Within approximately six minutes of welcoming a stranger into her sleekly appointed Chelsea penthouse, while graciously hanging a coat and ambling into the kitchen for two bottles of water, Sheila Nevins, documentary producer extraordinaire, has rifled through several current topics of interest, her mind serving them up like a lotto machine. First ball up: men who leave their wives late in life for other men. (“Can you imagine? He leaves for another woman, OK. You’re old, they’re young, their tits are up, yours are down. But this is a different body part. I think it’s fascinating.”) Second ball up: the recent hostage standoff at a synagogue in a Dallas suburb. (“Wouldn’t you love to do [a story] about the rabbi? Isn’t it incredible to think there’s somebody so smart that he was able to throw a chair at this guy?”) Third ball up: a recently shuttered Broadway musical called Flying Over Sunset, which imagines Aldous Huxley, Clare Boothe Luce, and Cary Grant doing LSD together. (“It was about what’s in your head. Things come to them that they had managed to suppress or put away. I thought it was great. Got horrible reviews.”) Nevins is consumed with stories — the drama of them, what they reveal about us — even the one you are reading right now. At one point well into our chat, she interrupts herself suddenly. “Wouldn’t it be great if I died tonight?” she muses, eyes widening. “Then you could say” — she pauses, stretching out her hand like she’s gesturing to a grand theater marquee — “ ‘The Last Interview.’ ” She lingers over the word “last,” gazing far out onto the horizon beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows of her apartment, over the west side of Manhattan and into a future where she has just died for the sake of my story. A satisfied grin unfolds over her face.
So it goes with Nevins, the 82-year-old superproducer who built HBO’s documentary division from the ground up in the early Eighties, and has done as much as filmmakers like D.A. Pennebaker and Errol Morris to advance the form. Over her 38 years with the network, she brought in, greenlit, and otherwise presided over more than 1,000 documentaries, from the Peeping Tom series Real Sex and Taxicab Confessions to weighty features like Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls, about the 1963 bombing of an Alabama church, and Laura Poitras’ Edward Snowden thriller, Citizenfour, bringing a high-low sensibility and raw entertainment value to a genre that had once been seen as dryly educational at best. Talking with Nevins in person, it all makes sense — the sheer range of her interests, the freight-train productivity. Her mind is as restless as it is capacious, her flair for the dramatic almost a bloodlust.
We’ve sat down on this gray January day to talk about Nevins’ life and career, for which the word “illustrious” may have been invented. But despite a body of work so heralded that HBO’s documentary trophy room — loaded with Emmys, Peabodys, Oscars, and more — has been dubbed the Holy Shrine of Sheila, Nevins insists that she is not successful. It quickly becomes apparent that this is no faux humility. (Worth noting: If her 32 individual Emmys — the most won by any one person — are anywhere in her home, they are not on display.) Like all truly ambitious people, she is not content to sit on a high perch of her own making and look down. “I’m always working,” she says. “Always thinking of something to do next.”
But there are other factors at play. Nevins’ 2017 exit from HBO was publicly positioned as a voluntary retirement, but the truth, which still stings, is that she was pushed out, a doyenne whose power came to be questioned and resented by the C-suite suits who signed her checks. She regrets that she didn’t see it — too laser-focused on her work, a little bit in denial. She regrets that she didn’t negotiate for a better package, like some of the men forced out before her reportedly got. She regrets maybe most of all that she never pushed decades earlier to just run the damn network herself.
“Why did these businesspeople and PR people run it?” she says, part apoplectic, part genuinely mystified. “Why didn’t I think I could do it? I’d been a dancer at [New York’s High School of] Performing Arts. I’d studied English at Barnard. Directing at Yale. I had all the fucking credentials that these schlemiels didn’t have. So why the hell didn’t I say ‘What about me’ when I was 45 or 50? There was no reason why I couldn’t have done that.”
It is somewhat startling to hear, given that Nevins is no stranger to a fight. She was legendary (and dreaded) within HBO’s halls as a fierce advocate for any project under her umbrella, and she is feisty by both nature and nurture. She grew up in New York’s East Village, the daughter of a Russian-immigrant father who ran numbers out of his job at the 33rd Street post office (he was known as “Benny P.O.”) and a card-carrying Communist mother she calls “the most difficult woman you can imagine.” Her father was in and out of jail, or off cavorting with his girlfriend, so aside from the occasional Dodgers game or trips to bail him out of the tombs, Nevins and her seven-years-younger sister, Vicki, rarely saw him. Her mother suffered from Raynaud’s disease and scleroderma, autoimmune conditions that caused her to lose her limbs (first an arm, then eventually both legs before her death from complications of those diseases at 57) and turned a teenage Sheila into her primary caretaker.
As a Jewish girl who grew up poor, Nevins stuck out among the blue-blood masses at Yale, where she pursued her MFA. She fell in love with a law student there; at her first family dinner at his house, his WASP mother cruelly told her to find one of her own kind, a message that fueled Nevins’ drive throughout her career. (There’s a poem about it in her 2017 memoir, You Don’t Look Your Age and Other Fairy Tales. It reads, in part: “Every trophy was for her. Every yes to me was a slap in her face.”)
