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Weighing In: Mentors

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LeahCevoli(Part One of a Two Part Dedication to Ivan S. Markota)

If you were to ask anyone that has accomplished great feats (in any industry) how they did it, more than likely every individual will mention a great mentor. How does this relate to my on-going theme of self-love?  Hold on, you’ll see.

About 2wks ago, I noticed a post on the Van Mar Academy of Television and Motion Pictures Alumni page that our beloved founder and Coach Ivan Markota was on life-support.  Ivan was 86 and had lived a full-life. He’d been in and out of the hospital a lot in the past few years but always bounced back. It slipped my mind to go visit at the hospital and then about 48hrs later he was gone.

It hit me a lot harder than I imagined. I hope I can explain this in a way that doesn’t seem entirely selfish, because I feel selfish thinking these thoughts.  But then again, perhaps that’s where the disconnection of my own self-love comes into play.

Ivan Markota was my first Hollywood acting coach. His school, founded in 1967, was an accredited Academy and could be used as college credit.  Never before and never since have I studied at an acting school like this. He created a school for actors reminiscent of what it must have been like in the golden age. He was old-school Hollywood, and taught much more than cold-readings and scene study, he taught “Show-Bizness” not “Show-Art” and groomed every student that came through that door (thousands) for the business of Hollywood, from your haircut to your shoes.

I had come to Van Mar the way many others had, through a scholarship program. I was booking Hollywood bands for a living, drinking free booze way too much, and being promiscuous. Free alcohol at any random bar, will do that to you. I remember going home on my 29th birthday and having some very big questions about my life and the direction it was heading. Not long after that, a friend handed me a card for a scholarship to Van Mar and my life changed direction.

Once there, I realized everyone was given one month free, 2classes a week, plus a Seminar.  That was the kind of school Ivan ran, even to the day he passed! He knew how tough living as an actor was with random side-gigs and residual streams.  He gave everyone 8 free classes, plus his monthly seminar. That doesn’t exist anywhere else that I know of.   There were requirement classes that you had to take before being eligible for Ivan’s Pro/Master Class, and even then it was invite only.  I’ve always been a teacher’s pet kind-of-student, I’m not ashamed to say that, and I remember being pissed that it took Ivan a few weeks to notice me and invite me to Master Class.  I was a lot sassier back then, back before a decade in the trenches of Hollywood.

I soaked everything in, never missed a class.  I listened to what “Papa” said (as many students called him), and did the things he told me. I made sure to dress like a rock-star for every class. I had my front teeth fixed, four veneers on the bottom, cause as Ivan would say, “Imagine your mouth on a 30ft movie screen, and how bad your teeth will look!”  He also suggested changing out silver fillings for white fillings, something I haven’t gotten around to.  But I got my veneers done, as did many students, and got “blow away” headshots from Van Mar’s favorite photographer/director Adrian Carr.

Papa would start class every week with pre-class, sometimes he’d lecture, or reminisce, but most times, he had article clippings he had pulled out of the trade magazines, quotes, photos, things that reminded him of you. He would hand out private little notes too, things he had thought of since last week.  I remember being told (a few times) to make sure I always carry binaca or breath mints.  It was things like this, things most people would NEVER say to you, that made this man special.

He was tough as nails, as much as I wanted him to notice me and say something to me when I entered class, I was also a little bit scared, cause it could be an ass-kicking instead.  Ivan kicked many a person out of class, but it was always out of love. He told you from day one he wasn’t there to teach actors, he was there to make movie-stars out of all of us.  He would tell you too, straight up, anywhere from “You’re already a star, Hollywood hasn’t noticed yet” to “You have star potential. I think we can do something.”  He became a confidante, and father-figure to many.

After a year at Van Mar, I had fallen behind on tuition.  Tuition was only $20/wk, (Ivan let you pay weekly!), but I was behind a few hundred. Ivan let many a student slide, but I felt horrible, it didn’t help that he brought it up in class as he went over the tuition books each week, and so rather than feel embarrassed or rack up further debt, I stopped going.

