Exit Interview: Jonathan Estrin

“Hollywood” and “Drexel University dean” make as much sense together as “classy” and “Delaware Avenue,” but when the school’s Media Arts and Design chief, Jonathan Estrin, left for the executive vice prez job with the American Film Institute last fall, it came as little surprise to those who know him. Before turning CoMAD into the city’s hippest hall of higher ed, the 57-year-old was both an actor (as Exit Interview reminds him, to his chagrin) and an award-winning writer/producer for shows like Cagney & Lacey. On the eve of the Oscars, Estrin checks in from his Los Angeles office for some friendly Philly-style abuse.

Do you miss the glamour of the Bennett S. LeBow Business School or the W.W. Hagerty Library yet?

There’s a lot I miss from Philadelphia and Drexel. To use the Hollywood parlance, this was an offer I just couldn’t refuse.

Drexel was once called “the fifth Beatle” of local college sports. Does it get a bum rap?

It used to, but I don’t think it’s true anymore. Drexel is now the number two school in Philadelphia, not Temple. It’s on the move, it’s entrepreneurial, it’s hungry, it raised its profile tremendously.

You said that Drexel hired you because you brought an outsider’s vision of what the university could be. Is the school on its way to realizing that vision?

I think so. But when I went there, to say I knew nothing about academia would be an understatement. I said to people who were considering hiring me, “The best thing I can say is that I come unencumbered by knowledge.”

When you played the role of Butt Freeman in The Ladies Club, did you ever think someone would one day call you a collegiate visionary?

[laughs] Actors put together reels of their scenes, and in the move back to Los Angeles, I unearthed this tape that had scenes from Cinderella Liberty, Knots Landing, and shows of the ’70s and ’80s. Thank God I found something else to do.

Then there was Act of Love, starring Ron Howard, Mickey Rourke, and you in the role of “Unnamed Specialist.”

If I pay you a lot of money, will you burn these credits?

What did you learn from Spielberg during that shoot?

Really? If he was there, I have no idea. Are you kidding?

Well, David Spielberg.

[laughs] You got me good on that one. The ironic thing is that he’s a member of the board of trustees of AFI.

Steven or David?

Steven. I met him at my first board meeting here. The board is 70 people, and they’re the heads of all the studios, the networks, all the major companies. It’s pretty interesting company to be in.

Is Philly’s stock rising as a place to make movies?

There’s a good confluence of things happening — the state tax legislation, the desire to stay in the United States to shoot, the failing dollar. People are declaring themselves Philadelphia filmmakers in the way Barry Levinson declared himself a Baltimore filmmaker. Between Night Shyamalan and Lee Daniels, it’s a good time for filmmaking and Philadelphia.

What is the AFI’s “100 Greatest” list this year?  

“100 Greatest Movie Quotes” — lines you use in conversation without even realizing they’re from a movie, like “We’ll always have Paris” or “Yippee-ki-yay, ­motherfucker.” Which is not exactly “There’s no place like home,” but there’s a whole range.

Is that all you do? Make lists?

[Talk of graduate filmmaking classes, new media ventures, K-12 educational programs, yada yada yada]. And this year, the lifetime achievement award is George Lucas, so there’s a big televised ceremony in June.

Since this is as close as I’ll ever get to Lucas, tell him the new effects in the old Star Wars movies suck. He’s editing my childhood.

I’ll let him know, but I won’t be responsible if someone appears in your office with a laser sword or you pick up the phone and hear [starts heavy breathing, which in this context is interpreted as a Darth Vader impression].

Where are you sitting for the Oscars, and are you concerned that jilted director Michael Moore might try to crash?

Mel Gibson and Moore should crash it together; they were both dissed. Wouldn’t you like to see Joan Rivers comment on their outfits? Mel wearing Michael’s cap, Michael wearing the crown of thorns. I don’t know where my seats are yet. I’ll have to kick somebody out of theirs.

You’re a top dog. You should be right up front with both Spielbergs.

It’s all about the perks. One more thing before I have to go. I’ve got a new film I wrote for Hallmark Hall of Fame, an adapted novel of Pat Conroy’s called The Water Is Wide. It will be on sometime next fall.

Anyone in that?

Yeah, yeah, yeah! Uh, Frank Langella, Alfre Woodard. And listen, send my love to all my friends back in Philadelphia.

One last thing. The world was devastated by an immense tragedy earlier this year, and I have to ask you — any idea why Brad and Jennifer broke up?

She named you. [laughs]

Damn! I was going to ask if there was any truth to the rumor that you were with her in St. Barths.

She heard you know where the really great cheesesteaks are. She’s been looking for a steak wit’. Brad just couldn’t give her the Velveeta.

So to speak.