When Fred Keller considers how he got from his childhood home in Snyder, New York, to a career making films in Hollywood, he thinks back to his Park School hockey coach, Bill Hoyt.
“It was Bill who said, ‘You know, you ought to go to Hamilton College. They've got a good hockey team,’” Keller recalls.
It was at Hamilton where a series of fortunate events propelled Keller – the son of a well-known Buffalo actor, broadcast pioneer, and film and theater impresario named Frederick A. Keller – toward his own career in the entertainment business.
But first there was Park, whose bucolic setting was a sort of refuge for Keller when he arrived in seventh grade.
“When I first went to Park, my parents were separating, and as an only child, it was a very traumatic time of my life,” he recalls. “My family lived in Snyder, a hop, skip, and a jump from Park. One of my great memories is walking to and from school every day. It was a lovely walk and it gave me a lot of time to think.”
He had some wonderful teachers in the 1960s, some of whom “have their names on the buildings” at Park today.
“I can honestly say that I remember the extraordinary people at Park better than I remember almost all of my college professors,” Keller says.
“I went back to Park last year and had a lovely day, walking around. I got to thinking that one of the most important people in my life was head of middle school Helen Long, who was influential in bringing me to Park and helping through a very tough time. I also remember with great fondness middle school teacher Mary Rupp.
“One of my favorite teachers was a guy who I thought was an absolute genius because he was able to teach me in a class I had absolutely no aptitude for, none whatsoever. That was higher mathematics. He was the wonderful Raoul Hailpern. What I learned from Dr. Hailpern was how to treat people. He was so gentle, so encouraging, that I often think of him when I am directing actors in a film. He was a very kind, very low-key, very brilliant guy.”
Keller remembers all of his Park teachers as being “wonderful and encouraging.”
“When I went to Upper School, the headmaster was E. Barton Chapin. I can vividly recall discussions with him on penmanship and things like that. And, of course, the wonderful Bill Hoyt was my history teacher and my soccer and hockey coach.”
Keller also was involved in Park’s theatrical productions. “I was more active behind the scenes, but every once in a while as an actor. It was nice to do this in a safe and encouraging environment.”
Sports, however, were his first love. Hoyt, who himself had attended Hamilton College, thought it would be a good fit for Keller. Fred agreed and he played both hockey and tennis there. He also took classes in the arts at Hamilton’s sister school, Kirkland College, where he enrolled in a cinema class taught by a man named Nat Boxer, later the Academy-Award-winning song man for Apocalypse Now.
Some unhappy circumstances occurred back home during Keller’s freshman year.
“My father’s theater, the Glen Art (in Williamsville), burned to the ground. It was devastating for my family. Thankfully I got a very small, minor position with the communications office of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo.”
Keller’s work for the diocese included shooting photographs and making small films, some of them dramas about social issues that concerned the Church. The diocese allowed him to shoot some of the films while he was at college, some of which he turned into projects for Boxer’s class.
One of the films was to be on the topic of alcoholism and it involved an advertising executive. Keller was trying to find someone to play the lead when he spotted “a handsome guy who looked really slick” walking across campus. Keller says he approached the man and boldly asked him if he would like to star in a little film.
“You know,” said the man, “I might be interested in that. I did a little acting at Yale.”
The man was Sam Babbitt, the president of Kirkland College. Of greater importance to Keller’s career, Babbitt’s wife was Natalie Babbitt, who was working on a novel for children called Tuck Everlasting.
“I read Tuck Everlasting in galleys and brought it back to the Diocesan Communications Office. I said, ‘Would we ever consider doing a project like this?’ And son of a gun, they said, ‘Go ahead.’”
It took him five years to raise the funds for his independent film, Tuck Everlasting, based on Babbitt’s 1975 book. He co-wrote the script with Stratton Rawson and his father, who also starred in a lead role. The project heralded Keller’s arrival as a filmmaker. He wrote and directed a handful of other independent films, and has written and directed numerous television shows, including the Nickeloden sitcom Hey Dude; Columbo for ABC; New York Undercover and 24 on Fox; The Pretender, Boomtown, and Crisis on NBC; and Blue Bloods on CBS, among many others.
“Few filmmakers are as lucky as I’ve been,” Keller says. “You sort of have to believe you can do it and I think Park gave me that.
“I found Park in many ways to be a spiritual and very nurturing place for creative ideas. There was a respect for creativity and for taking chances. If anything, a filmmaker’s career is based on taking chances. I’m not sure I would have taken some of the ones I have had I not attended Park.
“I think of the tenderness of Helen Long; the eloquence of Raoul Hailpern; the strength of Bill Hoyt. These were such important figures in my life and I met them all at Park.”