In a casita just outside Albuquerque, N.M., Douglas Wood is miles away from Evanston, but never far from the memories of his days at ETHS, where a trio of talented teachers ignited the creative spark that set him on a path for success in the entertainment industry. 

Recently retired, the 1975 graduate has worked as an actor, script writer, film executive and novelist. He has shared the stage with John Malkovich, starred with Smokey Robinson in a hit musical variety series, teamed up with Steven Spielberg in an animation lab and ridden horses through Yellowstone with media mogul Ted Turner.

Douglas Wood, who retired recently from full-time work, teaches a class in improv at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Credit: Submitted

Six months ago, Wood left Los Angeles behind and now lives with his wife and two cats, Maisie and Olive, in the tiny village of Corrales, N.M., where the earthy ambiance, artistic aesthetic and snail-slow pace provide a welcome respite.

Understated and unassuming, the award-winning entertainer exhibits a balanced perspective and attributes much of his good fortune to the groundwork laid by his high school instructors.

“I had three teachers who really inspired me,” said Wood. He credits Naomi Brodkey, Marion Smith and Janet Bauer for his deep appreciation of the written word. “They had a unique way of making literature fun and really exposed me to a lot of things I wouldn’t have read otherwise.” 

By sophomore year Wood said he was determined to become a writer, but his focus shifted to acting junior year when he discovered YAMO, the annual student-produced variety show, and became hooked on performing. Wood chuckled as he recalled one of his favorite skits, “Fiddler on the Hoof,” and its bizarre pairing of Jewish tradition and western motifs. “YAMO is just an amazing outlet for kids to be creative,” he said.

As a senior, Wood was awarded a full scholarship to Illinois State University. He headed to Normal to study directing and later acting but soon became impatient with the classroom setting and eager to press fast forward on his career. “At that age you don’t think of practicalities,” he said. “My parents weren’t thrilled when I decided to drop out of college after only two years.”

To London and on to Hollywood

For the next phase of his training, Wood set his sights on a dramatic arts academy in London, but he lacked the resources to enroll. Leaving the cornfields behind, the aspiring actor moved back home and went to work at the Firehouse Restaurant on Chicago Avenue.

Wood and stage partner Cheryl Rhoads performed as the Fine Line Duo in clubs around Chicago before moving to Los Angeles in 1985. Credit: Submitted

Wood admits that his performance in the role of waiter was not a triumph. He recalled serving one surprised patron a tureen of mushroom gravy instead of the soup he had ordered. Though tips were commensurately meager, Wood managed to save enough money to travel overseas for a year of formal instruction. 

After London, Wood returned to Chicago and took improv classes at the Players Workshop of The Second City. There he met Cheryl Rhoads who would become his long-time performing partner in the Fine Line Comedy Duo. Though the two had radically different temperaments and political philosophies, Wood said their on-stage chemistry was compelling. Encouraged by their instructor, he and Rhoads decided to team up. 

Actor and Evanston resident Ann Whitney, who is also the sister of McLean Stevenson, pictured here with Wood. Credit: Submitted

“We put together a few skits and performed them at this dive bar called Sylvester’s on Lincoln Avenue.” said Wood. “We kind of took off, much to our own surprise.” After stints at local comedy clubs and a nine-month run at the Ruth Page Theater, Wood earned a Jeff Award for his performance and felt confident enough to take the show to Los Angeles.

Friend and fellow actor Ann Whitney connected the newly transplanted Wood with her brother, McLean Stevenson.

The veteran actor and M*A*S*H star went to see the Fine Line Duo perform at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. Stevenson was so impressed he sent his agent the next night and the following day Wood and Rhoads signed with the prestigious William Morris Agency.

McLean Stevenson, Rhoads and Wood with McLean’s daughter, Lindsey. Credit: Ginny Fosdick.

Heady days followed. Wood marveled at the speed of his success. “At that point I thought, ‘Wow, this is really easy. You just move to L.A., and you get work immediately.’” Having an agent opened doors he never imagined. “William Morris got us a gig on The Merv Griffin Show the following week, and Orson Welles was on the show,” said Wood. “My second week in Hollywood I met Orson Welles.” 

