Growing up in Danville, Ind., Leo Geter ’84 often competed against his older brother John ’80 when it came to pursuing a life in the theater. As the elder Geter starred in his high school’s productions, the younger sibling made sure to follow suit.
In one attempt to best his rival, Geter wrote and directed a Halloween play in the fifth grade. It was such a smash, the school asked him to do it again for a Thanksgiving spectacular.
What Geter didn’t know back then was that competing against a brother he adored would eventually lead to a fulfilling career as an actor, writer, director and producer.
Currently, Geter serves as a writer and co-executive producer on the TNT television series “Major Crimes,” a spin-off of the popular Kyra Sedgwick show, “The Closer,” for which Geter was an executive story editor and producer. He recently penned and directed the episode, “The Shame Game,” which aired Sept. 24.
“Jim Leonard ’78 recommended me for a job on a new television series that has since come and gone,” he said of his start with the franchise. “I didn’t get that job, but when the writers who had been working on “The Closer” left to go produce it, I was hired to take their spot.”
A couple of years later, Geter was able to return the favor and help Leonard join the writing staff for “The Closer.” He called the full-circle moment a great feeling.
When Geter first started to write for “Major Crimes,” he thought all he would need to do was watch all the existing episodes and adopt the same tone and writing style. He initially found the tone somewhat fanciful at times, where character came first and story, second.
“What I completely missed was just how much sleight-of-hand went into the writing,” said Geter. “It’s story, story, story disguised as character. The mystery must never be left unattended even when (Lt. Louie) Provenza’s acting up or (Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson’s) having a chocoholic breakdown. It took me a couple of tries to learn that; luckily, I was paired with two very generous writers who were very patient with me until I sort figured it out.”
“The Shame Game,” involving the murder of a man who rescues underage prostitutes, is the first television script Geter has directed, a dream 10 years in the making. He said he finds it easier to direct his own writing in the “runaway freight train world of TV production,” even if it doesn’t always turn out like the original vision.
“All of your collaborators — designers, actors, assistant directors, location managers, stunt coordinators, etc. — are full of questions about the script, and if you're the one who wrote it, the answers come much more easily and immediately. That saves a lot of time. Having said that, it's hard to have critical distance on the material when it's your own. You have to become good at arguing with yourself, really. Luckily, in television, the production draft of the script often has been through a process that makes it somewhat different (from) your original version. This makes much of it new and fresh for directorial interpretation.”
Before turning to writing and directing, Geter spent years honing his craft as a character actor in movies like “Footloose” and “No Way Out,” as well as the 1980s television shows “Eisenhower and Lutz” and “FM.” But even though he was able to find reasonably steady work, he knew the smart thing would be to branch into other areas, so Geter and a friend met regularly to work on screenplays.
“Acting is a very, very uncertain, demoralizing pursuit,” he said. “You’re always at the mercy of someone else’s judgment before you even get a chance to perform. Writing was something we could do by sheer force of will, and it felt like some kind of control over our lives.”
The pair eventually wrote a couple of plays together that were produced in Los Angeles, with Geter as director for both. The success gave him the confidence to apply to film school, but without much of a portfolio, he returned to the University of Utah for a master’s in theater, having already completed his undergraduate degree there. (Geter attended Hanover for two years, starting with the fall semester of 1980. He would have graduated in May 1984.)
“That turned out to be one of the best doubling-back moves of my life.”
A former mentor arranged for him to teach in the actor’s training program where Geter was able to turn a film acting class into a laboratory for generating scripts that turned into short videos. He was also able to direct several plays, including “Kiss of the Spiderwoman,” which wound up going to the Kennedy Center for the National American College Theatre Festival in 1994.
Sadly, during that time, his beloved older brother began losing a years-long battle with HIV.
“(John) was back at Yale getting his doctorate in Divinity, and I was looking for some way I could move to New York City from Utah to be closer to him,” said Geter. “I made one last-ditch application to (NYU’s Graduate Film Program) and was admitted based on the work I had done in Utah. My brother died in the first semester of my time at NYU and to get through that horrific time, I began writing a journal. Three pages a day. I think that’s the real beginning of me as a writer with any kind of voice because it came from such a personal, painful place.”
He credits his life partner and playwright, Timothy Mason, with urging him to develop a writer’s regimen.
“His discipline as a writer is nothing short of awe-inspiring, and if you live around it long enough, well, at first it makes you feel like a worm, but then some of it rubs off. He taught me that being a writer quite simply meant writing. Every day. Even if it’s only for an hour.”
The newfound work ethic led to a film Geter wrote and directed at NYU, “Andy Across the Water,” which did very well on the festival circuit. It also caught Leonard’s attention, who hired Mason and Geter as writers in 2003 for his FOX drama, “Skin,” starring Ron Silver. That gig led to a stint on the CBS drama “Closer to Home” for two seasons.
“Most of all, I love being involved in every layer of the process,” said Geter of his work in television, “from the beginning, when the story is just a germ of a seed of a shadow of an idea, all the way to the broadcast product. Each episode is a lasting record of all the rewarding, challenging times we had together. Plus, we get to entertain somewhere between five and seven million people every week. Mind-blowing.”
Even though he wasn’t at Hanover for his entire undergraduate education, Geter said he loved being at the College and having the chance to learn from Professor Emeritus of Theatre Tom Evans and his wife, Barbara Farrar-Evans ’69.
“Tom demanded you not just understand intellectually what it meant to be on stage, but that you get it into your bones. He could be quite forceful, and I owe whatever refined instincts I have for showmanship to him. To this day, if I have an actor's nightmare, and I still have them, it is always set in the bowels of Parker Auditorium.”
Published Tuesday, October 16, 2012