Mike Rizzuto ’97
Leading by Creating
“If you want to be successful, it’s just this simple. Know what you are doing. Love what you are doing. And believe in what you are doing.”
– Will Rogers
On a Sunday during the fall semester of his rook year, a weary Michael Rizzuto ’97 marched with his classmates from campus up Union Brook Road to Jack Abare ’57’s sloping, 140-acre farm. By then, he’d already resigned himself. “I was ready to give up and quit school,” Mike recalls. But that day, taking part in Jack’s annual Rook Dining Out, he was overcome with a powerful feeling: hope. He returned to campus with a renewed spirit, and to this day feels a deep gratitude to the Abare family. “They are the reason I stayed in the game,” he avows. “I owe them a lot.”
Mike is a Hollywood film-industry executive. If you ask him about his job, his response almost always includes some variation of the word “helping.” Radiating positive energy and shying away from titles, Mike has come a long way from the kid who started out in the shipping department of Sony Pictures, and is the first to admit he had a lot of help along the way.
Long before he set out for Hollywood, Mike probably knew, somewhere in his heart, that he’d eventually head west. As a student at Northfield Mount Hermon prep school in western Massachusetts, he started a video production company with his brother, Anthony. During that time, helpers in his life pointed him toward Norwich. “I owe a great deal to Jim ’87 and Cynthia Fagan ’88, and Tony Carbone ’58,” he says. And his gratitude list goes on: Joe ’66 and Jill VC’66 Milano, Charley Holden ’67 and his wife, Kathy, and Pier Mapes ’59, “people who are generous with their time and their financial help,” Mike says. “It was because of their generosity that I got to experience Norwich.”
While his heart was in filmmaking, he entered Norwich with another aspiration: to be a Navy pilot. But engineering wasn’t a fit, and his grades plummeted.
Faced with the prospect of flunking out, he wandered into the Communications Building, “the little schoolhouse,” on the south edge of campus. There, he encountered another helper: Professor Bill Estill. “I remember it vividly,” Mike says, “the creaking of the door, the wood floors. I remember Bill saying, ‘Well, hello. How can I help you?’”
Mike thrived as a communications major, and still considers his role on the Estill team that produced the Emmy-winning documentary Our American Journey: In Country one of his most valued life experiences. From Estill, he learned the craft of filmmaking. But the professor also taught him something more profound. “Your parents want what is best for you. Your friends want what is best for you. Your teachers want what is best for you. But ultimately, you have to dig deep inside to figure out what makes you happy and passionate and excited,” he says. “Bill helped me do that.”
Mike smiles at the recol-lection of sitting outside the Communications Building with fellow classmates Jake Head and Bobby Carroll a year before graduation. “The three of us were talking about California. We looked at each other and we all said the same thing, “I’ll go if you go.”
The next year, they did.
“When I came out to California to pursue acting, Mike put me up while I got on my feet,” says Jake, now a successful Hollywood actor. “I didn’t have a car, so we shared his. We were hit by a drunk driver and lost his Jeep. So then we shared his Ugly Duckling rental car, and it was ugly.” Mike—along with Richard Branca ’78, who by then had already made a name for himself in motion-picture post production—helped Jake get his first industry job at Sony Pictures. Mike opened doors that led Jake to acting opportunities. Later, when Jake landed his first major film role, “Mike made sure that I had a big-time Hollywood premiere.”
Of the three, Bobby Carroll ’97 was the only one not to pursue work in entertainment—he landed in the finance business. “I was a communications major and had zero training in finance,” jokes Bobby, who worked on the West Coast for a few years, then returned east to make a name for himself on Wall Street. Today he is a partner and head trader for Smith Cove Capital in Connecticut. “The thing that Mike used to do, coming from a big family, very proud Italian—he would host Sunday dinners,” Bobby recalls. “It was something everyone looked forward to.”
“Jake, Mike and I — we had such good work ethic that we got from Norwich. It was really an advantage out there. We outworked everyone.”
– Bobby Carroll ’97
Jake chimes in. “Those Sunday dinners included our extended Norwich family—Bobby, Jack Ryan ’99, Dom Bonelli ’00, Marshall Lee ’03, Steve Martin ’01. A lot of our L.A. friends were envious of the Norwich bond,” Jake says, adding, “Professor Estill would send his top students out to us, and Mike would help them get their foot in the door. Mike has a loyalty and devotion to his alma mater that is really special.”
But Mike’s success didn’t come without bumps in the road. “There were many times I was ready to give up, throw in the towel,” he admits. “Because of Jake, I stayed.”
He not only stayed. He persevered, and succeeded. They all did.
On his way to becoming an industry executive, Mike Rizzuto has done every job imaginable, from running errands on set to supervising post production. Today, Mike continues to bridge filmmakers at every level with the talent, the tools, and the technology to tell their stories. He’s proud to have led the technical sound team that won both the Oscar and British Academy Award for their work on Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. To what he loves most about his job, Mike shares that he is “grateful to be surrounded by a team of very talented individuals,” speaking with an eternal smile. “I believe if you work hard and be kind, anything is possible.”
Mike Rizzuto ’97’s wife, Lauren (pictured with son, Charlie), is a hairstylist for ABC Studios. They are expecting a second child in the spring. “I can’t tell you how much love, how much excitement, and how much joy my wife and son have brought to my life.”
Shortly before Lisa Totz ’96 stopped by to snap this photo outside the Communications Building, then-juniors Mike, Jake, and Bobby were discussing their dream of going to California, promising, “I’ll go if you go.” Pictured (l-r): Jake Head ’97, Mike Rizzuto ’97, Joel Fox ’97, Bobby Carroll ’97, and Alex Bryant ’97.
In his early years in the film business, when he was working as a post-production coordinator for Sony, Mike Rizzuto ’97 told the Norwich Record, “My goal is to make motion pictures and make them well.” Today, he is a film-industry executive with Technicolor at Paramount. Pictured: Technicolor flagship Stage 1 at Paramount Pictures, where Denzel Washington directed the Oscar-nominated movie, Fences, based on the play by August Wilson. (Photo by Rodrigo Ortiz.)
“Through our years here at Norwich we have learned to use our minds efficiently in the classroom, our hands diligently in the workplace, and our hearts with compassion in the community.”
– Mike Rizzuto, senior class president, in the War Whoop