DOWNTOWN — Driving a trolley at the “happiest place on Earth” was not what Steven C. Barber had in mind when he moved to California to pursue an acting career in the 1980s.
Before eventually settling in Santa Monica, the upstate New York native left the chilly regions of the Northeast and went in search of warmer climates. He traveled down south for college, attending Western Kentucky University.
Young and with dreams of making it big, he moved to the “Golden State” to try to find his golden ticket onto the big screen.
However, during his first job out west, he found himself driving a 1974 Chevy and working a 60-hour-a-week job at Disneyland.
Barber tried everything to get his big break, which included starring in countless minor roles in major motion pictures and television shows such as “General Hospital,” “The X-Files,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and the Jean-Claude van Damme film, “Timecop.”
He filled the airwaves as a radio personality, worked the nightclub scene and 19 cruise ships as a disc jockey, and even attempted to become a stand-up comedian.
“I’ve seen the world baby, and it’s round,” Barber said.
However, the travel and the lack of stability began to take its toll. After trying to make it big for years, and facing bitter rejection, Barber decided to give up on acting.
“I lost total interest,” said Barber. “It’s just too difficult to get work.”
While returning to California, he eventually found his home in Santa Monica and suddenly found himself applying his experience on hundreds of movie and television sets to the art of filmmaking and production.
“I got into filmmaking quite accidentally. I was a writer and an actor, and I was working for a big advertising agency,” said Barber. “The agency shutdown and we all got a severance and I went out and bought camera equipment.”
It was never Barber’s intention to make a movie, but unknowingly, Barber’s filmmaking experience began when a Los Angeles paraplegic informed Barber about the rigorous race called Challenge Alaska. Deemed the longest wheelchair and handcycle race in the world, participants push their wheelchairs 267 miles through rough terrain of the Denali Mountain Pass between Anchorage and Juneau.
After networking with his high-profile contacts, Barber was able to convince JP Dejoria, CEO of Paul Mitchell, to sponsor the Los Angeles athlete.
Starting off as a marketing campaign for Paul Mitchell, the footage for Challenge Alaska was so moving that Barber felt it was necessary to expand the project to an entire feature.
“When we got to Alaska, I started looking at the footage, [and realized] this is really good,” said Barber. [The footage had] real low angles, [and they] were doing 30-40 miles in their wheel chairs. That’s how it started.”
Narrated by actor Dan Aykroyd, the film follows Chris Kohler, Geoffrey Erickson, and Edwin Figueroa, three of approximately 30 disabled athletes going through mile after mile of intense physical exertion in six days. Midway through the film, the story transitions to the U.S. paralympic team, focusing on Oz Sanchez and Alijandro Albor as they fulfill their dreams at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing.
Due to a lack of funding, Barber had to unfortunately halt production on the film, but after three years in the making, “Unbeaten” will make its film debut in early 2010 with the help of Polaris Media Group and a load of high-profile support from the likes of Billy Jean King, Cher, and Steve Forbes.
During the interim period when “Unbeaten” was put on hold, Barber collaborated with WWII veteran Leon Cooper on the documentary, “Return to Tarawa: The Leon Cooper Story.” Cooper was one of the survivors of the three-day battle on the Philippine island of Tarawa in which over a thousand American servicemen lost their lives.
The root of the film actually stemmed back a decade ago when actor Eddie Albert of “Green Acres” fame invited Barber over to his house explaining his courageous involvement in Tarawa.
Two years ago, Barber randomly struck up a conversation with Cooper who was promoting a post-war cleanup project in Tarawa at the Los Angeles Festival of Books at UCLA.
Eventually, Cooper agreed to fund the approximately $200,000 needed to allow Barber and a small crew to accompany Cooper to Tarawa to film the entire journey.
When they arrived, they soon discovered that a significant amount of the bodies of the American soldiers that fought in the battle were still listed as “Missing in Action.”
The project soon turned into a mission to try and bring the remains of these soldiers home to their families.
“Return to Tarawa” debuted earlier this year and has received considerable attention, being showcased on the Discovery’s Military Channel. Barber was even a featured guest, along with Leon Cooper and narrator Ed Harris, on CNN’s Larry King Live on Dec. 19 to talk about the film.
Barber admits that he would never have been able to make these films unless these “divine” chance encounters throughout his life had occurred.
“It’s a miracle, this doesn’t happen,” said Barber. “My [movies] got made, but not in the traditional way of trying; I was looking in left field and money came from right field.”
Present and future<p>
Barber is proud of what he has accomplished so far, and is content with where he is right now.
Living in Santa Monica since 1991, Barber finds the city allows him to do everything he loves to do, including his favorite activity of mountain biking from his home to the trails near the top of Mulholland Drive.
“West L.A. has everything, you don’t have to leave. You have Hollywood, the arts, the beach, low traffic compared to the rest of the city, and low smog,” said Barber. “It’s a real city and [has] a lot of character.”
Although he is thrilled with what he has achieved, he is already busy planning future projects that include making more films concerning WWII and continuing his involvement with the disabled community.
For example, Barber hopes, with the release of “Unbeaten,” to release a DVD of the film and have a portion of the proceeds go to the Challenged Athlete Foundation, an organization that has raised over $21 million to help fund the needs of those with physical disabilities, including helping people purchase prosthetic limbs and handcycles.
With all the work he has done, Barber acknowledges he will never become a millionaire, something he once sought after. However, he is thankful for everything and just wants to keep involving himself in projects that tell a good story.
“I want to be making movies that matter, not necessarily movies that make money. Twenty-six years in this town, I am [surrounded by] nepotism and greed, and experience gut wrenching rejection from people who aren’t as good as me every single day,” said Barber. “[I want to be remembered] as a guy who’s unbeaten.”