By Margaret Fuller Hayden
May 3, 2017: According to '76 Bronxville grad Jeff Cooney, he excelled as an athlete but was a "terrible" high school student. Cooney is now bringing a longtime aspiration to life as an executive producer of the National Geographic series Genius, working alongside Academy Award winners Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, with Geoffrey Rush playing (the older) Albert Einstein. For someone who claims he once wouldn't have known the difference between E=mc2 and the Bronxville zip code, he has come a long way. Cooney said that the show actually makes this equation "easy for kids and adults who snoozed through physics to finally understand."
The ten-part series premiered on Tuesday, April 25, on the National Geographic channel. The longer format allows the viewer to "delve pretty deeply into the dramas and relationships," said Cooney, and facilitates taking a nonlinear narrative approach to Einstein's life, set against two world wars, the rise of Nazism, and the Red Scare. "In a movie, you don't have that luxury; you have two and a half hours. You're missing essential parts of his life that only a television format like this can give you." Cooney said that in the making of the series, he and writer Noah Pink had in the back of their minds what is happening in Europe today. "It is a cautionary tale," said Cooney.
Cooney's involvement in the production business goes back to the Mad Men era, as he describes it. Growing up in Bronxville, he was an actor in television commercials at age seven, along with his three siblings. (One of them, Chris, is also an executive producer of Genius.) Their mother, Cynthia, "effectively managed us, taught us how to be pros. All the while, my dad, George, was in production of commercials [found] in the advertising hall of fame." These include the Keep America Beautiful commercial featuring a Native American and the I Love NY commercial featuring the casts of Cats.
At Holy Cross, where he lettered in football as a receiver and majored in English, Cooney started directing local political ads and proceeded to direct commercials for the next 30 years. "It was wonderful and I loved it. I shot everything from Coca-Cola to UPS. But as TV was entering a new gilded age, it was time to move on."
In the midst of devoting his talents to commercial production, Cooney discovered a subject for which he had tremendous passion. It was also something he described as his "way to exit the 60-second storytelling discipline and move to long form." That subject? Albert Einstein.
"There was a book called Einstein's Dreams written from the stream-of-consciousness point of view of what Einstein might have been thinking as he was developing his theories and living in Switzerland. The person next to Einstein thinks he's gazing at the Alps, but he's really looking to space."
Thus began what Cooney characterized as a Homeric process, which involved acquiring the rights to former Bronxvillian Walter Isaacson's biographical book Einstein: His Life and Universe, upon which Genius is based. The project was ten years in the making.
Jeff and his brother Chris set about creating an indie boutique studio, "a company that creates premium shows designed to support the artist's vision." Chris went on to run the commercial company EUE/Screengems with their father, while Jeff, along with Noah Pink, partnered with fellow producer Sam Sokolow on EUE/Sokolow Entertainment, which developed the script that would become Genius. When they took the script to Imagine Entertainment, Ron Howard loved it and wanted to move on it right away. ("He just flipped," Jeff recalled.) Ron's partner, Brian Grazer, thought of the series format, and National Geographic swiftly jumped on board.
All ten episodes were shot in Prague, using set extensions and computer graphics to get around "cheating" Prague for Berlin or Zurich or Munich, Cooney explained. His admiration for Ron Howard couldn't be stronger: "The show will explain everything through dazzling special effects that he's so good at. He is the maestro, an amazing storyteller. His camera placement is uncanny, as well as his ability to work with a huge cast."
In addition to Geoffrey Rush as (the older) Einstein, the credits boast Emily Watson as Elsa Einstein and Michael McElhatton as German physicist Philipp Lenard. Johnny Flynn portrays the younger Einstein, which is likely a breakthrough role for the musician/actor. Click here to see actor Johnny Flynn talking about his role in the film.
Although the final two episodes are still in post-production, Cooney can rest on his laurels, at least for a little while. "Genius is the culmination of tremendous energy and hard work. It's gratifying that the reviews have been so very positive."
It will be a tough act to follow, but the next challenge already looms: The series has been renewed for a second season, featuring a different genius to be disclosed in time.
Pictured here: Top: Jeff Cooney (L) and Ron Howard on the set of Genius in Prague (photo by Anja Cooney); in text: advertisement for the series Genius (photo courtesy Jeff Cooney).