Once upon a crime
Writer Howard Berk draws on his CIA background
Howard Berk’s journey back to the University of Georgia has as many twists and turns as the cases he created while writing popular detective shows in the ’70s and ’80s.
His show business career included writing 13 films and more than 120 episodes for TV series including “Columbo,” which earned him an Emmy nomination, “The Rockford Files,” “Mike Hammer,” “McMillan and Wife” and others. That all happened after a stint with the CIA.
“The bottom line is always this—if you can write, you’ve got a good shot. If you haven’t got any talent, you’re dead in the water,” he says.
Berk has spent more than a decade at the university in roles including director of the Creative Development Unit and distinguished writer in residence. Along with screenwriting, both at UGA and the University of Innsbruck in Austria for eight summers, he has taught a course in espionage at UGA.
Berk (ABJ ’48) returned to Athens after developing a relationship with Terry College of Business benefactors Herman and Mary Virginia Terry, who had a Lake Tahoe vacation home next to Berk’s. While visiting the Terrys in their Jacksonville, Fla., home in the ’90s, Mr. Terry informed Berk and his wife Lynn that they would be flying to Athens, which Berk hadn’t visited in many years.
Former President Charles Knapp greeted them when they arrived—and Berk realized that the visit and tour was on his behalf.
“They asked me to come back to UGA and I decided that—against Thomas Wolfe’s advice—you can go home again,” he says.
The Creative Development Unit, part of the Office of the Vice President for Research, provides help to faculty and others seeking to sell creative works. A success several years ago was the publication of The War Journal of Major Damon “Rocky” Gause, brought to him by Gause’s son, Damon Gause Jr. The book, which did very well, was optioned for a movie to star Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.
“There have been delays, but it’s sure to be made,” Berk says. “It’s a marvelous story.”
Berk’s writing ability landed him in the middle of TV shows and films for nearly four decades. He wrote his first novel, The Hero Machine, in Spain, living there for six years after graduating from UGA with a journalism degree and doing post-graduate work at the Universities of Grenoble and Paris. He wrote films subsidized by the Spanish government, using the name José Luis Navarro.
While in Spain, he became close friends with actors such as Henry Fonda and Robert Shaw while working on “The Battle of the Bulge.” “It was a terrific time to be in Madrid,” Berk says. “American films like ‘Doctor Zhivago’ and ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ were being shot and actors flowed in and out of the city.”
Back in the states, he lived in Connecticut before moving to California, where he met producer Bruce Lansbury and wrote a number of episodes for “Mission: Impossible.”
His thrilling fictional plots on TV shows and films incorporate his wartime experiences along with a lengthy stint for the CIA in Washington, D.C., and England. Berk, who earned his pilot’s license the same year he received his driver’s license and flew a bomber in the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II, says he was probably “tapped” for the CIA position because he knew a couple of languages and had been a flyer.
An espionage-based episode of “Columbo” and the movie “Target,” starring Gene Hackman and Matt Dillon, were based on an incident from his time with the agency, he says. Those themes continue to run through his new work, including his third novel, Nikolai’s War, published in 2007.
Berk equates putting words on paper to mountain climbing.
“I’m looking to do the great one,” he says. “Every one gets you closer to the top.”