By Loran Smith
As we headed to the world famous Sana Monica pier for dinner, Julie Moran, University of Georgia graduate, beauty queen, and current television personality, eagerly tuned her car radio to a popular Los Angeles country music radio station.
“I love country music,” said the Thomasville native who has not allowed her noteworthy success in television, lately with NBC’s “Access Hollywood” and the Lifetime Network, to distance her from her roots. “When I am in the car, I listen to country music,” she said with a wide grin.
The Julie Moran story is really the Julie and Rob Moran story. There is considerable upside, owing to honest-to-goodness team effort. Her actor husband, Rob, has some very flattering credits, the most recent role coming in the History Channel hit, “The Hatfields and the McCoys.” The movie was filmed in Romania which allowed for an exposure to a different culture, a welcomed and enlightening by-product of his profession.
“You find women,” Rob said at dinner, “walking a dusty road with bundles of firewood on their heads.”
Rob and Julie Moran met at a commercial shoot. They were among several "models" for the producer to choose from. They began dating after that shoot.
The central focus in the Morans’ lives are the activities of daughters Maiya and Makayla who are straight A students at The Brentwood School and are into sports in a big way.
Rob coaches Maiya’s soccer team and expects to maintain his coaching role when Makayla joins the team.
“Coaching your kids!” Rob exclaims, “How great is that!”
Julie, a basketball player in high school, coaches Makayla’s basketball team.
Rob, a native of Barrington, Rhode Island, is a graduate of Emerson College in Boston with a bachelor's degree in fine arts.
He spent time in New York, learning about the behind the scenes reality of Broadway which included the revelation that one of the best jobs for a budding actor is tending bar at intermission -- literally starting out from the basement of the business.
“People are usually in such a hurry,” Rob smiled, recalling those Broadway intermissions, “they are too anxious to wait for change. They literally throw money at you.”
Rob wanted more than to tend bar while gaining experience, so he lit out for California where he sought opportunity, starting from scratch.
Meanwhile, Julie was graduated from the University of Georgia’s School of Journalism with a broadcast degree which was accompanied by winning the America’s Junior Miss title in 1980. This led an appearance on NBC’s "Today Show" with Jane Pauley. Moving to Los Angeles, she began a career by first seeking modeling opportunity. No surprise there.
She was tall with smashing good looks and a drive to succeed with an ambition affiliated with modesty not arrogance; pride, not ego; moral turpitude, not compromising standards. Infomercials soon followed and then the networks observed her poise, delivery and smooth style. Before long NBC asked her to co-host “NBA’s Inside Stuff” with former NFL receiver Ahmad Rashad.
ABC hired her next to work the sidelines of college football, first with Keith Jackson, another Georgia native, who lives just up the mountain in Sherman Oaks. Later she teamed with Brent Musburger and Dick Vermeil which led to a forgettable moment in her career but one in which she can laugh about today. Once at a game, just before kickoff, she went to the bathroom, but forgot to turn off her microphone. When Musburger welcomed here back, he referred to her as “Tinkle Bell,” as the crew in the truck weighed in with laughter.
One day, Dennis Swanson, who had succeeded the fabled Roone Arledge as Executive Producer of ABC Sports, in the abrupt, direct style as you would expect from an ex-Marine, sent her a summons: “Be in my office at 4:00 p.m.”
Initially, it was disconcerting for Julie who had no idea what would take place.
“Naturally,” Julie recalled, “I worried that I might be getting fired.”
Far from it as she soon learned when she sat across Swanson’s desk on a gray New York day and heard Swanson deliver spine-tingling and serendipitous news.
“Frank Gifford is no longer doing Wide World of Sports and you’ve got the job. You are the first woman to host this show and you are going to get a lot (expletive), but you can handle it.”
The euphoria of the news was only exceeded by the emotional uplift that this powerful executive had that kind of confidence in her.
At that very moment she refused to massage her ego and the work ethic kicked in. She would be prepared, she would research everything there was to know about the sport and/or performer she was covering. The University of Georgia Henry Grady School of Journalism would toast her status, eagerly (inducting her into the Grady Fellowship last year).
Her mother, Barbara Dixon, a tennis player extraordinaire who was ahead of her time, would be proud and so would her father, Paul, who played baseball for Jim Whatley at UGA. Her fiends in Thomasville would be proud -- and she wanted all of them to enjoy her work vicariously.
She parlayed that first break into a golden opportunity, anchoring the award winning show for six years. She went on location throughout the world, wherever ABC’s camera’s followed the leading sports events and personalities into competition. Life was suddenly reaching a status she could only have dreamed about when she was a little girl practicing for a broadcast career by interviewing her late grandfather, Sterling Dupree, who coached the backs for Georgia’s Wallace Butts and later became Vince Dooley’s first recruiter.
While her star was rising dramatically, Rob was finding work landing opportunities in the soaps and small parts in several movies. The only problem was that he often needed to be on the West Coast for the best opportunities. They managed and made a pact that no matter where their jobs took them and no matter the hours, they would have a “date” night at least once a week. That hasn’t changed. Once a week they have dinner, just the two of them. No family, no friends -- leaving all decisions and paperwork at the office. Date night is for the Rob and Julie only.
