TJ Healy has a vision for Delaware.
“I like to say it's 2,500 square miles of back lot,” says Healy, chairman of the Delaware Motion Picture and Television Development Commission.
Healy's first job with the film industry goes back to a Vietnam-era film featuring the original Vietnam vet character, Billie Jack, in 1966.
“That was my first paid film job,” he said. “I was a production assistant, and would go out and find locations – bars, parking – all logistics.”
Scouting out property comes naturally to Healy. He was born into a construction family dating back to the 1800s, which has placed its stamp across the state. He's the oldest of 29 cousins who include former DuPont Chief Operating Executive Ellen Kuhlman. “We all worked growing up,” said Healy.
Healy, now a Lewes resident with his wife Debbie, graduated from Brandywine High School in 1964, and at age 17 enlisted in the Navy Reserves.
He credits his mother for his artistic side. After taking photography classes at the Philadelphia College of Art, he took photos on a self-taught basis while in the Navy.
“It's all basics. Design, form and function. That's what it is,” he said.
The Navy took him out to Seal Beach, Calif., where his squadron flew supply planes into Vietnam, known as West Packs. On his days off, Healy worked at Universal Studios, making a lot of connections.
But duty called, and with a baby daughter and a son on the way, Healy and his first wife moved back to the Wilmington area. The couple later had two more daughters; Healy had a son with his second wife in 1986.
His Navy career ended in 1968 following the Pueblo Crisis, when North Korea captured a U.S. Navy ship. “I volunteered to train the reserves, so I got out early,” he said.
A hustler with the gift of gab, Healy quickly transitioned into the news world, working as a photographer for United Press International. “It was like, boom, I was back in business,” he said with his customary enthusiasm.
His photos of Wilmington's riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. brought him acclaim, and a room at The News Journal's original downtown Wilmington location where he processed and sent out his photos for the wire service.
Years later, he continued freelancing for The News Journal, capturing searing images immediately after the fatal shootings at the New Castle County courthouse.
In 1988, Healy got his big break into the film industry when the crew for “Dead Poets Society” rolled into Middletown. His job was to find all the vintage cars used in the show. “Every car in the movie, I got,” he said.
He even found a vintage bus used in a scene at a football game.
“I got the bus in Baltimore. It took ages to get that thing,” he said.
Healy also drove some of the stars back and forth from their Hotel DuPont lodging to St. Andrew's School, the boarding school where the movie was filmed. He recalls the late Robin Williams doing side-splitting impersonations and describes a gracious, friendly side of Kurtwood Smith, the actor who plays the domineering father of one of the students, played by Robert Sean Leonard. Smith may be best known as Red Forman, the wisecracking patriarch of “That '70s Show.” Leonard went on to portray a doctor on “House.”
But it was Healy's relationship with other behind-the-scenes workers that lasted the longest.
“When the circus left town, I left with them,” Healy said.
Back in Los Angeles, he worked as a driver for Christopher Lloyd while he was shooting “Back to the Future” II and III, and again as a driver for the late Dennis Hopper – “He was the nicest guy. A little wacky, but the nicest guy,” he said. Healy eventually worked his way up to line producer as part of Hopper's production team.
As the use of cellphones grew, so did Healy's opportunities to work outside of the Los Angeles area. He could easily keep in touch with a tight-knit crew that met on the set of “Dead Poets Society” and continued working together on films “Green Card,” “Dying Young” and “The Program.”
By the time the crew got together to shoot “The Perfect Storm” in 1998, Healy had moved back to Delaware and started his own production company, Black Sheep Production Co.
He worked as marine coordinator for “The Perfect Storm” searching all over the country for a replica of the Andrea Gail, the boat featured in the film.
Turns out, he didn't have to go far to find it.
“I finally found the sister boat in Ocean City, Md.,” he chuckles.
His work on “The Perfect Storm” continued for about two years while he produced the film's world premiere and world press tour.
“That was a long job. Usually we're on a job 6 to 8 months a year,” he said.
Healy retired from the military, but has never lost his respect for all those who have served. In 2001, he began Voices of War, an oral history of World War II veterans from Delaware. More than 100 WWII veterans were interviewed, and their stories were sent to the Delaware Archives and the Library of Congress, he said.
Healy's next project dovetails with Ken Burn's latest documentary, “The Vietnam War.”
The 10-part, 18-hour documentary that aired Sept. 17 on PBS.
“It'll bring attention to our project,” Healy said. He hopes to interview 400 Vietnam vets from Delaware, now part of his Veteran Story Project.
“These are stories that people should know about,” he said.
Healy remains optimistic that Delaware's film commission will be successful. So much so, he works for free.
“The state was just crazy when we did 'Dead Poets,'” he said. “Everybody was into it. We spent $18 million here, and we had high schools working, the whole state was involved in it.”
A big film production like that would put Delaware on the map. Healy is confident Delaware could reap the same kind of benefits the film industry has brought to Atlanta, Ga. There are plenty of small productions that could also capitalize on Delaware's location. He's already done work with Big Beach Builds, a DIYNetwork show that features Bethany Beach builder Marnie Oursler as she fixes up beach property.
“Our problem right now is nobody knows we're here,” he said. “I'm interested in bringing in the $20 million projects into the state. We're perfect for a smaller show to come in because they can cut through the red tape … once people know we're here and open for business, I think we'll get a bunch of requests.”