The year was 1985 and the viewing choices for the American public included formulaic programs such as MacGyver, The Golden Girls and Growing Pains, but limited-run variety shows were also rising in popularity.

After their second appearance on Merv Griffin, Wood and Rhoads were cast in the NBC series The Motown Revue Starring Smokey Robinson, where they served as staff writers as well as performers, working with a host of legendary entertainment icons including Ray Charles, Dean Martin and Pee Wee Herman.

Singer Chaka Khan, shown here with Douglas Wood, when she was a guest on the Motown Revue.

From the highs to the lows

On screen Wood and Rhoads were thriving, but behind the scenes tensions were growing between the mismatched pair. They made the difficult decision to split up and Wood suddenly found himself in less demand. Offers for work became few and far between.

Wood and Jane Fonda at Ted Turner’s Montana ranch. Credit: Submitted

“When we broke up the act,” he said, “I was just another anonymous actor in Los Angeles with a thousand other actors. After that my career took a different, downhill path.”

For two years Wood worked in a series of temp jobs, as he struggled to find a new foothold. “It was very humbling to go from the Motown Revue, where I was making more money than I had in my entire life, to getting paid minimum wage,” Wood said. “Maybe everyone needs to go through a period like that.”

Wood’s luck changed when he landed a freelance job reading scripts for Amblin Entertainment, the film production company founded by Steven Spielberg. His theater background made him ideally suited to spotting promising stories and before long Amblin offered him a full-time position.

Eventually he became executive director for Steven Spielberg Presents Tiny Toon Adventures and went on to oversee the popular animated series Animaniacs.

Before long, Wood said he became pegged as an animation person. “I didn’t have a particular passion for family entertainment,” he said. “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.” When DreamWorks acquired Amblin, Wood moved on to Turner Pictures and later Warner Bros., where he helped develop the animated feature film Iron Giant.

Although working as an entertainment executive meant prestige and reliable compensation, Wood said he always missed writing.

In 2005 he returned to his craft, creating a show called Little Einsteins for Disney and penning a Scooby Doo DVD movie. Those projects laid the groundwork for him to serve as story editor for various children’s programs including Bob the Builder and Molly of Denali, which earned a Peabody Award.

Most recently he was the showrunner for Duck & Goose, an Apple TV+ show based on Tad Hills’ beloved picture books.

Wood does not have children of his own but is a devoted uncle to several nieces and nephews who have inspired him through the years. “When you write for children you really do put yourself in their mind space, and it’s very liberating and fun.”

Returning to writing

In 2011 Wood took a break from children’s entertainment to co-write with Maureen Kelly the short film Hi, Lillian, which is based on his experiences as a volunteer improv teacher to senior citizens. In 2013 Wood wrote, directed and produced another short film, Entanglement, an edgy comedy-drama focusing on a multi-generational love triangle. Both award-winning projects played at film festivals across the country.

Wood’s novel, Ladies Of The Canyon. Credit: Submitted

“Those films I was very proud of,” said Wood. “I could just express myself creatively without anyone overseeing me, which meant if they were successful, I got all the credit and if they failed, I would get the credit as well.”

In 2020 Wood released his first novel, Ladies of the Canyon, another decided departure from the childish realm. In this suspenseful psychological thriller, readers follow the story of two child actors gone bad as they struggle with their addictions against the backdrop of a toxic friendship. Rick Kogan of the Chicago Tribune called the debut work “polished and powerful” and “filled with wild-at-heart characters.” 

Wood said writing the novel was a welcome creative release. “I have a very dark sensibility to begin with. I think after working for kids for so long, I had this other side of my personality that needed to express itself.”

Nancy McLaughlin

Nancy McLaughlin is an Evanston-based freelance writer who has a fascination for the everyday events that shape our community in extraordinary ways. She covers human interest stories for the RoundTable.

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  1. Thank you for the accurate and well-written profile on my very talented little brother. You perfectly captured his personality. Hope you get to meet him one day; he’s very funny, as you can imagine. 😉