Soon after that I was taft-hartleyed into SAG by booking a voiceover role on Robot Chicken, soon after; I had my first speaking role on Deadwood.  I remember excitedly leaving voice messages on the school answering machine, in hopes that Papa would one-day play those messages to future students. One of his favorite things was to brag about former students, he would share voicemails, letters, postcards celebrating acting successes, and he kept a running tally of how many recurring and regular roles his students had booked. (last count is around 1700)

And then… I just drifted away from Van Mar. I guess I felt I was a working actor, and I was, for a little while.  A busy third season of Deadwood had me on-set most days, 8 more episodes on Robot Chicken over the next few years paid my bills.  I found myself focusing on voice over coaches, and different theatrical methods, I studied Chekov, Growtoski and others… and this is where I’m afraid it sounds selfish.

When I got the news that Ivan had passed, it all came washing over me.  The love and kindness that Ivan showed his students, the attention to detail (such as your teeth or bad breath), the carefully thought out notes, the willingness to do all this for you whether you could pay or not.  And it hit me; I distanced myself from one of the greatest mentors that had crossed my path. Someone that selflessly wanted me to succeed and wanted to help me! His only request of his students, “make enough money to buy a house, and put me in the guest house.”

Ivan believed in me. I ran into former students, who told me that my headshots for many years, made it into the “blow-away” examples. This made me sad.  I had a great little run with Robot Chicken and Deadwood, and also booked an episode of My Name is Earl during that time.  I was playing in the big leagues, but had just joined SAG, and had no representation.  How silly of me not to keep in touch with Ivan and celebrate my successes with him, to allow him to help me find representation (something he enjoyed), not to go to him and say, “Alright Papa, I’m sorry I’m behind on tuition, but I’m currently acting on 2 Emmy award winning shows, help, I’m out of my league and don’t know what I’m doing.”

Instead, I trudged alone thru jungles of snakes and con-artists, and at times found myself completely lost in large ditches with cuts and bruises from clawing my way back out.  I was on the front porch of the house, and somehow found myself in the shed, trying to find my way back to the front door.

At Ivan’s wake, I was hit with emotion after emotion.  It was amazing to talk to fellow students and teachers I hadn’t seen in 7 years. I started to remember a different me, fearless, confident, and determined to rock.

As the night drew to a close, we were told to take mementos, the family would be donating everything, and I wandered to a basket of Rosary Beads. Ivan had a large collection. Growing up Catholic, I have always loved Rosary beads. I can still remember my first pair and the case they came in. Ivan had once given me a Rosary.

Over the course of the week leading up to his funeral, many memories came back, and I couldn’t help but start to wonder, why? Why had I never reconnected with this man?  I began to think of other mentors in my life. I spotted a theme.  I have pushed aside most mentors that have ever entered my life. People that believed in me, it’s like there comes a point where they get too close, and I shut down and pull away.

Why do I do that?  (To Be Continued…)

Leah Cevoli

About Leah Cevoli

Leah Cevoli is a multi-talented entertainment professional whose work stretches across many genres. She is a rock ‘n roll enthusiast, body image activist, a certified yoga teacher, and fan of all things horror, Leah's acting credits include appearances on high profile tv shows like HBO’s "Deadwood," and voice-over on the Cartoon Network hit "Robot Chicken". Leah is a contributing writer for Ms. In The Biz and the founder of AllShapesAndSizesWelcome.com: Body Image & Women’s Issues in Entertainment, a group of women who speak on panels and at conventions nationwide. Leah has a reputation for crowdfunding success and social media magic. To date, her company, GreenlightYourPassionProject.com has managed 50+ campaigns, and have been instrumental in raising over $5,000,000 for indie projects. Her latest projects include: the feature-length documentary "Remember The Sultana" narrated by Sean Astin, the gritty feature-length drama, "Girl Lost," distributed thru Cinema Epoch, and the light hearted comedy, "Dance Baby Dance". All three films were released in the spring of 2018.