Her toughness got her through the “frat house” culture of HBO’s infancy, as it’s described by a former executive in Tinder Box, James Andrew Miller’s gossip-filled tome about the network’s explosive rise. But her workplace MO was less about trying to out-man the men than outfox them. When they interrupted or talked over her, she talked louder. When the room got tense, she cracked a joke. And when she needed money for one of her movies, “I would come back until I annoyed people to death at what I wanted,” she says. “I was a lie-in-wait person. I had deals with secretaries, who are always women. ‘When is he free? What mood is he in? What are his appointments? What time is he leaving?’ If you want something, it’s always good to be there 10 minutes before somebody’s leaving, he’s going to want to get out and say yes just to get rid of me. And it doesn’t matter, because their budget is 150 million and you want one. So they’ll say, ‘OK, do it. Yeah, go ahead. Sure.’ ”
“But at some point,” she adds. “I stopped asking. I just did it.”
In an era before that, Nevins wasn’t above the colder calculations made by many women to get, well, not ahead, but anywhere. She’s spoken and written openly about sleeping with the “big boss” at her first TV job in order to secure a spot as a P.A. on a film. She credits that project with launching her career, as it led her to work with a producer who brought her to PBS, and then CBS News, before she was poached for HBO. Asked if she feels sad that sex was the only route back then to a job she wanted, she practically howls, tossing back her perfect blond-gray bob, “No! Had I not gone in on that snow day and had I not fucked him in that chair … It meant nothing to me. Nothing. Zero.” In some ways, she appreciated that the boundaries were clearer then. She says the moment she knew CBS News was going to let her stick around was when 60 Minutes producer Don Hewitt came up behind her, lifted up her hair to tickle her neck, and told her, “You’re cute.”
“I’m sure today I would feel sad about a lot of things,” she says. “I’d feel sad for being whistled at. I’d feel sad for being attractive. But I didn’t feel it then, no. I didn’t suffer that. I suffered my mother’s disease. I suffered not having money. I suffered people’s poverty and sadness. No man ever made me suffer except the one who broke my heart.”
This is the Sheila Nevins who takes you by surprise. For all of her brass-tacks pragmatism and hard-won wisdom, for every battle she’s weathered and gut-check she’s passed, Nevins’ raw feelings are right on the surface. She doesn’t hold grudges; she nurses open wounds. Her unceremonious departure from HBO — there was no fanfare, no thank-you from the management; she went in on the Friday after Thanksgiving and packed her desk alone — was a crushing blow made all the worse when no one checked in on her after she left. For six months, she says, she didn’t get out of bed, and her phone barely rang: “Everybody that I had worked for, that had sucked up to me on the rooftop of the Peninsula, all the bullshitters, they weren’t there. When you leave a job and you have a lot of power, suddenly you lose a lot of friends. They may not have ever been friends, but they liked you because you could give them something. So I learned a lot in that year about people.” This is what she cares about more than any sexism she faced along the way, more than any amount of money she could have rightfully walked away with at the end. “The real hurt in the workplace is an emotional hurt, not a physical hurt,” she says. “You can pinch my ass as much as you want, but if you hurt my gut, I won’t recover it from it.”
It is also what drives that nagging feeling that she’s not truly successful. Early in her career, she was pushed to be on camera (“I was cursed by being good-looking,” she says), but she had no interest. Her ambition was never to be the center of a story but to be a puppeteer. She wanted to be recognized by her peers as the one pulling the strings — and not just the purse strings. “It’s knowing that I thought of that ending. Or I thought of that cut there,” she says. “I wanted to get credit for what I had really done.”
It’s nearly 5 p.m., the January sun about to set, when Nevins’ husband of almost 50 years, Sidney Koch, shuffles in with a takeout steak for his bride. Bogie, their Bichon-ish mixed-breed rescue in his umpteenth year of life, has stretched out against my hip on the black leather chair we’ve been sharing, a subtle nudge to please give his seat back. We’re winding down, but Nevins’ day is still going. In a few minutes she has a Zoom meeting.
About a year into her “retirement,” Nevins did get a call, not from an old friend but a new one. Chris McCarthy, the president of MTV Entertainment, wanted to hire her to run its documentary division. Since signing on, she’s brought in no fewer than four Oscar-hopeful films, two of which (the shorts Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker and Lynching Postcards) have already been shortlisted.
Nevins was skeptical the day she took McCarthy’s call. She asked why he wanted her, when, in her words, “I could be your great-grandmother.” He replied, “Your shows helped me be gay.” Her eyes soften as she recalls the moment. “That was the nicest thing anyone had said to me in 50 years of working,” she says. “I’ve not really seen him since then. I thought that he would not be able to leave me and I would not be able to leave him. But, you know, corporate worlds. Nonetheless, we did have an emotional moment. A corporate emotional moment is to be treasured, like winning the lottery. And they hired me.”
For the second time, she unfurls a Cheshire grin. Sheila Nevins won’t die tonight, not even close. She’ll keep working as long as there are stories to tell.