The King of North Campus
Ron Baham left an indelible mark on his many friends and his presence is still being felt
By Noela Hueso
Ron Baham (’86) had a great laugh. Infectious and ever-present, it reflected his larger-than-life personality: charismatic, funny, gregarious. As an undergraduate history major at UCLA, he seemed to know everyone. His friend Marco Greenberg (’86) called him “the king of north campus.” He had a knack for cultivating friendships, bringing people together and making them feel special.
“You couldn't bring him to the library because everyone would come up to him while you were trying to study,” recalls Greenberg, now the president of Thunder 11, a boutique public relations firm in New York City, and the author of the new book Primitive.
Allan Mutchnik (’85) first met Baham in 1982, when they were both 18-year-olds pledging at UCLA’s Jewish fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT). Baham wasn’t Jewish; he was Catholic, Black and in the closet. Though he came from a humble background, Baham ran effortlessly in ZBT’s affluent pack and was elected president of the pledge class.
“He was a chameleon. He was able to blend in with [different types of people],” says Mutchnik, a former practicing lawyer and the current president of Harbor Freight Tools, “and he had such an incredible personality. He had a very dry sense of humor and a really deep, amazing voice. He could have been a voice actor.”
Director David Winkler, Baham’s closest friend and a fellow Bruin, says what many others do as well: “So many of my friendships were made through him.”
UCLA Law professor Adam Winkler (M.A. ’98), David Winkler’s younger brother, always appreciated the fact that Baham treated him as an equal though Winkler was still in high school when they first met. “He talked to me about politics, the entertainment world and how to make a great barbecue,” Adam Winkler recalls.
He even had valuable friendships with students at other universities.
“He took me under his wing, and I learned so much from him,” says the U.S. Second Gentleman, attorney Douglas Emhoff, who was a college student Cal State Northridge when they met. “Ron was always the connector, the glue to this huge orbit of people that he loved bringing together.”
It wasn’t until 1996, a decade after graduation, that Baham told his friends that he was gay — and sick.
“It was different in the ’90s. Now if you're black and gay, they make a TV show about you. In those days, [if you were out], you couldn't get a job,” David Winkler says. “He was the first person I knew of who got HIV. He went to the hospital before HIV was even named; nobody had any idea what was wrong with him.”
A Los Angeles native, Baham had big dreams of working in the entertainment industry. After graduation, he joined Mike Ovitz’s agents training program at Creative Artists Agency alongside Ari Emanuel “before he was Ari Emanuel,” David Winkler says of the man who went on to be a founding partner of Endeavor Talent Agency and the inspiration for the character “Ari Gold” in the HBO series Entourage.
After CAA, Baham landed a job at The Walt Disney Co., first as a supervisor of the Disney Studios Fellowship Program, then as a manager, and later director, of current programming for Walt Disney Television, overseeing production on a number of series including Home Improvement, Life’s Work, Brotherly Love, Unhappily Ever After, Buddies, Empty Nest and Blossom.
But in June 1997, just six years after he started his career in Hollywood, his life was cut short by AIDS. He was 33.
The loss was devastating to Baham’s circle of friends. This was the man who had brought many married couples together — among them, Mutchnik and his wife Nicole, and who passionately headed a new diversity program at Disney so that other people of color could have the kind of opportunities he was given. It was inconceivable that someone who had so much heart, was so genuine and who cared so intensely about everyone was gone so prematurely.
Not long after his death, the Ron Baham Memorial Fellowship in Comedy was set up at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television to honor his memory. Each year since 1997, up to $2,000 has been awarded to a screenwriting graduate student who shows artistic merit in comedy television writing. It was a fitting tribute to a man who loved to laugh and whose career revolved around half-hour sitcoms.
Now, nearly 25 years after its inception, the fellowship has gotten a boost: An influx of $112,000 via a new crowdfunding campaign on the UCLA Spark platform, exceeding its $110,000 endowment goal. In a fashion that Baham would have appreciated, it was a case of old friends coming together — twice — to celebrate one of their own.
Mutchnik was instrumental in the campaign’s early success. After making a generous initial donation, he called his friend Adam Winkler, whose Winkler Family Foundation made its own munificent contribution. Then Mutchnik turned to an ardent supporter of education, Harbor Freight Tools CEO Eric Smidt, who did the same, through his Smidt Family Foundation. The remaining funds were raised from individuals who connected with Baham’s story on the Spark platform. The initial fundraising campaign ended on Dec. 31, 2020, raising $86,000 in six weeks, just shy of the goal.
Not long after that, something serendipitous happened.
In February, as producer Gina Rugolo Judd (’86) sat working at her computer, Baham suddenly came to mind. In a sense, it wasn’t unusual: At UCLA, she had been a sorority sister at Kappa Alpha Theta when he was a frat brother at ZBT. They had been close; as he did with so many others, he made a big impression on her. Even after so many years, she often thought of him. “Ron was truly one of my best friends,” she says. But this time, feeling a bit nostalgic, she decided to Google him, something she’d never done before. “I just missed him,” she says. “I was looking for a story or a photograph that would remind me of him.” What she found was the link to the recently ended campaign. Surprised that she hadn’t heard about it and disappointed that she had missed the deadline, she was nevertheless determined to help the fund reach its end goal.
“There was no coincidence that I happened to Google his name at that moment and find out about the fundraising,” Rugolo Judd says.
She was convinced that more could be done. “If I didn’t know about it, then there were others who knew Ron who probably didn’t either,” she says. Rugolo Judd called her fellow KAT sorority sister Nancy Derwin-Weiss (’86) and shared her idea: that they each reach out to their broad circle of UCLA friends to drum up more financial support.
“I said, ‘Oh, everybody remembers Ron and his infectious laugh and sense of humor!’” recalls Derwin-Weiss, now an attorney at Warner Bros. “This was such a worthwhile undertaking to dig through our past and connect with former classmates, friends and colleagues. I knew they would feel the same way we do and would want to contribute in Ron’s memory once they learned about this scholarship.”
She was right. The campaign reopened on March 15 for another six weeks of fundraising and achieved its goal eight days before it closed, as more UCLA alumni who knew Baham opened their wallets to help provide, in his name, opportunity for a new generation of students.
Making the fund an endowment is a dream coming true for Greenberg, who, prior to the campaign, had been contributing to the fund almost singlehandedly. According to him, it was a way of keeping the memory of his ZBT brother alive.
“In the Jewish tradition, on Yom Kippur, there’s a notion of remembering those we have lost, where we say, ‘He will be remembered,’” Greenberg says. “We say prayers for their memory and give thanks for the impact they made on our lives…and because of that impact, you feel a debt to them. Keeping their name alive is one of the ways to service that debt.”
He’s convinced that had he lived, Baham would be a Hollywood powerbroker today.
“He had all the ingredients: the skills, the connections, the talent, and it was all cut down so prematurely,” he says. “He was just a superstar. How can you forget someone like that?”
Adds David Winkler: “The reason people remember Ron isn’t because of his career. They remember him because in an industry like this, where people can often be very ambitious and ingenuine, he was a man of character: nice, thoughtful and unselfish.”
Top: Marco Greenberg, center left, with Ron Baham and their dates, at UCLA, circa 1983
Middle: Baham with future U.S. Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, circa 1996
Bottom: Nancy Derwin-Weiss, left, Baham and Gina Rugolo Judd, circa 1983
Posted: June 21, 2021