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Sheila Nevins leaves HBO, but says she isn’t retiring

Sheila Nevins

Sheila Nevins Credit: Brigitte Lacombe

Sheila Nevins, the legendary documentary producer, will speak Sunday at Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington. The subject: Her bestseller and quasi memoir, published last May, “You Don’t Look Your Age and Other Fairy Tales.”

Nevins, 78, has won 32 individual Primetime Emmys, more than any other person. She joined HBO 35 years ago, later becoming president of HBO Documentary Films (she left in December), TV’s most prestigious documentary producer. She produced more than 1,000 films during her run.

I caught up with Nevins last week, although “catching up” is often provisional with her. Soon her mind races ahead, and — like her book — she has plenty of opinions and an irrepressible willingness to share them. Moreover, she made one point perfectly clear. She has not “retired.” She’s just beginning her second act, while exploring exactly what that will be.

Here’s an edited version of our conversation:

Why did you leave HBO?

I won’t tell you the hundred-percent truth, because on the one hand, it was time, and I don’t mean that I was 78 years old and it was time. I had built this little thing called “docus” into a familiar word, and at first we were afraid to call them documentaries (because it would scare off viewers). I like to say I brought the word into a friendly place. So what else could I do? . . . I could give other people a chance. I don’t want my ashes on my desk. I’d like to get out and give what’s left of me to other people.

There are other legends in this business who decided to never to hang it up — Mike Wallace comes to mind.

But he lost who he was (Wallace died at the age of 93 in 2012, following a long struggle with dementia). I really wanted to be able to just go out my way.

So many of your films over the years were deeply serious — and often searing — explorations of the human condition. But the “docu” unit now seems to have become a little more interested in profiles of the rich and famous. Did that impact your decision?

You’re a reporter [and you know] I don’t like famous people. I like [films] about birds that have oil on their wings, or kids who can’t speak for themselves — films about people who don’t have a voice. In a sense, I’m much [more comfortable] with reality TV than celebrity TV. I’ve always felt close to the fact that your neighbor or doorman could have a story. But because of the cluttered [TV] environment, there’s a struggle to get the John Q. Public story produced because it can’t be done without an enormous amount of marketing promotion. I outgrew [the job] in a number of ways.

What’s next for you?

I’m going to nudge the world in my own way [and] I’m going to say what I think more often that not. I’m going to use the time that’s left as some sort of national treasure, rather than just some other day. You go from eternity to life and back to eternity again. How long could I have left? In that time, I don’t want to waste anything.

It sounds like your book really opened up new vistas for you.

I was a public person on behalf of those three letters — HBO — and then I discovered I was a person, and could talk for myself. The book helped that. It’s kind of interesting: Not that I’m embracing aging or freedom [from the job] but I think I’m finding out something different about myself that I didn’t know before. I’m enjoying the learning process.

Will you go to Netflix or someplace like that? They seem to have all the money in the world right now.

I don’t need money. I need time and a sense of self.


WHEN | WHERE Sunday at 4 p.m., Cinema Arts Centre, 423 Park Ave., Huntington

TICKETS $35 for members; $45 for non-members; includes copy of book


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