“It has really strengthened our marriage,” says Julie, whose theme song at home reflects the lyrics of that old tune, “Love and marriage to together like a horse and carriage.”
She and Rob passionately underscore that concept.
You would have thought that life couldn’t get any better, but another bombshell was on the way.
"Entertainment Tonight" wanted Julie to become the chief correspondent at a seven figure plus salary. She had to tell Dennis Swanson the news and regretted that assignment as much as anything she has ever faced. Swanson is the executive who gave her that first break, the one she constantly thanks more than anybody for kick-starting her career.
When Julie told him about the offer, she, with sensitive wisdom, included this caveat, “If I were your daughter, what would you advise me to do?”
He smiled and asked what kind of money she would be making. When Julie told him, he said immediately, “If you were my daughter, I would tell you to take the job.”
Julie would flourish in Hollywood, Rob’s career would be enhanced by the move and life would get grander. They found a house, under construction, in Santa Monica in a cozy neighborhood where kids play on the sidewalks and flowers dominate the landscaping on every kempt and attractive lot. Rob planted palm trees and a Ficus benjamina hedge around the property which, with California’s year round growing season, grew at a Jack-in-the-beanstalk rate. The high cost of real estate and aggressive tax rates will always keep them on their financial toes, but they have what any young couple in America really wants: Good jobs, doing what they want to do and a happy family life centered around their children.
Rob is industrious, enjoys cooking -- glorying in life in the kitchen -- and has a green thumb. There is a small garden plot by the house which allows for vegetables for the dinner table on occasion. He likes things neat and orderly in the kitchen and at the office where he is always looking for movie opportunities both as an actor and producer.
To fully appreciate the Moran's story, let's rewind to the way it was 15 years ago, Rob finding work and Julie enjoying a big bucks contract. What then, could influence change?
They suddenly realized that a family is more important than career and money. She became a proud mother incorporating priority in her life and work to Maiya, who is now 12 years old, and Makayla, who is eight. Her friends thought she was crazy to give up her role with "Entertainment Tonight," but Julie wanted to raise her kids, not have a nanny take on that responsibility.
When the girls got into kindergarten, she went back to work. She and Rob figured a way to manage the house, family, and profession with priority going to the children. It was a risk, considering the high cost of real estate, taxes and private school tuition, to give up ET, but family trumped all decisions.
There was infomercial opportunity, then came "Access Hollywood" and host of “The Insiders List with Julie Moran,” on the Fine Living Network. She also hosts specials for the Lifetime Network.
Life in Santa Monica centers around their daughters school activities. They often ride down to the Santa Monica beach, 15 minutes away, driving by the first house they owned -- which once was Mae West’s summer home on West Channel Road. There is a framed quote in their house, attributed to Mae West: “Too much of a good thing….is wonderful.” They agree with the quote but for reasons different from the one time vaudeville star who was a sex symbol dating back to silent movies.
What is special about all this? All Julie and Rob are doing is working hard like so many Americans, putting the welfare of their children first and trying to enjoy life which includes trips to Thomasville to see her mother and enjoy the wooded acreage which Barbara and her husband, Gordon Dixon, manage with wildlife cavorting about and bass taking a flying leap about every 30 minutes in the pond at the bottom of the property. It is just that you would not expect anybody in the entertainment business to be so grounded in family values. The Moran’s lifestyle is never fodder for any gossip magazines. They recently celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary, an anomaly in Hollywood.
They mix easily with people in the business which makes it easy for Julie to line up interviews with actors like Kevin Costner, a friend of Rob’s. Julie’s good friend is Reese Witherspoon whose daughter, Ava, is in Maiya’s class at school. The girls perform in school plays and recitals.
Julie has made a Bulldog fan out of Rob, and he has made a Red Sox and Celtic fan out of Julie. Rob, who has great affection for the South, even drinks ice tea at breakfast.
“Our girls enjoy Santa Monica but when we ask them where they would like to go on vacation, they always say with the greatest of enthusiasm, ‘Thomasville,’” Julie says.
Julie and Rob open their home for friends visiting Los Angeles. When a sorority sister Beth Jordan received a cancer diagnosis that led her to a prominent surgeon in LA, Julie gave her a key to the house since she and Rob and the girls were going on a trip. The Morans often host dinner parties and have quail and duck shipped in from Thomasville for their guests which include friends like Al Michaels of NBC and Rick Neuheisal, former UCLA head football coach, Greg Kinnear and Angie Harmon and her husband Jason Seabold. And, of course, neighbors and friends from the entertainment affiliations. Julie is an elder in the Brentwood Presbyterian Church. Living a balanced, intellectual, entertaining and cultural life has been the Morans’ objective since they each said, “I do."
Some day, Rob hopes to produce family movies using the Christian based movie, “Facing the Giants,” as an example.
“That was not a great movie when it came to production and acting, but it had a message and families all across America identified with it," he said. "They liked it and there is an opportunity there. Hollywood, however, doesn’t get it.”
As he waxed reflectively, Julie was calm and attentive, in a warm and philosophical repose. It is easy to contemplate that a big screen story may come about for them someday. For sure Rob and Julie, with Thomasville and Rhode Island small town influences, deserve it.
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