An actor on a mission

Neil Willenson has found success acting in movies and commercials while carrying out his real-life work making lives better

Neil Willenson was photographed in the Ozaukee County Courthouse in front of the restored artwork on the walls of the County Board chamber. Photo by Sam Arendt

 

By MITCH MAERSCH

Ozaukee Press staff

It’s not a midlife crisis and Neil Willenson didn’t buy a sports car, but he did refocus some of his energy when he reached the half-century mark.

“Once I turned 50, it was time to go after that lifelong dream,” he said.

The dream of the 1988 Homestead High School grad was to become an actor, and it’s coming true around his day job as vice president of community relations for Grafton-based Kacmarcik Enterprises.

Hollywood is off the table as he seeks roles closer to home, but Willenson, who was named one of People magazine’s “50 Top Bachelors” in 2001 and one of GQ magazine’s “Men of the Year” in 2008,  has landed parts in films, TV and commercials — seven in all in more than a year since hitting the milestone birthday.

His latest has a local tie. A scene from the movie “Good Morning Miss America” was filmed in the historic Ozaukee County Courthouse in Port Washington.

Willenson plays a judge in a pivotal scene in which a man with dementia tries to keep his wife, who has water on the brain and needs constant care, in their home instead of a care facility.

Willenson suggested the Courthouse location to director and writer Katie O’Regan, who also plays the lead role. Willenson had a month to work on the part, which was filmed in one day. He often arrives before anyone else to visualize scenes, but said he didn’t want to “over memorize” his lines since “so much of acting is reacting.”

But Willenson always comes in prepared. He memorized medical terms for a role as a surgeon in “Best Thing,” which is in post production. A real doctor came in and changed the script, and the next day an anesthesiologist changed his lines again.

“I just kind of go with the flow,” Willenson said.

Some parts come in on short notice. He got a call at 10 p.m. one night for a drill instructor role that was to film the next day. Willenson didn’t sleep well, memorized his lines and came to the set to learn the director wanted him to improvise.

“He was really open to making it my own,” he said.

Willenson was introduced to acting as a sophomore at Homestead with a role in “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

“Once you get a taste of it, you either love it or hate it,” he said.

He later played Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” in high school. In 1992, hegraduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in communication arts.

One year earlier, Willenson befriended a young boy, Ryan White, who was born HIV positive and was facing discrimination and cruelty. His life’s mission changed, and Willenson founded Camp Heartland (now One Heartland) for children with HIV/AIDs.

Years after running the camp, Willenson was introduced to Jim Kacmarcik, who was looking for someone to run his company’s philanthropy department. Willenson asked if he could become vice president of community relations in two years. Kacmarcik told him, “You’re hired, but I need you sooner.” Willenson’s has held the job since 2010.

He co-founded Hometown Heroes through the company. Other philanthropic efforts included renovating a home for a Grafton preschool teacher with breast cancer and triplets, two of whom have cerebral palsy and need wheelchairs. It was featured on the show “Extreme Home Makeover: Home Edition.”

“My little dream of being an actor is part and parcel,” Willenson said.

He doesn’t accept every job offer. “I turn a lot down. I’m not going to endorse or be part of something I don’t believe in,” he said.

Roles such as the judge in “Good Morning Miss America” are the parts he likes to play.

Sometimes, his roles come with scenes with celebrities. Willenson played a surgeon in a Bellin Health commercial that featured Green Bay Packers coach Matt LeFleur.

One scene was shot with 50 people in the room where the Packers hold press conferences. Willenson stood next to LeFleur, who was at the podium. The two had never met.

“Here, meet Matt LeFleur, and here’s your mark,” he was told. “It’s very high pressure.”

Willenson has also played a farmer in a Cargill commercial.

“The thing I like most about acting is the versatility,” he said. “It’s exhausting but I love it. It is the dream I wanted to pursue.”

He’s not the only one in his family chasing that dream.

Willenson’s 14-year-old son Josh is an up-and-coming actor who has already directed a film, “Senior Night,” that featured some of his family. The cast includes Willenson and his parents. His 80-year-old mother has a lead role.

“She isn’t interested in acting but is interested in her grandson,” he said.

The group danced to silence; music is added in post production to make sure it aligns with the moves, Willenson said.

He has picked up some other Hollywood tricks as well. In hospital shows, notes are sometimes written on bodies, and he could have notes on his papers he held in his role as a judge.

One of his favorite roles was his second production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” This time, he got to act with his son and his 17-year-old daughter, Alanna, who is in musical theater.

Father and son have appeared together in productions. One scene had Willenson breaking a brick over Josh’s head. The director laughed so hard he cried, then said Willenson didn’t have to smash the brick so hard.

Willenson hasn’t joined the Screen Actors Guild, the union for actors, yet, but said it will be required once he does enough work.

CELEBRITY MEMORABILIA FILLS some of Neil Willenson’s office at Kacmarcik Enterprises in Grafton. He is the vice president of community relations working on philanthropy.   Photo by Sam ArendtSAG members receive $4,000 to $5,000 for a week of filming. Having one line on the popular show “Chicago Fire” can earn $1,500, he said.

Willenson said his favorite movie is “Rudy,” whose plot matches the mission of his full-time job.

“I love the underdog resurgence and the way he pursues his dream,” he said.

The Oscar winner for best picture “Coda,” helped reignite Willenson’s passion. He said he was not aware of a situation in which deaf parents have a hearing child who likes to sing.

“I was moved by this movie to act,” he said.

“I’m a believer that through inspiring films and mass media you can make an impact,” he said.

The Wisconsin premiere of the 93-minute-long “Good Morning Miss America” is at noon Sunday, July, 31, at the Rivoli Theatre in Cedarburg. For more information and tickets, visit sacrednoisesociety.org.

For information on Camp Hometown Heroes, visit www.camphometownheroes.org.

For information on One Heartland, www.visitoneheartland.org.

 

(Inset photo) 

CELEBRITY MEMORABILIA FILLS some of Neil Willenson’s office at Kacmarcik Enterprises in Grafton. He is the vice president of community relations working on philanthropy.  Photo by Sam Arendt

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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