Monday, August 15, 2011

Comfort Zone

Production assistant Toby Hershkowitz writhed on the floor while a frail 7-year-old boy twisted his arm and stomped on his chest.
E: 60 meets WWE? Not exactly.
The vignette occurred July 7 at the E:60 roundtable shoot in midtown Manhattan, as producers, talent and film crew relaxed between segments.
By way of explanation, later, Hershkowitz, 26, said, “I still consider myself a kid.”
But that’s only part of it.
Rewind to last fall when E:60 ran a story about the little boy fastened onto Hershkowitz.
Josiah Viera suffers from Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria syndrome, which causes accelerated aging in children, and has a life expectancy of eight to 13 years.
Baseball, a sport without a clock, is Josiah’s passion. The story, “Josiah’s Time”, with footage of his first Little League game in Hegins, Pa., touched viewers near and far, and garnered an Emmy nomination.
For E:60’s summer lineup 2011, executive producer Andy Tennant proposed a show of Emmy-nominated features. Feature Producer Ben Houser, who produced “Josiah’s Time”, suggested that the boy and his mother sit in on the roundtable - a simulation of a news meeting in which producers and reporters discuss the news value, characters and themes of stories. The idea was to use the roundtable to update Josiah’s story.
That’s where Hershkowitz, who produces the roundtable, came in.
When Houser arrived with Josiah, and his mother, Jennifer, Hershkowitz called for a break.
Houser introduced Josiah to Hershkowitz. They shook hands - and Hershkowitz took note.
“An incredibly firm handshake for a 25-pound kid,” Hershkowitz recalled. “A lot of kids are shy whether they have issues of not. He was not shy.”
Josiah took a shine to Hershkowitz. He told the producer that he planned to go to a park to play baseball after the roundtable.
“You can come and be on my team.”
Soon enough, Josiah and Hershkowitz were on the floor in their best WWE imitation. Hershkowitz was not entirely surprised - though not a father he has young cousins and he babysat in his younger days.
“I love being around kids and I usually have a pretty good rapport with kids,” Hershkowitz said, later. “I still consider myself a kid. Anytime I refer to myself in conversation I probably use the word ‘kid’ more than I use the word ‘man’ because that’s just how I feel. I don’t mind rolling around on the floor and pretending to play dead when he punches me in the chest. It’s as much fun for me as for him.”
But behind Hershkowitz’s playfulness was a professional calculation. In a few minutes Josiah would be on camera.
“We’ve had guests at the roundtable before - it’s always important to let them know what we’re trying to accomplish and to make them feel comfortable,” Hershkowitz said.
“He was in a room full of adults and I could tell he wanted to play - little kids just want to run around and play all the time. And I’m probably among the goofiest most childish people on this show so I was a good candidate to play and make him feel comfortable.”
Indeed, Josiah and his mother appeared relaxed when the cameras rolled. At the table - actually a rectangle - were Tennant, Houser, coordinating producer Michael Baltierra, and reporters Rachel Nichols, Chris Connolly, and Jeremy Schaap.
Jennifer told about wondrous events, about gifts from Terrell Owens, a trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium at Duke, the 15-games Josiah played in little league, the Harlem Globetrotters’ show at his elementary school, and about countless requests for autographs. Josiah, in his squeak of a voice, talked of the batting glove and bat he received from Ryan Howard.
Neither mentioned the several strokes he has suffered in the past year, or the increased fragility of his health. Those demons will return soon enough. But not now - not with Josiah feeling chipper and surrounded by a roomful of adults and cameras who adored him.
The group arose from the table. Tennant tossed a plastic ball and Josiah swung a thin wooden bat. The ball soared over Tennant’s head and caromed off a wall. Another pitch came back on a line at Tennant’s face. Then Josiah ran around the table. The cameras got all of it.
Later, after Josiah, his mother, and Houser departed, to eventually visit Diane Sawyer at the set of ‘World News Tonight’, Hershkowitz pondered the edit.
“This is a situation where they will let the roundtable go a little longer - maybe two to 2 ½ minutes,” he said. “Because it’s easy to feel for this kid - but maybe tough to connect to him on a personal level because of the unique situation facing him. That’s what the roundtable does. It lets us connect with him just as a person and forget for a minute that he’s a little kid with this terrible disease. It lets us see him just as a little kid who loves to have fun and play baseball and interact with adults the same way other kids do. I hope we can get that across.”

Posted by Steve Marantz on August 15, 2011

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