The Class of 1974 theater graduate has been recognized for his work on two films that focus on the life of country music icon Dolly Parton.
Attending Texas Tech University was something that happened kind of by accident, film producer Hudson Hickman recalls. As an undergraduate at a school in Illinois approaching graduation, a bulletin board flyer advertising teaching assistantships at Texas Tech caught his eye, and he decided to apply.
"To be honest, I didn't even know where Lubbock, Texas, was," Hickman said with a laugh. "I look back on my life and a lot of the decisions I made that turned out to be big life decisions, I didn't spend a lot of time thinking or pondering."
Hickman arrived at Texas Tech in 1971 and three years later, he had a master's degree in theater. What seemed like a small decision then led to a career of more than 40 years and designation as a distinguished alumnus of the School of Theatre & Dance in the J.T. and Margaret Talkington College of Visual and Performing Arts. Most recently, he was part of a crew that received back-to-back Christopher Awards for its work on two films that focus on the life of country music icon Dolly Parton.
"It's a special honor because it's given by a faith-based organization, the Christophers," Hickman said. "They recognize entertainment or media that may not necessarily focus on Christian values, but wholesome values."
"Coat of Many Colors" aired in 2015, and the sequel, "Christmas of Many Colors," aired in 2016. Hickman said both were well-received and highly rated.
"I long wanted to do a faith-based movie, and I feel it's a special treat to have been able to do that," Hickman said. "We worked hard not to preach, but really just present the message and tell a story about characters who live a life of faith and let the audience get from it what they would."
Hickman said it's highly unusual to win two years in a row. The best part, he added, is the award isn't something for which a film crew can campaign.
"They pick you," he said. "Out of all the movies on television for these two years, they picked us. It's quite an honor."
Working with Parton, who Hickman describes as a talented and successful businesswoman, was also a treat.
"She doesn't wear it on her sleeve, but she has a very strong faith," Hickman said. "She's just who she appears to be, very down to earth, very friendly and very smart."
Becoming a Red Raider
Hickman got his start in the entertainment industry as an undergraduate studying speech and theater at a small liberal arts college, North Central College, just outside of Chicago. As graduation approached, he wasn't sure he was ready to jump into the New York City theater scene.
His time at Texas Tech gave him a chance to continue honing his skills.
"What was so good about Texas Tech was, I could concentrate on just theater," Hickman said. "I didn't have to think about courses like science or language, I was able to concentrate on my area of interest, and it was a more intense time of studying."
Being in Lubbock also led him to his first union job. During the mid-1970s, dinner theaters were the rage. For one price, a person could get dinner and a see a play featuring a television star. Hosting these actors meant theaters had to be affiliated with a professional actors' union, which meant the people working at the theater were also part of the union.
Hickman began working as a stage manager at the Hayloft Dinner Theater, which was affiliated with the Actor's Equity Association.
"I thought, this is great. I've got my theater degree and I'm working in professional theater," Hickman said. "If I hadn't come to Texas Tech, I probably wouldn't have gotten into the union and gotten that experience."
After a year in Lubbock and several months with another theater chain, Hickman returned home to Mississippi. Soon, a production crew arrived to work on a film. After interviewing for an acting role and realizing any roles would be filled by a union actor from Los Angeles – the movie was affiliated with a different union – Hickman decided he would do any job as long as he could work on the film.
Telling the production manager this didn't help because it didn't change his status as a non-member of the union. But Hickman's persistence did.
"After a few weeks of pestering her, she hired me as a non-union driver because they'd hired enough teamsters," he said. "Timing is everything."
Working on several projects in Mississippi gave him a glimpse into the world of TV and film and helped push him toward a career in that area of the entertainment industry.
"I was impressed, especially in regards to television, that in one night, more people could see your product than on an entire Broadway run," Hickman said. "That kind of power and influence really appealed to me."
He moved to Los Angeles and, with a call to a producer he'd worked with in Mississippi, had a job as an assistant lined up within week.
"Among other things, I was taking his dogs to the groomer," Hickman said. "I was 27 years old and I had a master's degree in theater, but I was determined to be the best taker-of-dogs-to-the-groomer he'd ever seen."
That perseverance and willingness to do whatever work was required didn't go unnoticed. Soon, Hickman was traveling around the world with the TV show, "The Love Boat." He got his hands dirty on the set of "MacGyver," directing scenes filled with special effects, trains and helicopters.
He spent years working with several companies, including Aaron Spelling Productions, Columbia Pictures Television and Paramount Television. In 1995, he was named vice president of post-production for MGM Worldwide Television before becoming the senior vice president of production in 2000.
"It's just funny how things work out," Hickman said. "Obviously, it's important to have plans and ambitions and to set goals, but I've often thought good luck is where opportunity and preparation meet. I was ready for whatever it was at the time it came along."
Working with Dolly
One of those opportunities was working with Parton on the two films about her life. Hickman was asked by his longtime friend and the films' executive producer, Sam Haskell, to produce the films. Haskell, the former executive vice president and worldwide head of television for the William Morris Agency, had partnered with Parton on past projects and wanted someone he could count on.
"We've known each other since we were young tykes growing up in the business," Haskell said. "He was in production, I was a talent agent and we became instant friends. I got this opportunity with my longtime friend and partner, Dolly Parton, and the only person I wanted to work on this with was Hudson. Working with someone like Hudson, who can do anything, just makes my job a lot easier."
Haskell said he's very honored to be recognized along with other works like the film, "Hidden Figures." Receiving a Christopher Award gives a pretty good idea of the type of impact a movie or other work has had, he said, and much of the credit goes to Hickman's work on the Parton films.
"He's just a wonderful executor," Haskell said. "I have many visions for the projects I produce. I'm able to tell him what I want need and he fulfills exactly the needs I have and that Dolly has. As you go through the journeys of life, you want to surround yourself with people who care about you. Hudson is all of that and more. He's an incredible human being."
Hickman said he looks forward to more projects that will allow him to work with Haskell
and Parton, including several possible TV series based on Parton's life or on characters
inspired by her songs.
"I really enjoyed being associated with her and helping her grow her brand," Hickman said. "It just really showed us we're on to something. There's not a lot of purely primetime family entertainment these days, so we discovered there's a great deal of interest, and that has encouraged us to develop other projects. We hope the TV series are wonderful ways to bring her to her fans in a new and different way."
Hickman plans to stay busy with those and other projects, including an independent feature and a documentary. Though he's enjoying a more relaxed lifestyle these days, he said he doesn't consider himself retired.
"I'm at a point in my career where I'm always looking for a good story that will take me in a new direction," he said. "The great thing I've enjoyed being a freelance producer is you work hard for a period and then you have time off. If I'm telling a worthwhile story and bringing it to the screen that's unique in a way, that's my goal."
Nothing replaces a good script, he said, but as technology changes, it's important for those working in the industry to evolve as well.
"Young people would come to me early in my career and say, 'I want to be a director,' and I would tell them they needed to direct something," Hickman said "It was a big challenge and financial commitment."
Now that smartphones and software on a personal computer have replaced the need for costly equipment, film editing and processing and a music studio, he asks a different question.
"Show me what you've done," Hickman said. "You can produce something and put it up on YouTube and, potentially, the whole world can see what you've done."
Being successful in the business is difficult, he added. A person must be relentlessly passionate and have a bit of faith and ingenuity.
"Think about what you love and, if you can make a living pursuing it, you're the luckiest person. Find a story you believe in to the point where you would do almost anything to get it produced," Hickman said. "I love my work and all the different kinds of people I meet and the situations I find myself in. The secret is, I like being paid for it, but I love it and would do it for free."