When Mark Hefti was growing up in Onalaska’s Mayfair Addition, his mother, Mary, thought he might be a child psychologist. Even in elementary school, other kids would turn to him for advice when they got in a jam.
“He was kind of the go-to guy if you needed a pick me up,” she said in a phone interview from her home in the town of Burns, where she and Mark’s father, Gary, have lived for about 11 years.
Aside from the empathetic, good listening side of her son, there was another side. He loved making people laugh.
“When he was little, he used to perform for family members when we’d get together, just doing a little dance or singing a song,” she said. “He always had his feet going, always had his mouth going.”
So when Hefti grew up to be first a stage actor and then a movie actor, producer and screenwriter, it was totally in character for him.
But a lot of — probably even most — precociously entertaining kids grow up and go into “normal” lines of work. For the ones who go into show business, there’s usually a turning point, a lucky break that makes it possible to pursue the dream.
For Mark Hefti, the turning point came one bitterly cold day when he was a junior at the University of Minnesota. He graduated from Onalaska High School in 1993, and though his college studies focused largely on sociology and psychology, he still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life. Law school, maybe?
On that frigid day, Hefti ducked into a building to warm up. To occupy himself as the feeling returned to his extremities, he browsed through some brochures. One about a national college exchange program caught his eye.
This program offered the chance to attend college for a year in other states. Hefti’s discovery came late in the game, though, and as he asked questions about the program he discovered that there only 10 schools had any openings left. He looked down the list of colleges available and there it was.
The dream begins
In high school, Hefti played on the Hilltoppers basketball team that won the state championship in 1992. But he also found time to perform with the show choir, fulfilling a desire to be on stage first sparked when he got a part in the La Crosse Community Theatre production of “The King and I” as a middle school student.
“He had more energy than 10 people,” said Paul Gulsvig, who was Onalaska High School choral director for 28 years before retiring in 2006. “He was an absolute magnificent performer, and he loved the challenge of learning the choreography. He loved performing it. He was a showman. He wanted people’s attention.”
So when Hefti got to the University of Hawaii, it was only natural that he’d be on the lookout for a way to get on stage. He landed a part in a production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
So did Frederic Lumiere, a native of France with an eye on a career in filmmaking. On the first day of rehearsals, Lumiere was struck by how friendly and funny Hefti was.
“He made everyone laugh from minute one,” Lumiere said. “He was also incredibly fast at adapting. ... I was convinced he was a professional dancer, but he wasn’t. In fact, he just imitated people around him in real time — quite amazing really.”
One day after rehearsal, Hefti asked if anyone could give him a ride home and Lumiere volunteered. The two have been fast friends ever since, with Hefti standing up at Lumiere’s wedding as his best man.
They also have been frequent partners in making movies, starting with 1999’s “Amazing Journey,” Lumiere’s directorial debut. The documentary offered an in-depth behind-the-scenes look at a production in Hawaii of the Who’s musical, “Tommy.” Hefti had completed his studies in Hawaii and returned to the Midwest but was asked to go back to Hawaii to perform the title role in the show.
“It really re-sparked that love I always had for performing,” Hefti said by phone from Los Angeles.
Energized by the successful run of “Tommy” in Hawaii, Hefti returned to Minnesota and soon was on a nationwide tour of “Schoolhouse Rock,” the stage production based on ABC’s educational TV spots from the 1970s.
During that tour, Hefti developed an interest in screenwriting and started studying up on the subject in his free time between shows. “That was sort of my film school,” Hefti said. “I’ve always been under the notion that the best teacher is doing.”
He got his first chance to do screenwriting on, “Six String Man,” a documentary project Lumiere was shooting in San Francisco about a homeless street musician.
While in San Francisco, he landed a role in “Beach Blanket Babylon,” a show that has been running sold-out shows every night for 35 years, Hefti said. In addition to performing in “Beach Blanket Babylon,” Hefti also started doing some work in television, landing commercials and small parts in TV shows, including “Nash Bridges.”
Hefti left San Francisco for Los Angeles and within two weeks landed in a San Jose production of “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.” Other highlights of his stage career include a six-month tour of Europe with a production of the musical “Hair.”
By the time he hit L.A., Hefti already had learned well that to survive in show business, you have to always be scrambling, taking whatever work you can find, whether it’s doing cartoon voices for a children’s DVD, picking casts for TV shows and films, serving as master of ceremonies for a Japanese food festival, teaching acting classes for recent Japanese immigrants, performing in superhero costumes at children’s parties, many of them hosted by well-known show business people or providing the voice of a young World War II Army private in the History Channel’s recent series, “WWII in HD.”
