reach far enough, work hard enough, that thing you’re aiming for is likely to be yours. And if not, well, just try again.

His book, “Reach: Hard Lessons and Learned Truths from a Lifetime in Television,” “came out of my passion to reach out to help others,” Mr. Smith said. “It’s a memoir with a purpose.

“I think it’s very entertaining — it has stories about some very famous people — but all the stories are about what I call the power of reach.”

He’ll talk about it, on Zoom, for the JCC U at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades. (See box.)

“My goal with this book — people kept telling me ‘write a book, write a book, write a book’ — wasn’t just to write a book for my family and friends, but to do something that has a purpose.”

Young Arthur and Wendy Smith open presents with their toddlers, Rachel and Leah.

Reach — which he defines as being both a noun and a verb — is what impelled him forward from a very happy childhood in Montreal to a life full of adventure and gratification in Los Angeles, where he heads his own production company, A. Smith & Co. Productions.

“People who have read my book say that it reads like a love letter to my parents. I had an amazing set of parents,” he said.

Here, everyone’s all grown up and at the Emmys; Mr. Smith is flanked by his sister Marylin; his wife, Wendy; and his daughters, Rachel and Leah.

His father, Saul Smith, was born in Ukraine; his mother, Goldie Smith, was a native Montrealer. Mr. Smith, who was born in 1960, was their cherished youngest child and only son. “My book talks about the principles I learned growing up,” he said. “My father taught me that it’s never the right time to do the wrong thing, and it’s always the wrong time to do the wrong thing. That thought wasn’t unique to him, but he really lived it. I learned about gratitude and all that good stuff from him.

“My parents passed in 2017 and 2015, and a friend said that when you talk about your parents, you keep them alive. I love that.”

The concept of reach is true for everyone, he said. “I believe in going for it, and not overanalyzing. People have a tendency to overanalyze, but we make our own fortune. The more you try, the luckier you get.”

So, in his book, “I tell a series of stories where you see the principle of reach coming into play.”

Mr. Smith is with chef Gordon Ramsey, one of the many celebrities whose shows he’s created and produced.

What is reach? “I define it as going for it. When you reach, you find out what you are capable of. You realize your full potential when you reach. It is extending yourself to be vulnerable. It is not being neutral. It doesn’t mean that what you want will happen, but you have put yourself in a position so it can.”

He tells the story of recording “Reach,” soon before the book came out in print last spring. “I meet the audio engineer, who is the most unfriendly person I have ever met,” he said. “It takes four days to do it, seven hours a day. I am outgoing, and this guy barely speaks to me, just says things like ‘You’re standing too close to the mic.’ Just directions.

“So I feel like I am boring this guy to tears, reading my book. But at the end, I say thank you very much, and he says to me, ‘You have changed my life.’ And I went, ‘What?’ And he goes, ‘Every day I have been listening to your stories about the power of reach, and every day I go home and tell my wife that I want to change my life. I realize that I wasn’t reaching enough.’

“And then he says, ‘Can I give you a hug?’ It was the weirdest thing. I went to my car and sat there, shaking my head, when it totally hit me. It was lovely.

“This was the first blessing from the book, and the book wasn’t even out yet.”

“Reach” starts with the story of his childhood, Mr. Smith said. “I was the shyest possible kid. I tell people that, and they think it’s ridiculous but it’s true. My parents worried about me.”

When he was a student, Mr. Smith was cast in his first film, “Pinball Summer.”

Something wonderful happened to him when he was 9 years old that changed the course of his life, Mr. Smith said; he doesn’t want to say what it was — he wants to hold something back for people who will read his book and listen to his talk — but “it taught me that good things happen when you reach beyond what you think you can do.”

Because he was so shy, Mr. Smith loved television. “I was fascinated with the entertainment business, and I was very into sports,” he said. “I was good at sports. I realized that I liked being the person with the ball, the person in the spotlight. The person in charge.”

He grew up as part of the Jewish community, Mr. Smith said; he went to school at Talmud Torah Herzliah, and to “a nice Jewish camp in Montreal, Pine Valley.”

“I am a very proud Jewish man,” he said. “I put on my tefillin every day. That’s how I start my day every day. I am 63, and I have been doing it for 50 years now. I get up in the morning, I put on my tefillin, and then when I’m done, I go work out. No matter where I am in the world, I do that. I have never missed a day. Even when I’m sick, I just gotta do it.”

His career started when he was 18; he saw an ad for extras in a movie that was being shot there — many movies are filmed in Montreal, because it’s close, amenable to the business, and offers tax advantages — answered it, “and I was standing in line with thousands of kids, and someone with a headset pulled me out of the line and said ‘Come with us.’ I had no idea why, but I ended up reading for a part, and I did well enough to get a screen test, and I got the part.” It was a teen movie called “Pinball Summer.”

He kept on getting parts after that; he financed college, at Ryerson University — recently renamed Toronto Metropolitan University — with acting. “The school has an amazing television and film program,” he said. “It’s very artsy, and very hard to get into.” He focused on TV and film there, and he started doing commercials and voice-overs too. “I found myself more interested in what was going on behind the scenes,” he said. He started to produce and direct.

A long time ago, young Arthur Smith clasps hands with Muhammed Ali.

After college, he decided to combine his love for sports and entertainment by trying for a job at the Canadian Broadcast Company. He heard about an executive producer there who was a Ryerson alum; when that man didn’t respond to his calls, “I literally stalked him. I waited outside his office for five hours.” When the man finally left his office, Mr. Smith, using the Ryerson card, talked him into a five-minute conversation that turned into 90 minutes, and then into a job. He used his superpower — chutzpah — to rise to the top with unprecedented speed at CBC Sports. As a freakishly young producer he was ostracized by his elder peers and found himself very unhappy — but that lasted only about six months, until he earned their respect, Mr. Smith reported. He produced the coverage for three Olympic games during his time there, and continued to rise until he was over the top.

He left the network after eight years, the last one as the head of the entire division, to go to Los Angeles — he decided to leave sports for entertainment — and work for and then with Dick Clark, the legendary producer. Next, he went to Fox Sports, and then he created his own company.

That was 23 years ago, and it’s been booming, Mr. Smith said.

“That was the biggest reach of my life,” he said. “I had a wife and two young kids and a phenomenal job at Fox Sports, and here I am, leaving it, with no income, in 2000. I had the idea of starting a production company.” He reached for it. “And it worked! We’ve made more than 200 shows for 50 networks.”

He’s created iconic and innovative television; he’s developed strong relationships with many famous people and tells stories about quite a few of them in his book.

“I’ve never chased money,” Mr. Smith said. “I’ve chased my passion. When you do well in the entertainment business, it pays a good wage.

“And I didn’t do the book for money. All of the proceeds are going to the Reach Foundation, my personal charity. It gives money to half a dozen charities that lift people up in some way.”

He also donates to the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, he said. “That’s my number one charity.”

Mr. Smith has spoken about his book in many different kinds of places, including Ryerson — many online, as his talk at the JCC will be, but many in person as well — and he loves it. He’s particularly excited about an upcoming engagement at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal. “It’s where I grew up,” Mr. Smith said. “It’s the most beautiful synagogue in Montreal, and it’s the oldest in Canada.” (It’s also where the singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen and his family were members, decades before Mr. Smith was born.)

“It’s always fun to go home,” Mr. Smith said.

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