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Arts & Entertainment

The Alum behind National Geographic’s Genius

Sam Sokolow (COM’91) grew up in the business


Hollywood producer Sam Sokolow grew up in Manhattan, where his parents worked in the film and publishing worlds. Summers meant the Hamptons and playing in a celebrity-studded summer softball league on Long Island with literary lights whose names meant nothing to young Sam.

“To me they were just my parents’ friends who played softball,” Sokolow (COM’91) says with a laugh. “When I was 10 years old, they let me pitch in this game, and my catcher was Carl Bernstein. And we went into the dugout and I said to him, ‘Carl, what is it that you do?’ This was like five years after Watergate.”

Eventually, Sokolow moved to shortstop and began turning double plays with second baseman Walter Isaacson. That name didn’t mean any more than Bernstein’s, but Isaacson, now president and CEO of the nonpartisan Aspen Institute, was a veteran Time journalist who became a best-selling biographer (Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Kissinger: A Biography). Decades later, Sokolow’s company, EUE/Sokolow Entertainment, coproduced a screen adaptation of Isaacson’s 2008 book, Einstein: His Life and Universe.

The result is Genius, the National Geographic TV channel’s first scripted series, which airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. Oscar, Emmy, and Tony winner Geoffrey Rush plays a decidedly flawed, human Einstein, with Emily Watson as Einstein’s first wife and Johnny Flynn as the younger Einstein. Ron Howard directed the first episode, and Howard’s Imagine Entertainment is one of the companies behind the series, which was filmed in Prague. (Imagine will produce future seasons about other geniuses.) Genius has garnered largely positive reviews. New York Times critic Neil Genzlinger calls it “a skillfully acted, richly detailed historical show.” And from The Guardian: “a sassy, robust ride: whiplash-smart and littered with imaginative visual connections.”

Before Genius, Sokolow’s career included stints in TV commercial production and the independent film world, game shows, and series development. He quit his last day job in 1997; Genius premiered exactly 20 years later.

“You have to fight through so many things to do this for a living,” Sokolow says. “I think to do this for a living, the most critical quality to have isn’t vision, ability, relationships, and all that, but the intestinal fortitude to keep doing it.”

BU Today spoke with Sokolow about his latest project and how his training at BU helped him launch his television career.

Sam Sokolow with <em>Einstein</em> biographer Walter Isaacson at a premiere lunch for <em>Genius</em> at the Rainbow Room in Manhattan.

Sokolow and Einstein biographer Walter Isaacson at a premiere lunch for Genius at the Rainbow Room in Manhattan.

BU Today: So you knew Walter Isaacson, but that didn’t really affect the deal?

Sokolow: It was kind of a coincidence that I had such a close relationship with Walter. I am partners in EUE/Sokolow with brothers Jeff Cooney and Chris Cooney (CAS’83). It’s a small independent production company. Chris and Jeff owned Walter’s book in partnership with OddLot Entertainment, another production company. They were originally trying to sell it as a feature film, and I said that I really believe this is a 10-hour television event. Einstein’s life is so sweeping, so fascinating and volatile, set against two world wars. Trying to tell a story like that in two hours? And you have to go through so much to get to Princeton and the bomb and what Geoffrey Rush calls the “Einstein emoji”—the Einstein everyone knows. And they said OK, let’s make a run at a TV version of this.

They say success has many parents, and this project does. But mine was the very, very initial spark of the idea of telling a 10-hour version of Einstein’s life, one that delves into his personal relationships with women, the first young lady he intended to marry and then the woman he actually did marry that his mother didn’t approve of, who he eventually leaves, and then his second wife, who was also his first cousin—all of these things happen in his life before the Nobel prize. Well, actually, he didn’t marry his second wife until after the prize. He used the money in his divorce. We just knew we wanted to tell the story for television, and that these dramatic beats would be crucial. That was my initial contribution.

OddLot knew of Noah Pink, a writer based out of Toronto, and he wrote a pilot script and an outline for the 10 episodes, and that is what ultimately got into Imagine Entertainment. Ron Howard apparently is obsessed with Einstein and had wanted to do something about him for many years. And he agreed to direct. Once he said yes, the machine started working in our favor.

I happened to be at an event in Las Vegas that Walter was at, and I knew that Ron had come on, but it hadn’t been announced yet. And Walter wasn’t aware of all that I had been doing, and I whispered to him, “I’ve been working for you behind your back, and it’s about to happen,” and he was thrilled. We’re all very proud of the work that has happened.

I understand that you credit your college experience with helping you get started. And also, you’re involved with the BU in LA program now.

One reason I chose BU was that it was one of the few schools that lets you start shooting stuff freshman year. That was critical in my decision to come here. I always knew in my heart that this was what I wanted to do for a living, and I wanted my college experience to include as much work as I could put into it. I didn’t need to go to NYU, USC, or UCLA. At those you had to do two years of curriculum before you could start making films. I was more interested in getting my hands on a camera. And BU allowed that right out of the gate, and I just loved that.

After Ron Howard and the rest took over, were you involved in production?

We gave notes on the script and so forth. I went to Prague in November. You talk about a dream come true—to be able to sit there as an executive producer watching Ron Howard direct Geoffrey Rush and feel so critical to the process and such a sense of accomplishment for our company to be a part of this. Ultimately, producing is putting talented people in the position to do the best work they can do, the things that excite them. To develop this and see Ron and Geoffrey get this excited, and to get over to Prague and see Einstein come alive right in front of me, that was really special.

What’s it like, having this success after 20 years?

About a month ago, my mom was having lunch with someone—they didn’t know I’m an executive producer—and they brought up the show and said, ‘That’s the hottest show. I want to know more about that show.’ And I told my mom, that comment makes up for my not going to law school.

Your mother is still involved in the business, right?

My father, Mel, was a literary agent and independent producer, and he and my mom, Diane, had a production company together, the Sokolow Company. My father passed away 25 years ago, but my mom is still running the company. She has a deal with Sony Television, and last year she executive-produced a lesbian vampire movie with James Franco for Lifetime. I don’t know what your mom did last summer, but…

Chapter one of Genius ran on National Geographic on April 25, 2017; chapter six airs tonight, Tuesday, May 30, at 9 p.m.

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Joel Brown, Staff Writer for BU Today, Bostonia and BU Today Marketing & Communications
Joel Brown

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@bu.edu.

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