“You always have to be constantly looking for your next gig,” Hefti said. “If I really told you all the things going on ... it’s crazy. The things you experience, it’s really surreal compared with a nine-to-five job.”
So far, Hefti has had major acting roles in seven independent movie releases, six released from 2004-06 and one — an Australian science-fiction movie called “Ektopos — due to be released late this year or in early 2010.
On four of the movies, Hefti has writing credits, and he is credited as some form of producer in four films. As much as Hefti loves performing, screenwriting and producing movies is where he sees his career heading from here.
Hefti both wrote and starred in “Tomorrow is Today,” a 2006 drama directed by Lumiere that won more than a dozen film festival awards, including a best actor award for Hefti at a festival in Thailand. The movie recently was released on DVD, available through the Filmbaby.com Web site.
In “Tomorrow is Today,” Hefti plays a homeless former Major League baseball player whose life has been turned upside down by the death of his pregnant wife. He holds himself responsible and has designs on a watery death on the Jersey shore.
A teenage girl (played by Scout Compton-Taylor) comes to his rescue, though, much to his dismay. She saves his life, giving him CPR after his attempted drowning, but she also instills in him the will to live again.
Hefti’s script throws in a plot twist that will result in a lot of watery eyes and lumps in throats. It also has a police chief named Tim Berg, a nod to a fellow OHS graduate whose dream was always to be a police officer and is now a sergeant with the Onalaska Police Department.
The process of filming “Tomorrow is Today” was draining for Hefti. On top of his acting work, he also was constantly tinkering with the script. He figures he didn’t sleep the whole time they were filming the movie on location in New Jersey.
His future writing projects won’t necessarily include plum parts for himself, he said. His script for “Broken Doll,” an urban drama set in L.A., for example, doesn’t include a part for him. “I didn’t want it to be my thing where I was in everyting I wrote,” he said. “I’m not ego driven, I’m creatively driven.”
Hefti has completed another script, “The Blue Torch,” inspired by his experiences entertaining at kids parties. The hero in “The Blue Torch” dresses as a superhero for kids’ parties and finds a way to summon his own inner superhero when trouble comes calling.
“The theme is you are who you believe you are,” said Hefti, who noted the script has got some good “buzz” going in movie business circles. “I honestly do believe we all have so much potential to do a lot of great things. Sometimes it takes somebody believing in us or believing in ourselves or believing in a higher power to release our inner superhero.”
As hard as it can be sometimes — and Hefti said it can be a real struggle — Hefti can’t see himself doing anything else. He’s got the advantage of a solid Midwestern upbringing and supportive parents who have stuck with him and helped him avoid the traps that take down so many others in show business.
He has rubbed elbows with his share of the Hollywood elite, but his eyes aren’t dazzled by the starpower. “People are people, and I realize we’re all just fighting to be happy,” he said.
Still, it’s hard not to find it just a bit surreal looking back, he said, to be sitting there watching a sneak preview of an as-yet unreleased movie and talking about favorite kinds of movie candy with Warren Beatty and Rob Lowe.
Hefti doesn’t want people getting the wrong idea about the entertainment industry, though. It’s not even close to as glamorous as most people think. “It’s a tough, tough business,” he said.
Still, he added, “I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. I get to be creative every single day of my life, and I’m very, very thankful I get to be doing what I love.”
To Gulsvig, Hefti is doing what he was destined to do, and he has the perfect temperament to do it. Hefti is in the entertainment business not because he wants to heap glory on himself, but because he wants to make other people happy.
“He came from such a great family structure that his core values were all about doing it for others,” Gulsvig said. “He didn’t have that arrogance about him.“
Hefti is also not the calculating type, Gulsvig said, not about seeing every interaction as a way to advance his career.
“He has such a need to experience joy in the moment, so he doesn’t see himself with a long-term plan,” Gulsvig said. “He doesn’t see himself 10 years from now wanting to be a movie producer. He wants to develop his current creativity and just thrives in what shows up.“
Hefti might tend to be in the moment more often than not, but he does get the big picture, too, looking ahead to a day when he’ll have the wherewithal to come back to the Coulee Region to make a movie.
“One of my goals is to do a film back home,” Hefti said. “The further along I’m getting as far as being a producer and having juice in my career, I’m going to be able to do things like that. I can’t wait. I think it’d be so fun to do that.”