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Mountaineers in the Movies

As Hollywood gears up for its biggest night of the year (the Academy Awards on Feb. 26), this installment of "The List" may leave you star-struck by the scores of West Virginia University alumni and former students working in film. 

WVU even has connections to this year's Oscars. Up for Best Picture is the biographical drama "Hidden Figures," which tells the story of three black female mathematicians who calculated flight trajectories for groundbreaking space projects like sending the first American into space and later flights to the moon. 

Katherine Johnson, the first black woman to desegregate graduate studies at WVU, led that effort. 

And there's one alumnus (whom you'll read about below) who played a part on the visual effects team for "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," which nabbed an Oscar nomination for visual effects. 

These certainly aren't WVU's only links to the big screen. From center stage to behind the scenes, our alumni have shined in the movie industry. Here's your ticket to some examples. 

Chris Sarandon

You probably know him best as Prince Humperdinck in "The Princess Bride" or the voice of Jack Skellington in "The Nightmare Before Christmas." His IMDb biography says he's "played everything from vampires to Jesus Christ in magnetic performances." And he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in "Dog Day Afternoon." 

Chris Sarandon was born in Beckley, W.Va., in 1942 and graduated from WVU with a bachelor of fine arts in 1964. 

Despite his rise to fame, Sarandon never forgot his roots. Over the years, he has returned to WVU to present staged readings and conduct workshops for students. 

“This is the place that formed me, and yet it was the beginning of a profound metamorphosis in a way in that I was ready to go out into the world. And that’s what this place did,” Sarandon said.

John Russo

This Pittsburgh-area native gave life to death. 

John Russo, BS '61, English Education, co-wrote "Night of the Living Dead," the 1968 horror classic and genesis of the zombie genre. 

Russo worked on the film with legendary director George Romero, and you can credit Russo with concocting the not-so-dignified characteristics of zombies – they rise from the dead to seek human flesh. 

Since then, he has written, produced or directed more than 20 films. Read our Q&A with him from 2015

Antoine Fuqua

The name Antoine Fuqua probably doesn't ring a bell for any WVU basketball diehards out there. 

The 6-foot point guard came to WVU on a basketball scholarship and to study electrical engineering in the 1980s. 

But he's not known for basketball or engineering. 

Rather, as an ESPN article put it, he's like "the Phil Jackson of Hollywood."

As a director and producer, Fuqua has coached some of Tinseltown's finest from Denzel Washington ("Training Day," "The Equalizer," "The Magnificent Seven") to Bruce Willis ("Tears of the Sun").

Conchata Ferrell


Photo courtesy of CBS

Born in Charleston, W.Va., Conchata Ferrell has earned two Primetime Emmys for her role as Berta the housekeeper on "Two and a Half Men."

She attended WVU but later graduated from Marshall University (which we'll forgive her for) with a degree in social studies in education. 

Before becoming a household name on the small screen, Ferrell made a splash for herself as a supporting actress in films such as "Mystic Pizza," "Edward Scissorhands," "Erin Brockovich" and "Mr. Deeds."

David Selby


Another Mountaineer who made his name primarily as a TV star ("Falcon Crest," "Flamingo Road") also appeared in several films. 

Morgantown's own David Selby earned both his bachelor's and master's degrees at WVU. His film credits include "The Social Network" and as the voice of Commissioner Gordon in the animated "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns." 

In 1998, he received the first Life Achievement Award from WVU's College of Creative Arts. 

Jay Chattaway 

This Mountaineer Marching Band alumnus was also a force behind the television industry, particularly as a composer for the Star Trek television franchise. He'd even won an Emmy for composing the score of the series finale of "Star Trek: Voyager." 

But Jay Chattaway has worked on his share of films, too. On his list are Chuck Norris flicks "Missing in Action" and "Braddock: Missing in Action III," and slasher cult classic "Maniac." 

Chattaway, on a music scholarship, graduated from WVU with his bachelor's and master's degrees. In 2013, he donated sheet music he composed for Star Trek to the University Libraries. 

Paul Dooley  


Paul Dooley's resume includes playing on-screen dad to the likes of Molly Ringwald ("Sixteen Candles"), Helen Hunt ("Mad About You") and Julia Roberts ("Runaway Bride"). 

Younger audiences may pick up on his voice – he's Sarge in Disney's "Cars" movies.

The Parkersburg, W.Va., native's roles in entertainment have been wide-ranging, as he co-created groundbreaking children's show "The Electric Company" and has worked as a cartoonist, magician, clown and standup comic tryin' to make a dollar. 

Dooley, BA '52, Speech and Drama, has also appeared in the films "Popeye" and "Breaking Away."

Cheryl Hines 

We'll try to claim Cheryl Hines, too, because she attended WVU but graduated from the University of Central Florida. 

Hines is mostly recognized as Larry David's wife Cheryl on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," though she's had a few major film roles co-starring opposite Robin Williams in "RV" and as a waitress in … wait for it …"Waitress" with Keri Russell. 

Tim Mueller


As a digital matte artist, Tim Mueller, BFA '00, Graphic Design, has crafted unreal worlds for several major motion picture blockbusters. Through computer graphics, he produces backdrops, from lush forests to otherworldly planets, for movies and TV shows that would otherwise be impossible to film.

He's worked on films including "Avatar," "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" and "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story." 

Don Knotts

Don Knotts
How could this list be complete without Morgantown's favorite son and America's favorite bumbling deputy?

Although we tend to picture Barney Fife at the mere mention of Don Knotts, the comedic actor's presence in film is vastly underrated. 

He starred in "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken," "The Apple Dumpling Gang" and "The Incredible Mr. Limpet," in which he famously voiced a talking fish for much of the film. 

Knotts earned his bachelor's degree in education with a minor in speech at WVU in 1948. A statue honoring him was unveiled in the summer of 2016 in front of the Metropolitan Theatre on High Street in Morgantown. 

Alright, alright, alright

Alright Alright Alright

Matthew McConaughey must have a thing for West Virginia football as much as he does for Lincoln cars. 

Two of his major motion pictures have had ties to Mountaineer pigskin. 

The more obvious of the two is the 2006 biopic "We Are Marshall," which chronicles the 1970 Marshall University plane crash that killed 37 football players along with several coaches and staff members. McConaughey played Marshall head coach Jack Lengyel, who rebuilds the team from the tragedy. The Mountaineers and then-head coach Bobby Bowden are depicted in the film. 

More than a decade later, McConaughey tapped back into the Mountain State for inspiration. For his latest movie "Gold," McConaughey credits WVU football coach Dana Holgorsen's hair for his look. 

He told the Austin American-Statesman, "I haven't told anyone else this. I went to the hair lady, said, 'It's this guy's hair,' and handed her a picture of Dana Holgorsen."

Holgorsen's frazzled mane is often the butt of jokes, especially as it warps and takes on new forms as a result of the weather or just his downright intensity on the sidelines. 

But one of the world's sexiest studs asked for Holgs' hairdo. Who's laughing now?

Also, our friends over at The Smoking Musket have pitched the perfect sequel to McConaughey's "Gold."

Gold and Blue

Illustration courtesy of Michael Miller/The Smoking Musket

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